Heather Desaulniers

  • “Relay: Discovering New Species” – Margit Galanter
    Ellen Webb Studio, Oakland

  • LEVYdance presents “Soar”
    Z Space, San Francisco

  • “What Stays” presented by Dance Up Close/East Bay & Right Brain Performancelab
    Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley

"Relay: Discovering New Species" Photo © Rachel Thoele and Margit Galanter

“Relay: Discovering New Species”
Photo © Rachel Thoele and Margit Galanter

June 8th – An unusually warm June day in the East Bay was the perfect setting for some authentic post-modern performance. The Ellen Webb Studio hosted the most recent chapter of Margit Galanter’s “Relay” dance/poetry series, subtitled “Discovering New Species”. Joined by guests Denise Leto and Violet Juno, it was an afternoon that reflected the vast collaborative possibilities that exist between spoken word and movement.

In true prelude fashion, the two opening acts introduced the day’s primary players: poetry and dance. Denise Leto’s “Sacrarium: A Sound Poem in Six Parts” combined live-read sections with recorded portions, and a simultaneously recited final chapter. What was most interesting (for those not well-versed in poetry) was considering what made this a ‘sound poem’. Was it as straightforward as the taped/live reading relationship? Was it the action of reading itself; the words being spoken and played out in the space? Or was it the evoked images and audio metaphors in the work? Whatever the answer, “Sacrarium” certainly put poetry in the center of the day’s action.

 Up next was Violet Juno in “3 Portals”, an excerpt from her larger work, “Fabric of the Universe”. This piece made a complete performance art/dance theater statement, incorporating and integrating movement, text, narrative, props, sound, required absurdity and some amazing transformative costumes. “3 Portals” seemed to be about epiphanies and observations, though the intention and context was a little tough to grasp. And that often happens with excerpted work; you are only seeing a small portion and as such, it can be difficult to get a sense of the whole. But it was definitely a fascinating composition, evoking curiosity about the entire piece. And, “3 Portals” continued to set the stage by bringing dance and choreography to the table.

Following a brief intermission, Margit Galanter took the space in the main event, “Relay: Discovering New Species”. Beginning with a brief overture, Galanter sat on the side while she was read and taught a poem through the processes of sub-division and repetition. Once she had sufficiently ingested and restated the poem’s text, she moved to the floor and stood behind a ‘shower curtain’, made of strips of paper. Here the poem organically morphed into vocal chant, then to singing and finally into dance and movement. Once Galanter had entered that final phase, she emerged from behind the curtain and began “Relay: Discovering New Species’” main choreographic episode. Like the opening poetry, this solo was a stream of phrases and images. The phrases utilized clear and purposeful choreographic tools – repetition, accumulation and acceleration. And the physical images were vast and open: encompassing arms in second position, extended grand plié in first. Galanter’s genuine connection with the audience was incredibly unique. Contemporary dancers and performance artists can tend towards a detached onstage presence, or sometimes they come across as just plain angsty. As Galanter made direct, non-confrontational eye contact with the viewers, there was unabashed joy. It was such a delightful surprise.

 The word ‘discovering’ is in the subtitle of the work, and it was full of specific observations and discoveries. First, “Relay: Discovering New Species” has a keen attention to detail. One noteworthy example was the maneuvering of a single finger while rotating slowly in a circle. Second, this piece is all about how the body undergoes motion, not how it completes movements, but how and what it experiences while doing motion. Last, the audience was privy to an unusual phenomenon with this work – witnessing discoveries in real-time. With performed dance and choreography, the viewer typically sees discoveries that have been made in the studio, during rehearsal and research. While that was certainly present in “Relay: Discovering New Species”, there were also moments of newness and true discovery happening during the piece, within the performance. Real-time choreographic encounters are rare, but quite remarkable when they do occur.

Galanter is one of a small group of choreographers/performers that are successfully engaging the post-modern choreographic genre with a twenty-first century sensibility. There is a fundamental narrative (though non-linear) present in her work, yet the construction holds true to the choreographic nuances and form of the original post-moderns; the avant-garde elders, so to speak. “Relay: Discovering New Species” is the new post-modernism; a marriage of structure and content that is sophisticated yet egalitarian; challenging yet accessible.


LEVYdance Photo © David DeSilva

Photo © David DeSilva

June 26th – The contemporary choreographer is charged with a multitude of tasks, one of which is the search for project collaborators. Composers, costume designers, set builders, dancers, musicians, visual artists – a whole team of individuals is usually required in order to bring an idea to the stage. But the most important consideration in this quest is that each chosen collaboration makes sense for and in the work. Seems obvious. Yet, there are so many multi-disciplined productions, with collaborations (while interesting and artistically challenging in their own right) that simply do not contribute to the dance in question. Instead, they read as a peripheral afterthought, unrelated stimuli, not at all integrated into the piece.

LEVYdance’s newest evening-length production, “Soar”, directed and choreographed by Associate Director Scott Marlowe, is all about collaboration, and his concept worked. Ben Juodvalkis did an original score; Amanda Ramirez, the costumes; Grant Diffendaffer, the set design; eleven dancers performed; three additional choreographers contributed movement vocabulary. But the most significant collaboration was also the most unusual and the most risky – that between “Soar” and its audience. Throughout the fifty-minute piece, the audience was asked to make decisions that ultimately defined which performance they saw. Viewer choice and responsibility transformed every audience member into an ‘active’ collaborator, and it paid off. Each individual’s experience with “Soar” was unique, and the following description outlines my journey through the work.

