REVIEW: DancEthos with Gin Dance Company

Review: DancEthos with Gin Dance Company
by Kacie Peterson

It was an evening of five world premieres, four returning favorites, and two companies collaborating as DancEthos and Gin Dance Company presented works on April 8th and 9th at the Kreeger Auditorium in Rockville, MD.

In 2016, both Artistic Directors of the presenting companies (Tiffany Haughn of DancEthos and Shu-Chen Cuff of Gin Dance Company) set works on each other’s company members. Those pieces were presented, in addition to works from other artists.

The curtain opened, and we settled in for the first world premiere of the night, a path | a way choreographed by Jenny T. Flemingloss (music credit: Footprints by Wayne Shorter). A dim light opened on the cast of seven dancers. With different timing, each dancer slowly angulated through their rib cage. The piece progressed through various pairings of duos and trios, but the group work was the most appealing. I would have liked to see Flemingloss’s partnering sequences develop, as they seemingly ended too soon. The group movement was visually interesting as Flemingloss’s formations and directional changes were unique and unpredictable. However, there was an overall lack of energy and connection between the dancers on stage. Although they moved well together, I missed the humanity of the piece. There needed to be more recognition and awareness to really draw me into the work.

Next up, Haughn’s duet Convergence began with a bench in the center of the stage. The dancers entered from different sides – one upstage right, one downstage left. The lighting was designed to highlight the single horizontal path that each dancer traveled. Donning off-white dresses and leggings, parts of the dancers’ bodies were in shadow throughout the phrasework. Their movements were similar at times with the only difference being the level. This led me to believe that though our paths can seem distinctly different from those around us, our paths sometimes cross in the most obscure ways.

Soon, the bench became the center focus, with both dancers arriving at either end. It appeared as though they were only partially aware of the other’s existence as they stayed on their own sides of the bench. Haughn made excellent use of the prop, utilizing it for more than its intended purpose. The bench was flipped on a short side, turned upside down, and placed on a diagonal. The music, Lokaðu Augunum and …og lengra by Ólafur Arnalds and Spiegel im Spiegel for violin and piano by Arvo Pärt, provided a minimalist background which reflected the gentle nature of the choreography. There was a delicate moment where the opening choreography, which had been done with the dancers separated, was repeated as a partnering duet. The second time around, the movements of one dancer directly impacted the reaction of another as they made physical contact. It was a beautiful depiction of cause and effect.

In the Dark, choreographed by Elizabeth Odell Catlett, was a brilliant display of how lighting impacts the way movement is perceived. A soloist stood upstage center with her back to the audience. Throughout the opening of the piece, as the soloist walks down the strip of center light, her path is crossed with walking dancers. The dancers however, crossed behind her back like bad guys lurking in the shadows. It is clear that the soloist felt she being watched, turning quickly in the crossing dancer’s direction as if she saw something out of the corner of her eye. She often crouched with her head in her hands. The paranoia she carried was obvious. At times she’d break into movement, but she wasn’t alone. A crossing dancer would join in with the same choreography. As the two danced, only their sections of the stage were lit. When the duet finished, the lights dropped on the additional dancer. Only the soloist remained with her illuminated path. The intentional light manipulation made me wonder about the intent behind the choreography in the duets. It seemed that with each new pairing, the soloist was grappling with different thoughts. She would dance with one idea before shutting it down and moving on to another.

Full lights came up and all five dancers were on stage. The quartet, distanced behind the soloist, was clearly aware of her. They haunted her presence around the stage. The music became quicker. The quartet stood with one arm up, seemingly dangling from an invisible string and rippled in the slightest cannon. Similarities in choreography between the quartet and the soloist increased, though their levels were different. The formations were strategic, with the quartet often forming a line that pointed directly to the soloist. Toward the end, the quartet had the soloist surrounded and she fought their united strength. The soloist was forced to acknowledge the group. The battle ended and the lights went out on the soloist. She lost. While I wasn’t surprised the power of the group might win out, I was intrigued by how the power of presentation can change the way we view situations.

