Washington, DC

June 3 & June 9, 2018

by Carmel Morgan

Now in its second year, the thesis dance concerts by the graduates of the Choreographic Institute at the Dance Loft on 14, led by Vladimir Angelov, Artistic Director and Founder of Dance ICONS (the International Choreographer’s Organization and Networking Services), grew in the number of pieces presented and improved in quality. The program followed the same format as the inaugural year, with each choreographer speaking briefly before presenting her work (all of the choreographers this year and last year were women). Again, the choreographers offered insight into their inspiration and dance making process, as well as thanks to various supporters. One major difference between last year’s thesis concert and this year’s was the duration. This year, eight choreographers presented world premieres or works in progress, and the performances were spread over two weekends.

In honor of their graduation from the 9-month long choreography course, which results in a professional certification in choreography, I decided to organize this review as a list of class superlatives. My goal in doing so is to focus on the positive aspects of the works by the choreographers and provide encouragement.

Best All Around: Kimmie Dobbs Chan, Beyond (Excerpt)

Kimmie Dobbs Chan isn’t a newcomer to choreography, which probably explains why she earns my “Best All Around” designation. She and her husband Enoch Chan, co-directors of Deviated Theatre, are currently celebrating the company’s tenth anniversary. Her experience shows. The excerpt I saw of Beyond, an evening length work that will premiere in July 2018 at Dance Place in Washington, DC, is consistent with works by Deviated Theatre that I’ve seen in the past — beautifully eerie, thought provoking, and touching. The silvery space suits and sparkly pale pink worn by the youngest dancer (costumes by the choreographer and Andy Christ) are just right for the otherworldly astronaut theme. In the preview excerpt, a child stargazer/dreamer meets her adult self, a space traveler in distress who faces “survival challenges.” The music by Ludovico Einaudi is appropriately haunting. There are waves of strings and also sounds like radio static, and whispers, too. The faces of some of the dancers are covered. Do they represent ghosts and/or memories? Struggle and fear are apparent in much of the movement, but there is also a feeling of peace.

Most Likely to Succeed: Bre Seals, How We Got to Now       

How We Got to Now by Howard University’s Bre Seals is a remarkable dance accomplishment. I sensed incredible commitment from Seals and her dancers: Siani Beckett, Craig Kirby, Jr., Katherine Maloney, Brittany Smith, and Raeshell Thompson. On the stage are rectangular boxes made by white strips of tape arranged on a diagonal. The dancers dance on them, in them, and through them. The choreography grabbed me, but so did the artistic direction. Seals had her dancers skillfully and movingly execute her vision. Seals’s work is complex and contemplative and full of intriguing movement, and she shows great aptitude throughout. The sounds of Washington DC crosswalk announcements lend a fairly literal element to the title, How We Got to Now, but there are also gorgeous cello notes that add texture, including music by Zoe Keating. Seals does an excellent job balancing small intricate movements with bigger sweeping lyrical gestures; her choreography is rich and dynamic, and her dancers are commanding. In the beginning, Kirby stands in the center of the stage, and two of his fingers, stretched tall, walk along his horizontal arm. The walking fingers rewardingly repeat elsewhere in the work. I particularly enjoyed a partnering sequence in which a female dancer spins on the floor, on her rear end, away from her partner, only to be lifted from plank position and turned on her side moments later. The ending of How We Got to Now is unanticipated, engrossing, and strangely lovely. Dancers, each armed with a different color of tape, hurriedly snap long ribbons of it across the floor in all directions, leaving unique marks, sort of like confetti squiggles. Then rivals undo the seemingly random placements, running around and ripping new pieces of tape to replace the old.      

