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Glendale, CA

Celebrate Dance 2013 - Riveting Resilience

by Rachel Levin
March 9, 2013
The Alex Theatre
216 North Brand Boulevard

Glendale, CA 91203

Featured Dance Company:

Celebrate Dance
Celebrate Dance (office)

Los Angeles, CA

Celebrate Dance continued to mature as a showcase this year, offering pieces that waded into complex social and emotional territory as opposed to favoring feel-good showstoppers. Producer Jamie Nichols has always taken such chances on challenging work during the show's eight years, but this year's lineup of nine companies seemed to dig even deeper as a whole than years past. Now that she consistently snares a sold-out audience with the Celebrate Dance brand, there is license to push the envelope. Yet none of the eight pieces presented was gratuitously abstract; even the more avant-garde numbers were tied to a theme that seemed to pervade the evening: dance as an expression of the resilience of the human spirit.

Invertigo Dance Theatre's entry "After It Happened," choreographed by artistic director Laura Karlin (read an interview with her here), addressed this theme head-on. Dressed in peasant-like clothing, the ensemble of dancers expressed the chaos of destruction in the wake of a fictional disaster (the "it" in "After It Happened" is left up to audience interpretation, be it flood, earthquake, war, etc.) by moving both en masse and in individual clusters, like ants scurrying after their burrow is disturbed. In a textual aside, a translator purposefully miscommunicated the angry reaction of a woman being interviewed by a television reporter, a poignant and humorous commentary on bungled media representations of foreign disasters that left the audience laughing in recognition. It also paved the way for the levity of the piece's conclusion, in which a dancer enrobed herself in a ruffled dress fashioned out of trash bags and moved with renewed joy – a corporeal shorthand for recovery amid the ruins. Building on "Give Me Wings," Invertigo's entry from last year's Celebrate Dance, "After It Happened" affirmed the company's gift for combining technical skill with both humor and social commentary to create unified pieces of dance theater.

Nickerson-Rossi Dance, a newcomer to the showcase, also explored the territory of resilience, albeit more abstractly. Michael Nickerson-Rossi, the artistic director and choreographer (read an interview with him here), began dancing after his own personal experience of tragedy: the loss of his parents when he was a teenager. After discovering dance as a powerful healing tool, he founded the company and an outreach project he calls the uNdeRstanD Program as a way to help others work through painful emotions via movement. His entry "Enkindled" was a meditation on both vulnerability and strength. The company, clad in floaty black dresses (for the women) and black mesh skirts (for the men), alternated between gestures of steel and softness. Certain moments were astonishing in their powerful subtlety, as when the group of eight dancers dropped to their knees and, in unison, slowly rotated their rib cages in circular fashion. It communicated both the vigilant control and transcendent grace required by the art of dance, factors which are also essential to recovery from emotional trauma, thereby uniting the medium and the message seamlessly.

Lydia Zimmer + Dancers mined this emotional territory of suffering even more microscopically in "Lithium," a piece named for the mineral that is also a mood stabilizer. Zimmer (read an interview with her here) once again used structured improvisation, as she did in last year's stunning debut "Memoriae," to powerful effect, though this time shared the stage with a pair of choreographed female companions. Wearing a long black sheath dress, Zimmer moved discordantly from the women, acting as their "shadow" and representing the undesirable negative emotions – fright, depression, mania, what have you – that threaten humans' serenity and stability. As the choreographed duo traveled the stage in cyborg-like, staccato phrases to the spare, ambient music, Zimmer demonstrated once again her stunning aptitude for articulation, as if each gesture was a solitary frame in a stop-motion animation sequence.

On the more upbeat side, the strains of the 1970s soul hit "O-o-h Child," with its refrain of "things are gonna get easier," underscored the uplifting message of resilience in JazzAntiqua Dance Ensemble's entry by the same name. Choreographed by artistic director Pat Taylor, the ensemble of nine dancers dressed in midnight blue outfits executed classic jazz moves with silken, soulful precision. Exploiting nearly every kind of turn in the jazz dance vocabulary, they seemed to be in constant motion, as if to communicate that in times of strife there is nothing to be done but keep on moving. The ending in which the dancers clapped in unison to the music (inviting audience participation) reaffirmed the theme of exuberance in the pathos.

The thematic territory of overcoming obstacles through perpetual forward motion was also integral to SoleVita Dance Company's "The Walk West," choreographed by artistic director Joelle Martinec (read an interview with her here). In four movements, it portrayed a group of American pioneers in their journey across the plains encountering personal and community conflicts along the way. The female dancers wore homespun white blouses and skirts while the male dancers sported khakis and suspenders to evoke dress of the period. Along their unwavering walk west (creatively depicted by zigzagging across the stage), one of the male characters appeared to falter in his allegiance, and dance was used to convey a physical altercation with a rival suitor. The most delightful parts of the piece were the charismatic hoedown-like group numbers in which simple yet high-impact movements and sweeping formation changes had a kind of Broadway musical appeal (think "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers").

