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The DANCENOW Challenge A Formula for Success and Surprises

by Bonnie Rosenstock
September 3, 2014
Joe's Pub
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
New York, NY 10003
212-967-7555
The DANCENOW Challenge at Joe's Pub, which took place over four consecutive nights, September 3-6, 2014, is based on a simple, yet ingenious premise. It challenges festival artists to create a clear, concise and complete five-minute (or less) choreographic statement, which embraces the limitations and intimacy of the venue, as a vehicle for fostering the creative process.

Audience members vote for their favorite of the ten performances on each of the evenings. The winner receives a weeklong residency at DANCENOW Silo on Kirkland Farm in Bucks County, Pa. On Encore Night, a week later, the winners repeat their performance, along with audience favorites (based on popular vote and performer availability), and the grand prize winner, selected by the producers and advisors, is announced. In addition to receiving the weeklong residency, the top winner is awarded a $1,500 development stipend and afforded the opportunity to present an evening length performance at the Pub in 2016. It is a beautiful thing.

The Pub's 9- x 11-foot irregularly shaped slice-of-pie stage presents a unique challenge, as does the five-minute limit. DANCENOW artistic director and co-producer Robin Staff explained to me in an email that when they were at DTW (Dance Theater Workshop, which merged in 2011 with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company to become New York Live Arts), there was a seven-minute max. "Over the [first] year [of the Challenge], we learned that the artists tended to ignore the time limit; seven became 10, 10 became 12, and that the real gems were the works that said so much in five minutes or less, so we moved to five minutes. And now five minutes can be very long if the quality of the work is meandering.

"We learned that the uniqueness of Joe's Pub was a great catalyst for creativity, like [the critically acclaimed] Doug Elkins' "Fraulein Maria," Nicholas Leichter's "The Whiz," David Parker and the Bang Group's "ShowDown," etc., and took the leap in 2011 to move the festival here to encourage new work—and it is totally working. Despite the stage size, audiences can expect risk-taking and surprise, as well as extraordinary dancing and magical experiences."

The performers included fan favorites from former years and dance veterans to emerging stars and festival newcomers. There was indeed some extraordinary dancing, but there was also the disappointing and lackluster. Quirky and very funny was supplied by "Excuse Me, But…," choreographed by Jane Comfort and performed with great timing and irony by Sean Donovan and Javier Perez, who channeled every demanding ordering experience. "These are things that actually happened, are possible to happen and then got kind of ridiculous and absurd," said Perez, like asking for the baby bird diet: fed directly into the mouth and then regurgitated into another's mouth.

On Wednesday, Kristen Bell and Jordan Isadore (who both performed with others subsequently) did an impressive duet, with quick, strong, staccato movements and undulating gyrations. Bell, Isadore and Sydney Skybetter, one of the festival's three co-producers (the third is Tamara Greenfield) collaborated on the choreography, "It's Not Nepotism If You Do It To Yourself." Isadore said they tried to channel every dance memory they ever had. For Bell, it was of dance competitions and Balanchine ballet. Isadore recalled "Flashdance," "West Side Story" and "anything Fosse." "We were trying to bring all those things together, any memory we had of childhood. We wanted to step outside of what we normally do and just have fun," he said.

Isadore returned on Friday with his kick-ass choreography, "Thousands Place," the night's well-deserved winner. It was a skillful spoof of Riverdance (with accompanying soundtrack) and those special Isadore movement ingredients. The trio (Isadore, Eloise DeLuca, TJ Spaur) seemed to bounce off the foam walls, when they weren't gyrating on them. It brought down the house.

Wednesday's winner was a riveting solo performed by Jacinthe Burton, a leggy blonde whose sweeping movements and turns commanded every inch of the little stage. "The People Vs." (Excerpt) was choreographed by Jamal Jackson and Dana Thomas, with music by Kanye West, vocals by Adrian Jevicki, and had an all too timely narrative of violence against women. Burton, dressed in a white fur jacket and black dress, was the height of elegance and cool. Later, she removed her fur and dress to reveal bruises, which she covered up with make-up, then put her clothes back on and danced off. The audience responded with their votes.

Thursday night's winner was also the grand prize winner: "What could/should or would, if…," choreographed and performed by Bryan Strimpel and Shaina Branfman. The duet began and ended seated on a wooden bench in an unnamed public area. Both on and off the bench, they flowed smoothly and instinctively together, with minimal eye contact. Strimpel told me that about a year ago, he was seated in a public place and noticed that people in close proximity didn't really pay attention to each other. They began researching by sitting in cafés, on the train and listening to conversations. The couple rehearsed in their living room by moving furniture out of the way, so "this space is an upgrade," quipped Strimpel. It's his third festival outing, "but this time I didn't hear the forks," he observed. (The Pub is, after all, an eatery.)

"Everybody was silent, and we could feel the tension in the space. Right at the end, once we sat down, just like that release, everybody was with us the whole time."