Upon entering the space, the audience encountered seating arranged on the stage, in the round, with specific stools designated for the dancers. So, the first choice was how close (or far away) you wanted to sit from one of the performers. As the lights rose and “Soar” began, flying sound effects underscored the first wave-styled movements. Starting seated with just the upper body, these reactions and adjustments quickly crescendoed to standing and next, to a running circuit. The set of concentric circles created a real-life oscillating fan, complete with a palpable breeze. Following this motif, the cast of eleven was parsed into solos, duets, trios and quartets all over the stage space. And again, your original choice of seating determined which of these dances would be visible to you and which would be obscured. Trust and vulnerability were common in each excerpt, though the scope, intention and dynamics varied greatly. Three women center stage exuded a sense of urgency and passion while the upstage quartet’s ‘domino’ falls gave way to calm and acquiescence. Then, Marlowe, Michaela Burns and Yu Kondo Reigen (the three LEVYdance company artists) cycled through a choreographic phrase that spoke of penetrating desire.

As that first chapter came to a close, the performers led each audience member to a new vantage point, simply asking them to choose ‘red’ or ‘blue’. While in some cases, these longer transitions can break the momentum of the work, in “Soar” the participatory exercise allowed for a smooth, real and organic progression to the next section of the dance. Once everyone was seated, the center black curtain closed, dividing the space in half and determining which of the two choreographic sequences we would see, and which one we would miss. On the ‘red’ side, a casual, yet genuine game of ‘spin the bottle’ emerged while first one, and then two performers remained outside of the circle. The game continued while Marlowe and Reigen engaged in a dramatic yet playful pas de deux. Each of the two groups was sharing the same space, but they were entirely separate and somewhat unaware of each other. There was a relatable sense of being physically together, yet emotionally apart. When this lengthy segment was finished, the center curtain opened to reveal the scene from the other side of the stage. In that instant, each group knew they had seen something completely different.

The audience’s third re-positioning was an instruction to choose one large square of light and stand within it. With no ‘front’, a sexy, intoxicating, animalistic trance unfurled all over the room, driven from intensely internal impulses. And the last arrangement saw the audience against the two side walls for the ending, which was incidentally the best dancing sequence in “Soar”. Unison was mixed with canoned material, at different facings and levels. An already very good finale then became great. As two tables were nested in the center, each performer took turns vaulting into the air and being caught by other cast members. It was a super joyful expression of falling forward in space, rather than away from something.

Marlowe’s concept of audience collaboration in “Soar” was terrific. The logistics went off without a hitch and creating a successful link between choice and outcome is important in twenty-first century dance performance. But there was something else going on, something besides collaboration that also made “Soar” a conceptual success. This contemporary dance work really examined the word ‘soar’ from a three hundred and sixty degree perspective. Soaring happens in a variety of ways; it is not only about flying. Soaring is being carried, walking, falling, flapping, being thrown, being caught, running. Marlowe’s “Soar” for LEVYdance is about living to the fullest and thriving in any environment – a composition that seeks (and gains) a complete, full understanding of this single word.


"What Stays" Photo © Steven Gelberg

“What Stays”
Photo © Steven Gelberg

June 29th – The last days of June saw the return of Right Brain Performancelab’s dance theater/performance installation “What Stays”, co-produced with Dance Up Close/East Bay. A mobile, multi-disciplined art piece directed by Jennifer Gwirtz, “What Stays” features a powerful combination of music, soundscore, text, dance and mask. This most recent iteration inhabited the entire Shawl-Anderson Dance Center, utilizing the porch, vestibule, staircase, two downstairs studios, two upstairs studios, dressing rooms and even the roof. As the audience was ushered from space to space, a deliciously wacky set of interactions transpired. The key narrative of home underscored the entire work, yet each vignette approached the notion from a unique perspective.

Prior to entering the building, the audience was greeted with a short prelude on the front porch. Two dancers, accompanied by a cellist, set the mood with spinning and cycling circular motifs. In the lobby, a clever and brainy solo scene took on the topic of journeying while a virtual contribution spoke of corporeal presence and hospitality. Attention then turned to the staircase where three dancers explored the complexity of their changeable landscape. They clung to the edges – walls, banisters – while searching for answers through listening, touch and sight.

Our next station was the first of two studios on the ground floor where a single dancer examined the possibilities of choreographic style and genre. Through a combination of ballet, modern and even a little ballroom, she posed the question – which felt right? Back at the front desk, exaggerated gestures, goggle-wearing performers and intense absurdity brought a hint of Butoh to the table. Onto the second downstairs studio setting, which opened with a long, impressive monologue, peppered with songs. Then, a dancer entered through the side door of the studio, masked, wearing angel wings. Accompanied by a sound mosaic (cello, other instrumental noises, recorded music and vocals), she performed a series of slow, defined movements that also clearly took inspiration from the Butoh tradition. Following this excerpt, the hospitality theme returned with an interactive, participatory tea ceremony. This shared experience culminated with the cast drinking their tea while performing classical ballet barre exercises. Quickly, composure and control gave way to some humorous and unpredictable shenanigans. Our last two stops for “What Stays” were the upstairs studios. The first had some of the most beautiful modern dancing of the ninety-minute work, and the second, a concluding sentiment as the numerous disciplines re-emerged to close the piece.

“What Stays” did a great job of delving into its chosen narrative with a variety of scope and perspective. And even with the number of times the audience was moved to a new location, the flow was never once interrupted. The only issues were compositional in nature. First, the piece is subtitled as ‘a performance in three acts about home and time passing’. The latter part of the statement, the narrative foundation, was super clear, but the presence of three acts was not. “What Stays” seemed more like a single stream of consciousness rather than a triptych. Second was the ordering of the installation or more specifically, which scene concluded the work. It wasn’t that “What Stays” was too long, not at all. But the tea ceremony scene absolutely felt like it should have been the finale. While the last two segments had their own artistic merit, in the context of the overall piece, they felt like an extra, unnecessary coda, tacked onto the perfect cadence that had already been resolved.