Baila Society
KnJ Theater at Peridance Center
New York, New York

May 7, 2022 (online review, 7/22)
Spring Showcase: Hope against Hope

Jerry Hochman

On rare occasion I have the opportunity to review a performance memorialized in online videos that I was unable to view in person, but which I see when I have sufficient time. So it was with Baila Society’s annual Spring Showcase, which was held on May 7. And in this case I was alerted in advance to one dance that went against the grain of most others I’d be seeing on that program.

The word “baila” means “dance,” and Baila Society is an independent organization representing different styles/flows of salsa dance that operates in collaboration with Peridance Center. Each spring, as is the case with many such dance establishments, it presents a performance showcase to which it invites certain professionals and advanced amateurs, graduates of its program or in some other way affiliated with the organization, to perform. Those are the videos that I screened.

The usual focus in this showcase, not surprisingly, is Latin dance. But there was that one dance that was different and wasn’t tied to a particular style – Latin or otherwise. I’ll briefly address the other pieces on the program, then turn to Valerie Kosnevich’s dance.

Valerie Kosnevich in “Hope Against Hope”
Photo by Alla Bronskaya

Of the Latin dances, by far the most successful were the ones that went beyond the nuts and bolts of the dance form itself. That’s not to say that the salsa performances (by Isabelle “Bella” Johanna and Maria Moreras), the belly-dance (by Nahoko Sugiyama), which, seen in this context, has a vague relationship to salsa, or the finely-textured Indian dance (by Vidya Bharti), which doesn’t, were deficient in any way; only that they were limited to demonstrating the style they performed. [There may have been a narrative associated with Bharti’s dance that I was unable to decipher, and that was not explained in the program.] But the others were ones that made a more lasting impression.

For example, the two dances performed by Edwin Tolentino, one with Linda Rivera (La Melodia), the other with Lynn Chavez (White Hot), were pieces that he choreographed. Tolentino is a faculty member at the school and has world championship titles in salsa and Latin Hustle, and his experience showed. His dance with Rivera, now a semi-professional who was one of Tolentino’s students, went beyond the other demonstrations of basic salsa competence. Most dramatic, however, was his dance with Chavez, another of Tolentino’s students who is now a professional salsa dancer, which included not only basic salsa, but extravagant flair (beyond what is a component of basic salsa), including spiral displays –Tolentino held Chavez by the hands as he swirled her around the stage floor, ending with a flourish. This was the most exciting piece on the program.

Rivera also performed together with Julio Escobar in another salsa piece, Boco Boco, choreographed by Jeffrey Taveras. Rivera and Escobar relatively recently joined a semi-professional team, called Tumbao, and they became the 2019 World Salsa Champions in the Amateur Small Team Division at the World Salsa Summit and placed 3rd in 2022 in the “On 2” Amateur Couples.

Valerie Kosnevich
in “Hope Against Hope”
Photo by Alla Bronskaya

By far the most distinctive dance in the program was Kosnevich’s, because it wasn’t just a display of a dance style, accomplished or basic. This dance, called Hope Against Hope, is performed entirely in her own personal style (although it’s more akin to contemporary dance than anything else), and relates to challenging events in her life and her continuing will to eventually overcome them. For this piece, she appended a poem she wrote that expresses both her challenges and determination. Visualized, these words – and their associated expressed emotions – were her dance’s focus.

But expressing these emotions with these intentions and to her satisfaction isn’t sufficient to transmit these emotions and intentions to an audience. Her performance accomplishes this essential requirement as well. Unlike most of the salsa performances I saw, Kosnevich varies her movement qualities as she slowly moves up and down stage within a beam of light that traverses the stage floor diagonally, widening as the light travels upstage from its single source. In the process, her choreography displays her emotional responses to certain situations without specifically identifying them – which keeps unnecessary specifics hidden while clearly displaying how these situations impacted her.

Kosnevich wears a simple costume – a dark, nearly ankle-length dress that covers her body and conceals her legs (except for occasional moments when they emerge when her movement compels it). The costume resembles peasant dresses one may see in a myriad of other dances, either solos or that include solos, which express deep-seated emotions. Such other dances include (but are not limited to) Sir Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies (expressing emotions associated with the loss of a child), or former American Ballet Theatre Principal Sarah Lane’s performance of a short piece choreographed by Samuel Pott (and performed for Jersey City’s Nimbus Dance, of which Pott is Artistic Director), called Empty Place, which I reviewed last year. In addition to emphasizing the simplicity of the dancers’ background and/or the emotions associated with some narrative and/or unidentified personal sorrow, such costumes intentionally do not distract from the audience’s ability to focus on the movement.

Valerie Kosnevich in “Hope Against Hope”
Photo by Alla Bronskaya

But unlike most of these solos, in Hope Against Hope (which was choreographed to music by Søndag Søndag) Kosnevich distills these emotions to their essence rather than displaying them in an overly expressive manner. She also concludes her dance with the light gradually widening to encompass the stage in its entirety, symbolic of the continuing “hope against hope.” As a result, the entire brief dance is a simple statement, ending, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen’s famous lyrics in “Anthem,” as if the original narrow focused lighting had been a visualized crack through which, eventually, light, and hope, gets in.

Kosnevich immigrated to the United States from Russia, via Israel, having spent seven years there performing in a variety of choreographic works and ultimately earning a B.F.A. in Dance from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. She came to New York four years ago to expand her dance experiences and to take advantage of New York’s additional dance opportunities, which she’s done: she’s already fluent in a variety of dance styles, including jazz, ballet, modern and contemporary. For example, and in addition to performing in a variety of dances choreographed by U.S.-based choreographers as well as dances she created herself, she graduated from the Peridance Certificate Program, and is currently dancing with Peridance Contemporary Dance Company.

Based on what I can see in Hope Against Hope, there’s a lot of promise here. One hopes that Kosnevich will find additional outlets in the U.S., and in New York in particular, that will encourage her continuing growth. Indeed, I suspect that one of those personal experiences and hopes memorialized in her dance includes the expectation that she’ll continue to grow as a dancer here.

The fact that Kosnevich’s dance was performed in the context of a spring showcase, and together with other dances that have a completely different character, is further evidence of something that I’ve referenced many times before: that you never know where unexpected indicia of talent will be found.