While "The Walk West" explored the roots of rugged American individualism, L.A. Contemporary Dance Company's "Identity Theft," traveled to the Middle East to interrogate the veil of depersonalization in Islamic societies. The dancers appeared with red scarves concealing their faces, which seemed to be referencing not only the burkas women must wear in such cultures (or at least in many Islamic societies) but also (potentially) the hoods prisoners were forced to wear by American guards in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. The piece was inspired by artistic director/choreographer Kate Hutter's travels in Oman and the United Arab Emirates (read an interview with her here). Though a typical Western interpretation of the burka might be that it restricts women's freedom, Hutter's thoughtful choreography revealed that, conversely, cloaking the face highlights the importance of movement and gesture as essential for human expression. It was indeed impressive that the ensemble was able to execute the demanding choreography without (one assumes given the shroud) full field of vision. Dancers alternated between gyration and stillness, falling and getting up, as one group member barked orders to move in particular ways. The military green costumes suggested a kind of Arab spring resistance, another reminder that even in places where freedom is circumscribed by autocratic governments, human resilience can triumph.

The enchanting outlier among these more serious pieces was Lux Aeterna Dance Company's lighthearted "Human Flotation Devices," a peek inside the creative process of a company that blends elements of breakdance with ballet and modern. Artistic director/choreographer Jacob "Kujo" Lyons and his partner Teresa "Toogie" Barcelo revealed their "goofball" behind-the-scenes personas, like two quarreling siblings or schoolyard rivals engaged in a good-natured tumble for attention. In the process of showing off crowd-pleasing, acrobatic breakdance poses and pop-lock sequences, they played with the humor and tension of being knocked off balance by one another. The ending had them sticking out their tongues at each other, the perfect gesture to convey that in the face of a challenge, sometimes the best thing one can do is not take life's scuffles (or oneself) too seriously.

If "Human Flotation Devices," which opened the show, was a case of adults maintaining a sense of childlike flippancy, the show's finale piece "Concentric Harmonies" – an entry from the newly formed Colabo Youth Dance Collective – was, ironically, a case of young people getting very, very serious. Founder/artistic director Francisco Gella (read an interview with him here) based the movements for each individual dancer on the initials of her name as they would be written in cursive. Though this textual symbolism was imperceptible to the audience, it was clear that each dancer moved uniquely in relationship to the whole. The non-professional (yet highly trained) dancers aged 13-21 demonstrated a precocious poise and presence beyond their years, displaying compelling vulnerability in their fierce solos. In much of the piece, the ensemble faced away from the audience toward the wings of the stage (the curtains concealing the wings during the rest of the show were removed for this number). That made the ending of the piece, in which the dancers froze at the edge of the stage with direct stares out into the audience, a powerful moment of agency.

It is surprising instants like these, in which interpretation turns on a dime, that elevate the work showcased in Celebrate Dance year after year. Reliably, you can expect the unexpected. A shroud can uncover something otherwise ignored. Trauma and tenderness can be a source of strength. A trash bag can become a thing of beauty. While the pieces themselves celebrated the resilience of the human spirit through such conceptual contrasts, Celebrate Dance affirmed the resilience of local dance companies who – even in the shadow of Hollywood – strive to convey so much more than just a pretty picture.
'After It Happened,' Invertigo Dance Theatre. Choreographer Laura Karlin.

"After It Happened," Invertigo Dance Theatre. Choreographer Laura Karlin.

Photo © & courtesy of Tim Agler

'Enkindled,' Nickerson-Rossi Dance. Choreographer Michael Nickerson-Rossi.

"Enkindled," Nickerson-Rossi Dance. Choreographer Michael Nickerson-Rossi.

Photo © & courtesy of Tim Agler

'Lithium,' Lydia Zimmer + Dancers. Choreographer Lydia Zimmer.

"Lithium," Lydia Zimmer + Dancers. Choreographer Lydia Zimmer.

Photo © & courtesy of Tim Agler

'Ooh Child,' JazzAntiqua Dance Ensemble. Choreographer Pat Taylor.

"Ooh Child," JazzAntiqua Dance Ensemble. Choreographer Pat Taylor.

Photo © & courtesy of Tim Agler

'The Walk West,' SoleVita Dance Company. Choreographer Joelle Martinec.

"The Walk West," SoleVita Dance Company. Choreographer Joelle Martinec.

Photo © & courtesy of Tim Agler

'Identity Theft,' L.A. Contemporary Dance Company. Choreographer Kate Hutter.

"Identity Theft," L.A. Contemporary Dance Company. Choreographer Kate Hutter.

Photo © & courtesy of Tim Agler

'Human Flotation Devices,' Lux Aeterna Dance Company. Choreographer Jacob 'Kujo' Lyons.

"Human Flotation Devices," Lux Aeterna Dance Company. Choreographer Jacob "Kujo" Lyons.

Photo © & courtesy of Tim Agler

'Concentric Harmonies,' Colabo Youth Dance Collective. Choreographer Francisco Gella.

"Concentric Harmonies," Colabo Youth Dance Collective. Choreographer Francisco Gella.

Photo © & courtesy of Tim Agler

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