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Speaking the Language of Dance at the Fremont Abbey

Written by Victoria Jacobs

Danica Bito and Kelsey Hamon in Wall Street Rag
by Elizabeth Mendana
The Fremont Abbey’s annual dance showcase, A Moving Conversation, was presented this weekend, February 24 and 25, 2012 at 8 pm. The event seeks to spark conversation between choreographers and audience members, giving the opportunity to compare choreographers’ intentions and the fruits of their work. Choreographers can become so entrenched in the language of movement they can forget that those actions read differently to those outside dance training—an intimate touch, for example, reads very differently to the audience than it does to those who spend hours partnering and rolling around on the floor together. A developed dance sequence might seem to a choreographer to depict a grand journey while the audience only sees abstract dance phrases. Sometimes there is a divide between what choreographers think they are saying through their own secret code of dance, and what they are actually saying in the worlds’ common body language.

The show opened with Elizabeth Mendana’s Wall Street Rag, a lampoonish duet set to a medley of Scott Joplin piano songs performed live by Paul Swenson. As revealed by Mendana after the show, she choreographed the whole work with a newborn on her hip, so she led the dancers through generating phrase material (e.g., “the Wall Street secret handshake”), which marked the opening of the piece with rhythmic, precise gestures to the bouncing Joplin score. The work was performed by Danica Bito and Kelsey Hamon, two young women dressed in button-up shirt and tie, which invoked a cartoony “corporate” appearance but emphasizedthe fact that these women were in no way actually Wall Street cronies. If they were, they’d be in power suits and heels, and it would be a different piece altogether, about women and corporate dynamics. They were, from the first lights up, depicting the thing instead of actually becoming it, which left limited room for commentary or depth—an extended political cartoon with dance steps mixed in.  The duet gamely kept up with four spirited Joplin pieces with a pitched battle between the two women to get ahead, wrestling/partnering, and contrasted slow and fast styles, and Hamon and Bito pulled it off with good humor, tight dancing, and caricaturized showmanship.

Christin Lusk’s Silence began as a film and transitioned into a live trio featuring the same performers. Victoria McConnell, Sarah Lustbader and Lusk are limber, elegant movers executing Lusk’s inventive choreography with passion and precision. Tara Garcia’s gorgeously shot film began with the women dancing joyfully around Seattleparks; the movement was pleasant but didn’t really hang together in a choreographic arc. The second half of the film turned dark and serious for no obvious reason, like the sudden rise of mental illness despite a life filled with blessings, but the emotionality of it seemed overwrought and unexplained, which was amplified by a soundtrack of very recognizable songs from the film ‘Amelie’ and composer Sigur Ros . In the post-show conversation, Lusk said that she was thinking about what it would be like to lose your memory in your mid-20s and have to start over, which translated into an abstract angst. Both on film and live, the dancers were at one moment manipulative to each other, the next moment tender, which at times muddied their relationships, but they are plainly beautiful, committed movers well matched to Lusk’s gorgeously curling and falling dance phrases.

Ensnaring Darkness, by Naphtali Beyleveld, was a quartet wrapped up in the paralysis of fear. The four women, dressed in purple and with fear on their faces, sat on and around chairs, reaching and contracting back into themselves with bound, grasping limbs. The first music piece was by Moby, and its driving, pounding rhythm boxed in the movement phrasing. While this supported the feeling of being trapped, it also made it difficult to explore the nuances of emotions through a changing rhythm. The second song, by Nathan Seder, was a more varied composition of sound effects and talking, which lent more subtlety. The piece wound increasingly tight, like the debilitating nature of anxiety; it ended with a trio huddling on the chairs while Beyleveld cowered in front, achingly stretching one hand out.

Emily Sferra in Elana Jacobs’ Make Like a Table and Serve

Elana Jacobs’s Make Like a Table and Serve, a solo performance featuring Emily Sferra, was created in a whirlwind three weeks and was a uniquely envisionedcollage of set pieces, costuming, dance, spoken word, and original music by Doug Barber. It began with Sferra dressed in a fur coat and jumping on a trampoline before venturing through quirky gestures and specific looks and steps. Sferra dropped her fur coat and little jacket to reveal a sheer draping dress beneath, and finally removed the dress to dance in black shorts and a tank top. Thoughtful, innovative, and rapidly transforming this piece never slipped into cliché or assumption. At times Barber’s music was an acoustic wash that didn’t accommodate the  idiosyncracies of the choreography. However, his role in the spoken word section as a shop-talking auto mechanic was a gratifying development, and Sferra is a magnetic, theatrical, fine-tuned performer to match Jacobs’s whirling, brave imagination.

Kenaniah Bystrom danced in his own Pas de Deux? (Something about birds) with Mariko Nagashima. The duet was understated, moodily lit, tender without being cloying, and full of innovative movement and a questing, humble sensibility. Post-show, Bystrom mentioned that he was considering themes like a half-man, half-beast and a half-woman, half-spirit, and that their partnering was not so much about lifting her up but tugging her down so that she didn’t fly away. In Pas de Deux? Nagashima, in a blue dress, gorgeously spun and leapt with warm and exquisite ballet technique, while Bystrom, his hair in a mohawk and extra fabric around his waist, contrasted her in an earthier, more contemporary and grounded style. Their partnering moments were soaring and revelatory. The title as well as the accompanying quote, “don’t take yourself too seriously,” seemed to indicate a tongue-in-cheek style, which was unnecessary; Bystrom has nothing to apologize for.

Jill Leversee in tenSIDES by Marlo Martin

The show closed with Marlo Martin’s tenSIDES (an excerpt without six), a piece for ten dancers in revealing black costumes, dancing on small black leather armchairs. Like in Beyleveld’s piece, the women slumped, arched away, and slid down the chairs, but with intense forward gazes that varied between serious, seductive, and angry. Martin’s movement was impassioned and sharp, beating the emotionality of breath-filled contractions with whipping hair and slicing legs and those music video eyes. The source of all their fury was unclear and the sexual drama of the final duet was confusing, but the work was confrontational,  visceral, and fierce as well as highly athletic. Company member Jill Leversee, always extraordinary to watch, actually seemed to take flight once or twice.

A Moving Conversation invites audience members to raise their own questions and come to their own conclusions, and to continue that discussion with the artists themselves after the show. That conversation can only deepen the artists’ work as they continue to develop their own movement languages and consider how those languages translate to the audience.