How We Got to Now, choreographed by Bre Seals, photo by Jeff Malet

How We Got to Now, choreographed by Bre Seals, photo by Jeff Malet

Funniest: Kyoko Fujimoto, Flavorland       

Kyoko Fujimoto’s Flavorland is clever and funny. This ballet, Fujimoto explained, provides a look at dancing food. It was inspired, she said, by the kind of bad day that suddenly turns good through food. In Flavorland, Fujimoto introduces spicy ramen, a veggie burger, and chocolate truffles. Although dancing food in the ballet world isn’t unheard of (I recently saw food dancing in Alexei Ratmansky’s delightful ballet Whipped Cream, for example), what Fujimoto does with her dancing food is more about the moods they can trigger than the individual personalities of the food itself. The costumes are humorous and eclectic. I especially liked the hanging curly tan fringe of the ramen and the fat poached egg hat one dancer wears. The noodles spin around as noodles do. A waiter in a bow tie (Ian Edwards) amusingly serves a customer who eventually orders a veggie burger. The constituent parts come together in a line after having been chopped and sizzled. There’s even a food selfie, that annoying habit of restaurant patrons who smile broadly in front of their chosen dish. Lush jazzy music accompanies the quieter chocolate truffle dessert. Dancers are costumed in shades of chocolate brown. Fujimoto expertly captures the joyful experience of devouring a chocolate truffle. Flavorland was the closing work of the opening night program, and it was very warmly received by the audience, with plenty of genuine laughter.     

Most Ambitious and Most Moving: Truly A. Bennett, Death of a Dream

Truly A. Bennett bravely and boldly took on probably the most challenging choreographic assignment, which she voluntarily tackled. Using copious amounts of silence and also spoken word to express frustration, her work, Death of a Dream, explores death as something that isn’t static. Among other things, in Death of a Dream Bennett addresses the silencing of the black female body. She uses a cast composed exclusively of African-American females: Aja Baruti, Stephanie Crockett, Kiearrah Frazier, Jasmine Johnson, Erin McKenzie, and Stacey Smith. It’s weighty subject matter, and Bennett deals with it masterfully. Her dancers are serious, self-possessed, and show conviction. One dancer wore a medical “boot,” which I’m guessing was a consequence of an injury, although it could have been an artistic choice, I suppose. The boot makes a wonderful repetitive thunk sound toward the end of the work that reminded me of a famous scene in the movie Goodbye Dragon Inn in which a woman with a limp climbs a long set of stairs to a projection room, her uneven gait making similar sounds. Whether rolling on the ground or walking like zombies, the dancers make a statement despite not audibly speaking, exhibiting, for example, wide open-mouthed screams, their hands visibly trembling. At one point, a dancer forcibly lifts the corners of another’s mouth to make her smile. I’m not sure I understood everything (for example, the meaning of the voice recording, “Are You Tired of the Playing the Social Game?”– the story of the Zen Master and the Geisha Girl — by Alan Watts). Nonetheless, Bennett delivers a powerful message and makes a strong impression. The pleas of the women do not go unheard.           

Death of a Dream, choreographed by Truly A. Bennett, photo by Jeff Malet

Death of a Dream, choreographed by Truly A. Bennett, photo by Jeff Malet

Best Use of Props: Diana Movius, Rite of Spring, Crash of Fall (Excerpt)

I’ve seen a lot of Rites of Spring lately. Maybe too many. Many dance fans are familiar with the original iconic work with a score by Stravinsky and choreography by Nijinsky of the Ballet Russes, and know that Rite of Spring resulted in a riot when it debuted in Paris. Although the 100th anniversary of Rite of Spring was celebrated in 2013, it continues to spawn new works with the same name using the same score. Diana Movius, Executive and Artistic Director of the Dance Loft, uses Stravinsky’s music to create a ballet about the 2008 stock market crash. Movius is a recipient of a local dance commissioning award by the Kennedy Center, where her full length work will debut in October 2018. Although I was prepared not to like yet another Rite of Spring, Movius handles the music adeptly and it suits the circumstances of the recent financial crisis extremely well. In business type attire, with jackets and blouses, dancers take on the roll of female executives on Wall Street. Movius ponders, “What if the Chosen One (the person selected for ritual sacrifice) was not a powerless female but a bank CEO?” The work is rife with symbolism. A dollar bill is dangled. Greed is barefaced. I’m not usually a proponent of chairs as props, but here they make sense. Large white desk chairs are scooted around. Dancers throw their jackets toward the ground to heavy beats. Reams of paper and boxes of files are dexterously manipulated. It should be interesting to see where this work in progress goes.            

