An elaborate headpiece makes its way through the audience, demanding attention before it’s even seen. Beneath the headpiece is Imana Gunawan, who slithers and retreats, gathering momentum almost as if she’s storing it inside her grandiose skirt. Repetitive “whoosh” sounds come from her kicking her foot back like a bull – I imagine sprays of dirt flying behind her. She’s getting ready to charge. Finally, entering the open space of Washington Hall, she walks with authority as she draws circles with her path. Even though her gaze penetrates the audience, there’s an air of mysticism in her presence. Flowers are scattered on the floor in a half moon shape and an ornate, gold-hued set design provide a background. Her satin red skirt flows behind her, a regal trail of fire.
Imana Gunawan’s introductive solo, untuk ibu, untuk sri, is simply the start of what proves to be yet another rich presentation from Au Collective. Au’s priorities as a collective are clear in their most recent show, from SEA: to celebrate and showcase POC, queer, and women artists, as well as empower the next generation to do the same.
Watching Au members dance with each other is like watching brothers and sisters play together. While wonderfully unique individuals, together they move as if they are from the same family. Lorraine Lau and Randy Ford create a childlike utopia in a duet, Through Innocence We Dream, directed by Megan Erickson. Four dancers and a red balloon competitively play and tease in Foursquare, directed by Rebecca Smith. VRS-A-STI/YLE, a collaborative piece mostly featuring popping work, even brings in the next generation with special guests. Estrella Gonzales-Sanders and Bria Carmel Clahoun, while each probably no more than 7 years old, dominate the stage with alacrity and attitude. The audience responds with roars of support at the girls’ popping skills, and the older Au members simply become back-up dancers to their show.
Like a rope made stronger by individual threads, Au’s most powerful moments are when they all occupy space together. Guest choreographer Alicia Mullikin’s movement comes alive on their bodies with fierce ownership in En brazos entre líneas enemigas. Clad in black and red costumes, a violin track accompanies slow treading. While oftentimes such instrumental music can emotionally overpower dance work, the dancers would have emitted just as much intensity in silence. An extended period of rows exchanging places downstage to upstage creates an army-like wave of aggression, complete with audible “huffs”. The dancers create a constantly recycled energy that gains strength with each passing. There is more behind this work than a single story – it is obvious that personal stories bond together to create an unstoppable force.
While powerful in numbers, Au’s smaller works at times lack clarity in intention. A trio of women in white tulle share an experience together in three., directed by El Nyberg. Two of the dancers softly vogue, taking ownership of the style and changing its context, while the third watches from afar. The connection between them is strong, but there’s a sense of distance between them and the audience. I feel as if I am looking in on an inside joke, lying beneath a facade of performance. Cheryl Delostrinos, the director of In the Garden, does a solo to the track “Moon River”, her shapes appearing staccato, her back to the audience. She wears a bird skull mask, but her intention shows a graceful humanity. Warm light adorns her and her two other partners as the trio spirals around each other. Indulgent lifts and gentle entanglements bring the dancers closer, but again, the space for others seems to shrink. A larger group piece directed by Randy Ford, WORSHIP, aims to look at individual spirituality. However his choice of music, a passionate gospel song, overpowers the dancer’s voices as movers. Still, personal gestures highlight each dancer, leaving the viewer curious for more.
The works, largely collaborative by Au’s members and guest artists, scale from tender and sweet to almost frighteningly aggressive. Snaps, stomps, and cheers from the audience of all races and ages makes the space an energized and safe place for expression. from SEA is successful in terms of showcasing dance how it was originally intended – a means for celebration and expression, not just entertainment for the aristocracy. Anyone could have viewed this performance and got something from it, thanks to Au’s admirable mission to make fine art accessible to various audiences and communities. From costumes to musical choices, from SEA glowed with spiritual reverence of ancestors past, showing up with unapologetic fervor in their daring descendants.
from SEA was performed May 18th-20th, 2017 at Washington Hall in Seattle. For more information about Au Collective, visit their website here.