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Austin Dance Festival – Backstage, Part 2: Professional Showcases

David Robinson 5 years ago

Austin Dance Festival: Professional Showcases, April 6, 2019 (A 3-part blog series)



I thought the Dance on Film night last night would be a tough act to follow, with its well-choreographed, well-rehearsed, and well-edited films, but no, the live performances were up to the challenge of the digital world. Seeing the two classes of art in relatively close juxtaposition brought something into focus about live performance. There is something electric in the anticipation and witnessing of live performers on stage that sets live performance apart from any other form of art. There is an all or nothing quality of performing live before a judgmental audience. Picasso didn’t subject his paintings to art critics before they were well finished; novelists don’t feel the critics’ lash until their editors polish the work down to the last comma. When a dancer stumbles or an actor scuffs a line, scores of audience members put an X by their name. Performers know this and try to turn the frightful anxiety about that to jittery positive energy that vaults them higher. That, or they feel crushed by it and put in low-energy, inept performances. The audience never knows what they are going to get, exactly; and at a certain high level the performer doesn’t know what he or she will give, exactly.

So, surprisingly, the professional dancers backstage were quiet and jovial in low chatty conversations with each other. Some showed a little anxiety, of course, revealed by going over their dances or stretching routines by themselves. Fellow dancers respected their space and quiet.


Photo courtesy of Austin Dance Festival

Ballet Austin showed great generosity by opening unscheduled studios within their state-of-the-art facility to the guest companies. The large studios for dance classes made for great waiting areas, storing costumes, and last-minute run-throughs of their showpieces. Much of the footwork of the stage-managing crew amounted to checking on the companies and moving them into line for their grand entrances onto the stage. The view backstage was metaphorically of a giant funnel channeling dancers through it to the bright lights, marley floor and welcoming crowd of dance enthusiasts.

The show, in two separate showcases at 5 pm and 8 pm, was of high quality. It is not overstatement to say that the shows illuminated the state of contemporary dance in America. New directions, perfected methods, improvisation, experiment, social activism and the pure love of movement were all offered in abundance. Twenty performances proved the point. It is impossible to give a fair assessment of all the dances in thumbnail reviews in this blog format. We can only dance across the highlights; but be aware that all the dances offered something new, thoughtful and artful. The show is a credit to those who selected the companies and pieces from the dozens of pieces submitted.

Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company. “Scenes from Be Still My Heart.” Hamrick and the dancers have abstracted incredibly beautiful sections from 2018’s highly regarded “Be Still My Heart.” The festival piece showed how great choreographic skills are required to remount a previously produced piece, adapting it to time and space constraints. Hamrick’s taste and esthetic keep her in the front rank of contemporary dance choreographers.


“Meeting in the Hallway” | Photo courtesy of Andrea Ariel

Andrea Ariel Dance Theatre. “Meeting in the Hallway.” The positioning of this powerful duet after the Kathy Dunn Hamrick piece was another excellent choice by the show producers. The piece was a male-male duet between Clay Moore and Jun Shen “Sunny.” They meet and riff deeply on the truism each person one meets in life changes oneself irrevocably. But the life-goes-on second chapter of that, observed by Ariel’s choreography, is that the result of such a meeting is only that one becomes more richly and authentically one self. Watching the clear blending and transformation of the two dancers into the other’s movements and shapes was deeply affecting.

Kelsey Oliver + Urban Eisley. “Becoming Toody.” This was a highly improvisational solo accompanied by electric guitar. The whimsical title sets the tone of our expectations, and Oliver gives us an exceptionally fast-paced and athletic improvisation. Please be careful with your knees.

Courtney Mazeika and Marlie Couto. “Eventuality.” The piece was an all-female duet but so much more. The choreography gave us indescribable mysteries, conveyed as much by facial expressions and sheer projected energy as by movement. Perhaps not about death, there were memorable passages of an axis and concentric movements around it. Imagery of the stela-and-hummingbird variety comes to mind, seemingly valid, but inexplicably so.


“Body Shift” | Photo courtesy of Veronica DeWitt

Body Shift. “Being Together.” This was the unquestionable heart of the Austin Dance Festival. The dancers here are differently abled along several physical and mental dimensions. “Normally” abled dancers danced with them and incorporated assistance into the choreography—holding hands, turning wheelchairs—that sort of thing. After that, the piece was sheer unconstrained expression and joy. The company’s choreography is varied and ambitious, but an inspirational message comes through with every piece. It strikes everyone in the audience, including the depressed, that regardless of one’s level of enablement, every individual can change the world for the better. The audience took the intermission to reflect deeply and dry its eyes.

Alexa Capareda. “Klein Blue/The Void.” Performed by Capareda’s Butler Fellowship Program students, the piece had all of Capareda’s quirky brilliance and precision of movement. Altogether, the piece was a great recommendation for the program.

Noblemotion Dance. “Couplet.” This was one of those duets from beyond, full of athletic leaps and lifts by a very trusting and confident couple. The title took on multiple meanings, and the performance gained an enigmatic quality from it, as did its embrace of violence in couples.


