Up-and-coming choreographers showcased works in Relay Dance Collective’s show titled Beginnings, which ran Friday-Sunday, April 11-13, at Seattle Center’s Theatre Puget Sound. While the performers offered impeccable technique, much of the choreography left plenty to be desired. Despite the extensive background of the choreographers, the palette that most of the choreographers brought felt just like a beginning—their choreographic potential yet to be reached.
Surviving the Undertow, by Mary Kay Bisignano-Vadino, played with modern dance aesthetics and intricate formations. While rhythmic, Bollywood-influenced music played, the dancers wove from one configuration to the other. Sometimes, they would stop in statuesque poses, like profile Greek portraits on a relief. The rhythmic musicality of the choreography was pleasant to watch, making the audience listen more closely to the music. The dancers’ unaffectedness, in addition, made the piece simmer with an aura of mystery and somberness that peaked curiosity—a perfect choice for an opening.
If Bisignano-Vadino’s Undertow was like simmering water, then 3rd Shift Dance’s Take Your Medicine would be like boiling liquid, but full of youthful angst and intensity. The energy of the black-clad dancers, who leaped, turned, and rolled in unison to the rhythm of rock music by Cloud Cult, was unmatched at first. Yet as the piece progressed, unfortunately, some dancers began to falter when they couldn’t keep up with 3rd Shift director Xaviera Vandermay’s athletic choreography. From kicks to cartwheels, the movement never stopped, and the scale of the movement never changed. It left the audience simultaneously breathless and suffocated throughout.
Gabrielle Nomura’s Awakening was a fresh change after this. In a solo danced by RDC director Austin Sexton to Janis Joplin’s rendition of “Summertime,” Nomura explored the coming of age process. Sexton glowed with warmth as she alternated between a smooth, balletic quality and restless, frantic movements.
Awakening, as well as several other pieces, were pleasant to watch but were somewhat emotionally tame compared to the other works. Momento by SuzAnne Duckworth (a series of three balletic solos to George Gershwin’s music) and Compartir La Alegria (a female-female duet fusing ballet, modern, salsa, and even flamenco) also fall in this group. They were both charming dances but, at best, only lightweight affairs.
Even so, the evening had several highlights, and Cheryl Delostrinos’ Wrong Side Out was one of them. The piece opened in silence, the dancers making angular poses with one another. Each individual phrase led each dancer to a five-step pattern done in a clump facing away from the audience. Delostrinos’ supple yet strong movements broke away from the decidedly modern dance and balletic vocabulary seen in previous pieces.
Throughout the evening, all the dancers in all of the works displayed virtuosic technique. Yet in Delostrinos’ piece, the choreography complemented that technique. While many pieces preceding and following Delostrinos’ relied on unison phrase work and creating uniformity out of the group, Delostrinos played on her dancers’ individuality and strength. One such example was when the athletic-built Delostrinos herself did a duet with the taller, slender Anna Czosnyka. They seamlessly wove in and out of the floor as well as each others’ bodies, while Austin Nguyen performed a contemporary solo imbued with hints of popping and hip hop. The dynamic tension created between the different bodies and styles was mesmerizing to watch.
Another highlight was Gabrielle Nomura’s Farewell Shikata ga nai, a heartfelt piece about the historical experience of Japanese Americans. Through vignettes of dramatic scenes and balletic dance sequences, Nomura told a story of struggles: families being torn apart and sent to internment camps, Japanese Americans facing prosecution during the Pearl Harbor bombings, and all Asian Americans experiencing discrimination. The monologues and dialogues performed by Anna White and Truong Nguyen exposed the old wounds of many disenfranchised voices, which are so often conveniently ignored by those with power to oppress.
Nomura, herself a classically trained dancer, also played on her dancers’ strong ballet technique with sprightly jumps and smooth, emotional adagio sequences. The strength of the piece, however, came from the music. The Japanese drum ensemble in the background created a rich, rhythmic structure that created an aura of unrest throughout the work. At the same time, the dancers’ intricate formations and effortless balletic movements provided an effective contrast.
The closing piece, Sexton’s The First, left much to be desired. The piece, set to a few Top 40 pop hits, incorporated many technical contemporary ballet movements. While the dancers executed them fluently, the choreography lacked a perspective. It conformed to the mainstream idea of what dance is and what music dance should be done to. The phrases—chock full of turns, pretty balletic arm movements, and some miming—craved an edge. There is more to both the dancers and the choreographer, but it was left untapped in the work.
While the evening was a rocky beginning, it’s a hopeful sign that the best is only yet to come. For more information on Relay Dance Collective, visit relaydance.org.