[Please join me in welcoming Kristen Hedberg to CriticalDance. – JH]

Valerie Green/ Dance Entropy
The Center at West Park
New York, New York

February 29, 2024
Rite (world premiere)

Kristen Hedberg

Valerie Green/Dance Entropy’s world premiere of Rite adorned The Center at West Park with celebration. The dance, performed vivaciously by a cast of six male dancers, celebrated human individuality, connection, and experience. Expressed through movements inspired by shamanic journeying and altered states of consciousness, Rite transported its viewers into the dancers’ voyage towards self-acceptance.

Valerie Green/Dance Entropy, a nonprofit dance organization, was founded in 1998 by New York City-based dancer, choreographer and teacher Valerie Green. The organization is composed of three branches: the dance company, the dance space, and community outreach.

The company believes in humanizing movement, both through Green’s critically acclaimed choreographic work and the company’s mission to plant creative seeds in communities across the world. In 2005, Green created a permanent company home called Green Space in Long Island City, NY. Green Space, in addition to being Dance Entropy’s home, provides an affordable and welcoming environment for rehearsals, classes and performances for all artists.

As a teacher, Green is dedicated to sharing her healing work with the community. She provides performances and workshops to under deserved populations including at-risk youth, trauma survivors, the formerly incarcerated, addiction rehabilitation patients, older adults, and those with differing abilities, immigrant communities and more.

(l to r) Aiden Feldman, Richard J. Scandola, and Lawson Pinder
in Valerie Green’s “Rite”
Photo by Hope Youngblood

Rite is one of 44 dances and 11 evening length works that Green has created to date. As she describes, Rite is, “a healing ceremony, a meditative ritual, and an exorcism of the ego…a physical invocation of our internal struggle with self-image, societal pressure, and the vulnerable journey from form to clarity.”

The audience was immersed in Rite’s organic energy from the get-go. As viewers arrived at The Center, each person was handed a single white carnation which they carried to their seats. The Center is inside a sanctuary housed by West Park Presbyterian Church, which includes a raised stage, stage lights, and rows of pews where the audience sits. A soft musical overture could be heard from the house’s speakers, which grew louder to signal the beginning of the evening.

Performers Aiden Feldman, Ethan Schweitzer-Gaslin, Johnny Matthews III, Tsubasa Nishioka, Lawson Pinder, and Richard J. Scandola struck the space with unparalleled energy and intent. They entered The Center’s performance space one at a time from varying sides. They approached the stage slowly, which filled the room with tranquility, breath, and awareness.

Scandola delicately carried a basket of white carnations, which alluded to the white carnations each audience member possessed.

The performers were each draped in shaman’s ponchos, which were layered over tank tops and loose, long pants. Each performer wore a different color, to represent life’s varying perspectives and stories. Rite’s costume design was beautifully crafted by Irena Romendik and Green. The six removed their ponchos, folded them attentively, and set them upstage. Their costumes created a rainbow, united under the sanctuary’s colorful stained-glass image. As described by Tsubasa Nishioka, the removing of their outer garments was a “preparation for the space they were about to enter. It reminded [him] of removing a jacket when [he] enters someone’s home.”

Johnny Matthews (center)
and Dance Entropy
in Valerie Green’s “Rite”
Photo by Hope Youngblood

Each performer acknowledged each other, sometimes offering a gentle smile or nod of the head, before sitting or lying down on the floor. The gentle music morphed into an open sound, which sounded like the crackling of fire. This moment of calm emphasized the dancers’ explosive journey, which erupted moments later.

For the majority of Rite, the performers remained on stage – yet the atmosphere suggested that they ventured to many different universes. In moments of unison and solitude, they moved through the space as if they were willingly overcome by an external energy. They captured the essence of entering a self-transformative state with conviction, through their physicality and expressions. This was evident in the ways they allowed certain tics – the rolling of the neck, the tossing of their elbows, the way they flung imaginary water droplets off of their wrists – to encapsulate their movements. They rode each wave with trust, and their characters never attempted to fight the state they entered. Their expressions remained fixated on their own spiritual journeys; they carried a sincere focus, yet appeared distant from the world where the audience observed from.

Rite featured music by Poranqui/ Liquid Bloom/ Eric Zhang, Danheim, Lannka-AIWAA, Cobanny, Ancestral Elephants, Mary Isis, and Shamanic Vision. While the score changed often, the dancers’ relation to the music was complementary. Many pieces of music featured a pulsing beat, which emphasized the dancers’ intricately specific footwork. The dancers incorporated walking, stomping, prancing, pony-stepping, lunging, and jumping – and often, their traversing fell right on the beat. At times, other sounds could be heard: the crackling of fire, the cawing of crows, and the stomping of feet from far off.

Memorable scenes occurred throughout. Rite swelled in energy from its gentle beginning, but a striking image involved several statue shapes created by the dancers – often four at a time – standing on top of one another to build abstract forms. Each tower of humans was supported from the Earth. These images suggested the vast capabilities of people generated from listening and trust.

Expansive movement phrases caught the eye as equally as the subtler moments. Repeated phrase work involved bounding bison-like leaps, suspended side attitude turns in an umbrella-like hovering shape, and swinging arms. At times, the dancers held the palms of their hands in a prayer-like shape on the side of their left thighs, with downward gazes.

Aiden Feldman (center) and Dance Entropy
in Valerie Green’s “Rite”
Photo by Hope Youngblood

A particularly explosive moment occurred when Nishioka hurtled his body across the stage, launching from the backs of the other five performers. He flipped, cartwheeled, and jumped with speed and power, while his comrades maintained stable bases for him to launch from. This was one of the only moments in Rite when one performer seemed particularly separated from the group. The six maintained a connection throughout the work, even though they followed such individual journeys.

Rite’s moments of stillness were powerful. With so much exhausting, physical movement occurring from the efforts of the six, the moments of rest – lying on their backs, sitting on all fours – left lasting impressions, and allowed the viewers to process what they had just witnessed. The dancers’ breathing in these moments of calm was, perhaps intentionally, audible.

After the dancing concluded, the six had a final surprise for the viewers. They approached their folded ponchos and draped them over their tank tops once more – perhaps signaling their return to the world they had temporarily ventured from. Beyond the invitation to witness the journey of Rite, the audience had the opportunity to partake in the ritual as well.

Scandola held the basket of white carnations and addressed the audience – the first time any of the six had spoken. He explained that “white carnations signify our connection with nature, our emotions, and our spirituality…[we ask that you take this time to reflect on what life is asking you to consider. What are you struggling with? What is causing you pain? How can you let go of these things?]”

The dancers invited the audience to rise from their pews, take the stage row by row, and lay each of their white carnations down on the stage. The carnations formed long rows, one after another. It was a peaceful moment, and a pronounced image to see so many flowers.

Rite was a ritual open for all; an invitation to let go of anything in life that was no longer needed. After this final sacred moment, the six departed from the space, and walked serenely in a single-file line to the back of the house. Everyone was left cleansed and prepared for their own journeys.