When they learned they had won big, Strimpel said, "It was really nice to have this response from the people on top of winning. We're planning to keep making it, not only for this piece but an expansion of the idea, with situations and possibilities." Branfman added that the original idea was to do it in public places. "To have it in this place, with so many people there to watch you, versus a place where onlookers are interested or not," she said.

"Unlike the audience vote," said Staff, "we base [the grand prize] on the work that really makes a complete and clear artistic statement in five minutes or less and works within the intimacy of the space. Bryan's work met this challenge."

In addition, Staff noted, "The festival is a discovery tool and many of the artists, challenge winners or not, will be selected in the future to develop full evening works for Joe's."

The winner on Saturday was the offbeat "Ink Stink," choreographed, performed and costumed by Deborah Lohse, Cori Marquis and Donnell Oakley. They strutted and preened upon the stage to Ludacris's "Move Bitch" and won over the audience's hearts and funny bones. Said Lohse, in a phone interview, the trio, who met during Elkins' "Fraulein Maria," were rehearsing another Elkins work, "Hapless Bazaar," when they started coming up with what they thought were "sweet dance moves" while waiting for their turn to perform. "They made us smile, and we thought, gosh, we should put these together and dance. It was a collection of our own instincts, which morphed into the title."

The three are long-time DANCENOW veterans, who dance with other companies as well as in their own. "We were so thrilled to get to do the festival again," added Marquis. "We made it with the intention with what we found silly, fun, interesting and were curious about. That it was well received was a huge bonus."

One comic moment was when the three stopped suddenly to take a food break, something dancers have to squeeze in between rehearsals and performing. They removed from their respective little clutch purses: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for Marquis, Donnell downed a chicken wing and Lohse chomped on a slice of pizza. "More choreographic snack time, what's more fun than that!" Marquis said.

Another favorite, of many, was Friday's "Merge," with choreography, performance and video by Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer. It was a visual multi-dimensional sensation. Staff acknowledged that the video component added a lot of technical time that they did not have for the encore. "However, Bridgman/Packer are high on our list of future commissions!" she declared.

"What the audience saw was unique to this small space," said Packer. "Some of the footage was in other pieces, but we reworked it for five minutes and created the set with fabric, which we could enter and exit. In this particular work we did location shoots and green screen shoots, and we could eliminate the green and take those free-floating images of us and put them anywhere and multiply them. So images appeared in unusual and surprising places."

The pair has been collaborating for 36 years. "Every few years we try to go into areas we haven't explored much before," Bridgman said. "We look at things that interest us and broaden our passions and keep on pushing our boundaries, which led us to this stage in our artistic lives. Technology keeps on expanding and being used in many different ways, which helps broaden our artistic palette. It's a lot of fun—and a lot of work."

Marquis echoed what all the performers love about the festival. "Even with the competitive element, there is a lot of camaraderie because I think it's a home team vibe, where everyone is on the same page and rooting for each other with the audience rooting. It's a special incubator for new ideas, which are easy to present here."

DANCENOW was founded in 1986 as a repertory company. But the need to present new work was huge, said Staff, so they became a presenting organization in 1995 and merged with the Soho Arts Festival as DANCENOW. Their collaboration with Joe's Pub is in its 13th year. "The combination of making dance for NYC's hottest tiny stage inspires amazing work from the dance community and magic happens every night we embrace that stage," Staff said. "Our audiences are not a traditional dance crowd, and they have grown to love the art. That is what we are all about—inspiring creativity and developing new audiences for dance."

Upcoming at Joe's Pub: DANCENOW Dancemopolitan Shared Artist Series, Friday and Saturday, November 7-8 at 7:00 PM—Three Artists: Vastly Different, Slightly Awkward and Very Funny. Gregory Dolbashian rocks with a new solo; Deborah Lohse returns as her alter ego, "TruDee," with her unapologetic truth-serving storytelling, song and dance; and Jordan Isadore and guests offer up "Thousands Place," a new work based on his memories of the Y2K, the peak of his coolness, to examine how his interests withstood the rapidly shifting millennium.
'Dystopian Distractions! Part 1' (excerpt) Performed by Mark Dendy

"Dystopian Distractions! Part 1" (excerpt)
Performed by Mark Dendy

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


'Singer/Songwriter' Pictured L-R: Magda San Millan and Chelsea Murphy

"Singer/Songwriter"
Pictured L-R: Magda San Millan and Chelsea Murphy

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


Jamal Jackson Dance Company 'The People Vs.' Pictured: Jacinthe Burton

Jamal Jackson Dance Company
"The People Vs."
Pictured: Jacinthe Burton

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


'Broadway to Hip Hop' Performed by Billy and Bobby McClain

"Broadway to Hip Hop"
Performed by Billy and Bobby McClain

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu


Bryan Strimpel MOVEMENT 'What could / should or would, if…' Pictured: Bryan Strimpel and Shaina Branfman

Bryan Strimpel MOVEMENT
"What could / should or would, if…"
Pictured: Bryan Strimpel and Shaina Branfman

Photo © & courtesy of Yi-Chun Wu

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