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RAWdance's Issue-driven 15th anniversary Program starts slow and ends in a 'Roar'

by Joanna G. Harris
January 26, 2019
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
415.978.ARTS (2787)
Joanna G. Harris Author, Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing, 1916-1965. Regent Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009. Contributor to reviews on culturevulture.net
RAWdance’s 15th anniversary home season program, January 24-26 at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, featured three works addressing issues drawn from today's headlines.

Using a contemporary dance vocabulary of locomotion, wrapping, wriggling, lifting, rolling and contact improvisation, the eight member company confronted citizenship, the 14th amendment and in “Roar,” the status of women in the program. Whew!

The major question is how does the choreography by Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith illustrate, amplify and focus on the topics? If the movement vocabulary remains the same throughout, what can be modified and strengthened to help make the dance event realize its intention? RAWdance uses words, props, sets and costumes to accomplish this, but the comfortable contemporary dance moves are still the primary vocabulary. And…as a great old modern dancer once said: “All dances are too long.” These are. They go on and on.

“Brilliant Alarm” (2017) responds to the questions Why citizenship? and What does it mean to be a concerned citizen?

With the use of books piled in rows and corners, paper stuck in mouths, a demagogue shouting on a platform and voiceovers resounding in the space, the dancers work their way through these encounters seeming to exhort each other by marching, pushing, attacking and finally conforming. They all execute the moves with finesse, great technical skill and are interesting to watch. But, for this reviewer, the questions raised in the work appear not answered. Are there answers?Perhaps these are NOT the questions dance can address.

“14” brings similar challenges. Again, with banners flying from the Forum ceiling, the dancers, to texts from many sources (including the American Civil Liberties Union), attempt to portray aspects of citizenship rights as defined in the Constitution.

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

Choreographer Katerina Wong has created a kind of rally such as those staged in Berkeley last century. The dancers display individual activity and then form into conforming lines, striding back and forth across the width of the Forum. Aaron Perlstein, a formidable jumper and leaper, was at the center of the marching group as if still declaring independence. The energy and skill of the dancers in “14” was admirable but the dance was a critical statement without resolution. Is the 14th Amendment being challenged? Show us how!

Perhaps “Roar” by Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith was the most successful of the works on the program since the related women's imagery became clear through costume, song, tailored movement and jokes.

To the Joel St. Julien song, “There’ll be Some Changes Made,” five girls in sequined short dresses over black bras and panties, wriggled and wiggled in cliched chorus girl moves, while Ryan T. Smith sang or mouthed “There’ll be some Changes Made.” The scene is meant, I believe, to reflect the 1920’s when women challenged and achieved the right to vote.

Change happens in Part 2 as the girls participate in more individualized moves, pulling at their ‘cute’ dresses. Then Rein attacks Smith (the only male on stage) and takes over the mike. The message is clear. The program cites a poem by Robert Frost: “So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.” In “Roar”, the words, actions, casting and through line is clear. Bravo to all!
From left in foreground, RAWdance's Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith in 'Roar' by Smith and Rein.

From left in foreground, RAWdance's Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith in "Roar" by Smith and Rein.

Photo © & courtesy of Hillary Goidell

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