Irene Hsiao

Midwest Regional Alternative Dance Festival, Epic Theatre, Kalamazoo, MI, 18-20 March 2016

[N.B. I pitched an article about RADfest to Dance Magazine, mLive, REVUE, CriticalDance, the Detroit Free Press, and Dance Studio Life, but none of them would buy it (if by “buy,” I mean give pennies for ink spilled; fortunately this is the digital age, and the ink expended was minimal). Therefore, I wrote it how I damn well pleased, and, let’s face it, no one in their right minds would publish a 3700-word article on alternative dance.]

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Lisa Kusanagi in 16 Day Return Policy, photo by Tom Martinez

“I never used to go to the dentist. I’d only go when it came down to whether having that tooth or not meant I was going to get my next job.” Lisa Poole-Woldring, house manager at the Epic Theatre in Kalamazoo, Michigan, who has a 38-year-old son that nearly died of pneumonia half a dozen times, who’s raising the two little girls, ages 3 and 4, of her ex-co-security-force/widower friend while claiming to have no maternal feelings whatsoever (“but I could always pull out the Mom thing when I worked security, like, ‘Hey! Stop that!’ and they’d go ‘hup!’” she says, miming red-handed crack addicts smacking their arms down to their sides in a mock guilty toddler salute), who packs a bag of bananas sliced thin and those big grapes that actually have seeds in them to eat from a semi-glazed ceramic cup with a wasp stamped into it, who looks like a wild-haired wisp-thin wood sprite and smells faintly of patchouli but could probably kick you down with the thick-soled black boots she wears at the tips of her wiry limbs (“A dancer who doesn’t touch anyone?” she said when she met me, “ha!”). Obama! This is who your healthcare system defends, women who choose to work three (paying) jobs to feed orphans (“I couldn’t not take them in, you know?”) and attend to the unrepentant souls of unwitting visitors to the theater: local judges and others who come knowing or not knowing that art could kill them but also tell them why to live, said, commiserating with me about my new job with medical benefits (now that I’m full-time, I oughtta sign up for dental and put more in my FSA (already used up the minimum because when you can see a doctor, why not go every week?), even though, when I was unemployed and my dad paid for me to see the dentist, he told me insurance wasn’t worth it—he’d give me a good rate).

“Yeah, I freelanced for years but couldn’t do it anymore,” I admit.

“People think Obamacare is for people who don’t work. It’s for the people who work the hardest,” says Poole-Woldring.

If you think that artists talk about colors and feelings when they have a spare moment to pass the time of day, maybe you don’t know any artists, because they’re just like everyone else: worried about money and how to get it.

We’re at the table where people are signing into a master class taught by choreographer/ professor/dance expressionist Lisa Kusanagi, and the twenty-year-old gal seated there is wearing a big rock on her ring finger. “Is that real?” goes Kusanagi, because one thing that people who do a lot of performing want to know is if anything is real.

“I asked the same thing!” says Poole-Woldring. (“Why, does it dissolve in water?” I ask.)

The Lisas have bonded over their name, which is, apparently, rarer than you’d think. “Everyone asks me, ‘But what’s your real name?’” says Lisa K, originally from Tokyo. “They think I should be called Akiko-chan!” (she bows politely) “But they can look at my passport—it says Lisa! Who knows why my mom chose that?”

“It’s very old school,” says Lisa P-W.

“Pardon me,” I say, “if you want old school, I’m named after everyone’s grandma” (in fact, Wellspring dancer Alexis Harris’s daughter’s middle name is Irene, after Alexis’s grandmother, I am to learn at breakfast some 44 hours after this particular conversation). But now I wish I were a Lisa, too, since being a Lisa looks like so much fun, very sassy and smart-mouthed and ready for anything.

(And that ring: I say I can see from where I’m standing that it’s not real: too bright, too transparent, the wrong weight for its size, not like a flame or a star wrenched from the firmament and skewered upon little metal prongs to sit quietly on a lady’s finger. “It don’t smell right,” says Lisa P-W, understanding what I mean.)

“He couldn’t afford a real one,” says the girl. “He got this one at work.”

“Where does he work, at Claire’s?” I ask.

“No, J. C. Penney,” she says.

“Yeah, but are you engaged?” asks Lisa P-W. The girl blushes and nods. “Then it’s real!”