Most Surprising: Rebecca Lallande, Zephaeros

The most surprising work to me was Rebecca Lallande’s Zephaeros, which draws inspiration from Isadora Duncan. I didn’t expect a young choreographer to look all the way back in time to Duncan for inspiration, but Lallande does. Her work pays homage to Duncan while still seeming fresh. The dancers often have a colored cloth among them, representing an element — earth, water, fire, air. (Fire is a red cloth, water is blue). The movement is classical, lots of scooping arms, along with fabric undulations. Sweeping rhythms take hold, arms repeatedly open overhead. The imagery is robust. Even when the music veers into very contemporary territory, the dance keeps at least one foot solidly in Duncan’s time. I admire Lallande’s ability to choose a theme and stick with it.   

Zephaeros, choreogrpahed by Rebeca Lallande, photo by Jeff Malet

Zephaeros, choreographed by Rebeca Lallande, photo by Jeff Malet

Most Accessible: Stacy Palatt, WhisperSeed

Stacy Palatt’s WhisperSeed has a curious title that refers to the props that dominate the work: apples. In her opening remarks, Palatt refers to the sisterhood of women. WhisperSeed features a trio of women — Alicia Diaz de Leon, Michelle Hayes, and Uyen Hoang. They’re an absorbing trio because much of the time it’s two against one — two dancers directly interacting, while another dances alone, and then they switch roles. I confess I’ve seen dance pieces with apples strewn over the floor before. Apples have such beautiful colors, and they roll unevenly, which is neat. Here, Palatt makes good use of the apples, and the piece is quite accessible. I especially liked when one dancer, toward the end of the work, with a pile of apples at her feet, runs her feet across the tops of them, like dipping a toe in a pool and swirling it around. There’s a certain sensuality to WhisperSeed, which probably relates both to the fruit and to the community of women it salutes. If you’re wondering, yes, a dancer actually whispers to an apple, and it’s a fun, somewhat goofy moment. The dancers skip, swoosh, and romp, displaying the sometimes carefree freedom of girlhood.     

Best Use of a Large Cast: Marie McNair, Shadowlark

Marie McNair had at her disposal dancers from CityDance Conservatory. Her work Shadowlark had the largest cast of all. She utilizes the vast number of dancers well. Inspired by a late-night NYC subway ride McNair experienced, Shadowlark plays with ideas of light and dark, and why humans are drawn to each. Fittingly, the costumes are mainly black and white. The central protagonist, who dances en pointe with her hair loose and long, wears all black and hangs onto a mobile screen that looks like a hospital divider. The metal frame on wheels is covered in white fabric. Shadows are cast behind it. The woman in all black climbs it and drops precipitously to the other side, or she hangs onto the top, her legs bent dangling beneath her. Flashlight beams at times crisscross on the dark back wall. There’s something nightmarish about a lot of the choreography (in a good way), and intensity brews.   

Shadowlark, choreography by Marie McNair, photo by Jeff Malet

Shadowlark, choreography by Marie McNair, photo by Jeff Malet

ICON’s Choreographic Institute at the Dance Loft is now in its open enrollment period for 2018-19. Registration closes on August 3, 2018, and an interview is required. Space is limited. Students meet for 54 lectures in 28 weeks, from September 2018 through May 2019. For questions about the curriculum, please email Vladimir Angelov at vlad@danceicons.org, or call (202) 320-1211.