Cuff set Zoom In (music: A l’aventure and CaDance for 2 by Safri Duo) on a quintet of dancers from DancEthos in a work that highlighted her attention to musicality and technique. The lighting was set just low enough that the sweeping gestures resembled that of an action photo taken with a slow shutter speed; the entire arc of movement was visible at once. The intriguing element to Cuff’s choreography is the juxtaposition of timing within a single dancer. The dancers made sharp, quick movement choices, but I realized they were only initiated from the waist up. From the waist down, Cuff had set simple choreography – a leg extension here, a passé there, a simple walk between phrases. Additionally, Cuff paired movement in parts of the body that, while watching, seem quirky. For example, the head tilts with a reciprocating quick lift of the hip or one leg will sweep the ground with a flexed foot. Not only do these quick quirks appear visually, but they’re often timed musically. She created deep intrigue within the minute details. However, there was at least one moment when I thought the work was set to end. The lights had gone down and I thought the piece had come to a solid conclusion. When the lights came back up on a soloist, I realized I didn’t necessarily need to see more to be satisfied with the experience. In all choreography, I think it’s important to know when to edit.

acceptance is a small, quiet room, choreographed by Rick Westerkamp (music: The Sandman, The Devil is in the Beats, Chalice 1, and Hanna’s Theme (feat, Stephanie Dosen) by The Chemical Brothers), also premiered. It was an uncomfortable experience, which, according to the quote in the program, might have been the whole point. The quote: “Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go…” -Cheryl Strayed. The first twinging of music chimed like something you’d hear in a child’s nursery in a Stephen King novel. Westerkamp created a gestural phrase motif, which united the entire work, even at moments when very little else seemed to go together. The phrase brought the backs of a dancer’s hands to her face, elbows out, and at one point, used both hands to pull the head off center. The dancer’s wrists circled around the rib cage from front to back, ending in a contraction. In a work that had me on edge, it was comforting to see the gestural phrase repeated.

Throughout the work, the dancers appeared to disconnect and reconnect from each other and from the moment entirely. At times, there were four soloists on stage. Other times, the dancers were physically overlapping as they stood trying to work out the phrase. The dancers executed the work with intent but that did not change the general discomfort I experienced from viewing this work. If that was the goal of the work, consider it mission accomplished.

As a mass of thirteen dancers shared the stage in the premiere of Catch Your Breath by Haughn (to Swing Shift: Grooveboxes composed by Kenji Bunch and performed by Ahn Trio), I realized I was watching a parody of dance put on by sports athletes. A center dancer turned around herself, much like a ballerina in a music box. Her arms formed the “M” from the ‘YMCA’ dance, but her fingertips actually touched the top of her head. As the group watched her I thought, ‘Is this how the outside world views dance? Where is this conversation going?’

My question was quickly answered as exercises from your typical gym class made their way into the work. The dancers were skiing, swimming (the backstroke specifically), jumping rope, and running around the stage. There were the fast feet you’d see at football practice and the forward somersaults you’d see in gymnastics. I was impressed with Haughn’s ability to create strong images through partnering to get her vision across. For example, the swimming was achieved by one dancer being lifted by a group so she could get the full stroke in. In another instance, a wall of dancers parted down the middle like a stage curtain opening to reveal a duo in a balancing act.

It appeared that these performers were imitating athletes with literal athleticism. I am sure they had to catch their breaths after the lights went out. I did not understand if the irony I sensed was intentional or just my interpretation which caused a disconnect. Regardless, the work did make a clear point that dancers, while sometimes only seen as artists, are also athletes in their own right.

Overall, it was a lengthy program. There were nine pieces presented with an hour and 40-minute running time. Presenting so many pieces in one showing was slightly overwhelming. Other works on the bill included Lost and Found (excerpts) choreographed by Cuff on GDC dancers, Acquiesce by Mat Elder, and 1 by 1 by Haughn (set on GDC dancers). While the performance was a mix of old and new works, I think a run of premieres only would have done well. The elements of musicality and movement transitions united the evening in a successful demonstration of works by both DancEthos and Gin Dance Company. It was certainly an evening of thoughtful works and pieces with potential.