(A side discussion, in which I am not engaged, ensues, in which the Lisas tell the girl, “If he ever leaves you, don’t give back the diamond. Never give back a diamond! No, if he gives you a diamond, it’s yours. You sell it, and you buy yourself a house.”)

“If a man wanted me, he’d have to give me a ring made with one of his teeth,” declares Lisa K. “A front tooth! That’s commitment!”

Artists!

(Performers are teching in the theater, and we’re just warming up out here. Lisa K teaches a master class that begins with everyone touching each other and ends with everyone doing dives to the floor.)

At night, we go to the theater, and I place myself third row, as near to center as I can get, just below where the video camera has been set up (always a good strategy for the indecisive). “You guys clean up good,” I say to the teens I met in Lisa K’s class, who, for one thing, can all do headstands, and for another have made their faces up and put on real pants (I meant to dress better but am wearing a men’s shirt that I bought from Goodwill for its faux pearl snap button, faded black jeans, and sneakers—well, no one’s coming to the theater to see me, I always say when I’m in the audience).

A couple asks if they can get past me, and I stand up, still typing an e-mail with one finger. Hit send. “Do you come every year?” I say to the man, since I am rude but not so rude that I don’t realize that typing on a phone in a theater is kind of a travesty.
“Yes,” he says, “Well, I’m Cori Terry’s husband…” and I blush this time, because this is choreographer and artistic director Cori Terry, who founded Wellspring/Cori Terry & Dancers some 35 years ago, whose very theater surrounds me, who started RADfest seven years ago to bring professional choreographers and midsize companies to Kalamazoo after years of sponsoring Dance Forum, which was devised so local dancemakers would have a venue for their work.

“I do have a way of choosing a good seat,” I say. The lights dim.

Friday, 18 March 2016, 7pm

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Alana Johnson and Suz Mena in Dmitri Peskov’s Void, photo by Christopher Stevenson

The evening opens with the premiere of Terry’s Femmesthesia (2016), performed by Alexis Harris, Francesca Pleci-Bates, and Jasmine Statzer, three women, 20s-30s-40s, blond-brunette-redhead, faith-hope-charity, the graces (please note that I do not know who is who, plus I’m just an ignorant critic, so I am not trying to accuse anyone of being 40 or a redhead). They move with classical decorum and line, flex their back muscles to raise their arms in a pose that is simultaneously inquisitive and Atlas-holding-up-the-globe, if Atlas were a woman and had to do it while wearing a pastel, open-backed tunic and feeling anxious that she might be menstruating, which of course, women always and never are (p.s. if you think there is something gross or disrespectful about this, you are probably not a woman). This work is followed by I’ve Written It All Here: Excerpt from Not a Still Life (2015) choreographed and performed by Tracy Pattison in front of a video of her nude epidermis in tight focus, close-up. She moves with strength and fluidity, and the video, by Rylie Cerasani, is intriguing, but the effect is spoiled by Pattison’s chattering monologue about how she’s “still here”—a fact plain enough without commentary. Joe Gonzalez’s Behind the Wall (2015) is performed in excerpt by the excellently paired Jon Shaw-Mays and Naoko Brown, muscled and braided like tribal warriors whose totem animal might be the armadillo, in a duet that expresses love, violence, and our desire to protect yet overcome our independence. Madeleine Reber’s Map Making (2015) is Kelsey Herbst, Kathryn Hetrick, and Bonnie Christine Willis moving to Philip Glass, a long piece that shows the conjunction of planets or how we’re wracked with compulsions others don’t understand—maybe both. Dmitri Peskov’s Void (2016), featuring Alana Johnson and Suz Mena, is a mix of voluptuous weaving, mechanical jerks like machines breaking, and motions of either supplication or self-excoriation: fists beating against the head, hands slapping arms or thighs. The girls sometimes complement and sometimes compete against each other, and sometimes walk angrily, sort of side-by-side, in laps around the stage (but Dmitri, I gotta tell you, the practice clothes weren’t flattering and the semi-lit house didn’t read. Also, we are NOT using any of those phrases in our duet). Resurface (2015), by Derek Jay-Son Rusch of Jay-Son Tisa Dance Company was a visually arresting haut-couture tableau animé to the hypnotic music of Joan Jeanrenaud, a duel between a demon and an angel with a host of goblins looking on, Satan in red satin seducing the world with intense rage and a whip of a spine (was this Courtney Martin? I just looked up everyone in the cast on Facebook to see if I could figure out who this magnificent creature was). Dancing the Trace: A LIFEDRAWING (2015), conceived and performed by Gloria McLean, captured the essence of the solos selected by RADfest 2016 with grace and humor, as McLean traced her own silhouette onto a huge scroll of paper, drawing a thick-tipped magic marker up between her legs, manipulating it around her deliberately posed arm, tracing her head first here and then there. She finishes downstage right, standing back to evaluate the result: a wobbly, many-limbed portrait reminiscent of a Lucian Freud or Egon Schiele sketch, the backs of her thighs inadvertently marked and smudged by her efforts—a little tariff paid, a little scar, maybe, after all, only temporary.