Uwazi Zamani | Photo Courtesy of The Dance Dish

Uwazi Zamani. “Soliloquy: My Body is My Home.” A solo by a male giving eye witness testimony to sexual abuse suffered by black males—this at a rate of 23% of all reported sexual abuse. That much is stated in the program notes. The performance was a heart-wrenching record of all the effects, confusion, and recurrent nightmares/memories of a trauma that keeps on hurting. Zamani is a solo performance artist of great boldness and creativity, a rising star on the scene.

Victoria Derenzo Dance. “Exposure Therapy.” The piece was another superpowered duet, well-rehearsed and executed. Strength and magnificence are two of the many impressions gained from this piece.

Sarah Lapinsky Dance Theater. “Sentient Beings Are We.” If you have to say it, that raises a question about it. But saying it makes it more intriguing. The piece was ethereal, but somehow contemporary and unsentimental. The execution by this young company was flawless. The company is well deserving of its emerging attention.


“When We Take Flight” | Photo courtesy of Match Houston

Metdance. “When We Take Flight.” The piece was choreographed by Kyle Abraham for the 2013 edition of Dancers Responding to AIDS. The large ensemble once again demonstrated Metdance’s preeminence in offering athletic and technically perfected dances. They also proved, once again, that artful movement is a language of love.

Alyson Dolan. “I’d Like to Solve the Puzzle.” The puzzle is a continuing exploration of improvisation in the moment, pondering whether and when to move, remain still, change dynamics, or make gestures. The question is central to choreographers on a continuing basis. Dolan and Jessica Boone performed the piece, and they challenged themselves in a certain way. In their lengthy unison duet, they crafted moments in which they created a shape and moved from it, cued by the performer out of sight and hearing of the other. No audible breath was involved, although perhaps a silent count may have taken place a few times. The effects were stunning, and Dolan and Boone were telepathic perfection.

Chamacos Dance Company. “ProprioKenesico.” The group piece was an exploration of the binary opposition between transgression and repentance. The mature choreography illuminated the consequences of both. The piece seemed to offer hope to all, regardless of position.


LAJAMARTIN | Photo courtesy of Sightlines Magazine

LAJAMARTIN. “Unearthed.” The title needed to convey the quality of flying, and soaring, because that’s what the dance did. The piece was by the two-person company of Laja Field and Martin Durov, and claimed pride of place as the most athletic and dynamic piece in the two showcases. The piece seemed to consist of several series of lifts and holds that seemed to fly faster and faster, and then light to earth in ballroom dance sequences that seemed almost pedestrian by comparison. Oddly, the “flying” parts seemed to create the inner dialogue of the ballroom dancers, making real their emotions, hopes and aspirations. The dancers crossed the divide between the two worlds seamlessly, cinematically, and with great skill.

Social Movement Contemporary Dance. “The Before and After.” The large group piece was a strong technique piece, with all group members showing stand-out techniques in movement. Very impressive.

Ellen Bartel Contemporary Dance. “Stagnation: (aka) When Is It My Turn, Bitch?” The piece took the award for the largest group piece, with fourteen performers. The performers walked around the stage dressed as rich ladies, perhaps from the 1930s and waiting on railroad platforms in anticipation of travel. They enacted passages of movement in surprising combinations. The piece has great imagination and a fine sense of timing.


“Begin Again” | Photo courtesy of TheaterJones

Bruce Wood Dance. “Begin Again.” The piece was a duet choreographed by Yin Yue. The performance had a lot of smooth lifts and leaps. The smoothness concealed a great deal of athleticism, but it assisted a kind of dreamy merging with poetry. It was beautiful to watch.

Lisa Anne Kobdish. “Data.” This was a well-named concept piece about artificial intelligence, its place in an advancing world, and Stephen Hawking’s warning about it taking over the world. The group piece readily conveyed the artificial, and in its duets the softness and tenderness of human connections. The idea is worthy of even more contemplation in movement, pioneered here by Kobdish.

Tiffany Mills Company. “Blue Room.” Yet another duet in a program heavy with such, the piece seemed to give a gentler take on dyadic relationships, but not a simplistic romantic exploration, and not one with a flirtation with violence. The piece was refreshing.


“GOOD BOY” | Photo courtesy of Mark Caserta

Mark Caserta + Artists. “GOOD BOY.” This was also a concept piece keyed heavily by costumes. They were black, accented by black makeup and styling; they created a somewhat exaggerated look of gay hip-hop street life, possibly a life of hustle among the young and uprooted. The dance took it from there, launching us into a more abstracted field with overtones of hip-hop movement but with no full commitment to it. These passages were interrupted by direct story dances full of gestures. The stories were evocative, close to rebuses, but direct statements were elusive. Rather than being frustrating, the stories were intriguingly mysterious, and the piece overall was strangely satisfying, a pickle to the imagination of the thoughtful. Mikey Morado and Mark Caserta have the choreographic and performance credits; they show youthful mastery of both.

Altogether, the two showcases in one day were immensely satisfying. They further enhance the reputation of Austin Dance Festival on the Austin and national dance scenes. The exhausted staff hurried home to rest, as did I.

Cover photo courtesy of Andrew Bennett, Austin Dance Festival

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