Between the programs, I speak with Terry, a warm and personable woman who is just what any community needs: someone who opens her house up for others to come and use, who acknowledges the privilege of having such a theater at her disposal and remembers that this privilege was won only by consenting “to be poor a long time.” (I tell her how I had managed to devote myself to two faiths that do not and never will pay, dancing and writing. She tells me how Kalamazoo’s newspaper has dwindled from daily to thrice weekly, a thin edition, and how its Arts & Entertainment section had first been renamed simply “Entertainment” (“I never entertain; I hate to be entertained!” I said) and then eliminated entirely. “But if no one does this work, it won’t exist anymore,” she says, speaking of art. We know it to be true, but it isn’t easy.

I pop into the lobby in time to catch the end of Judy Yiu’s 2015 film Place in Motion, which shows her in the concrete jungle of Hong Kong, so familiar it makes me shudder, as well as Sharon Mansur’s devastatingly beautiful INSERT[coda]HERE (2015), which makes her immensity so quietly and thrillingly present that I pledge myself always to be her champion and also to stalk her by any means available.

Friday, 18 March 2016, 9pm

The second program of the evening starts with a little reprise of the first, with Elizabeth Lentz-Hill dancing to her own voiceover in My Body Performs, or A Clean Piko, in which she considers her career (dancer, teacher), her body (no six-pack, why?), her race (white), her sexuality (lesbian), her identity (which aspects of these?), her option to represent dominant American culture—or not—and to literally navel gaze (a “piko” in Hawaiian parlance, we are told.) American Ream starts strong with Fayth Caruso and Dale Harris facing off in silence as a chat dialogue is projected on the screen behind them, standard husband-wife bickering about dishes and meals (query: does anyone really talk that way, or is this just how we “alternatives” picture the normals? It’s got to be something we don’t want, right? I mean, they can’t know happiness, love, beauty, passion the way we do, right???). A strong performance as a grown-up frat boy by Harris is diminished by the solo dance by Caruso that follows, neither different nor forceful enough to make us vote Clinton in 2016. Stacy Reischman Fletcher’s Assemble the Ensemble is strong ensemble work, showing off her dancers’ energy, acrobatic skill, and powerful floorwork. Elizabeth Shea’s Needs Must is not a bad dance for her quartet of girls, floaty and free, but they start and end by putting on floral dresses over their matching iron-gray brassieres and granny pants: need they? Must they? Angry Chair (2016) is an inside joke by RADfest lighting designer Jon Reeves, who sits in a chair, barechested, tattooed sleeves and white gut out, as a voiceover of lighting cues becomes a remixed cacophony. Teresa Muller’s K=1/2mv2 (2015) (the title of which is the formula for kinetic energy, Google informs me) has everyone in a homemade Star Trek uniform minus the telltale trademark pin (not looking up what that is called) and is rather thrilling, with space cadets out in deep space, whipping out leaps and turns like nobody’s business.

Finally, Lisa Kusanagi in her 16 Day Return Policy (2014), reminding me of no one less than Mark Morris dancing Arabian in his Hard Nut: a slightly cracked geisha, the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland after too many hits from the hookah, swathed in a golden silk poncho of her own design that looks like butterfly wings or a tent, a lavish bit of gilt wrap within which lurks the alluring Kusanagi. She stands, coyly beckoning the audience with an undulation of her right middle finger before she slides it in her mouth, her long tresses loose, her eyes smoldering with power. Her fanciest trick is the extraordinary removal of panties—she slips out like an otter slithers out of a whorl of kelp, leaving them like a molted shell in her wake (this is mixing metaphors, but come with me). Then she does it again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Improbably again (all while gliding steadily upstage). It’s enthralling and impressive, done with an excess that makes it both technical and absurd: how does she do it without a single snag? One at a time? Without stumbling or tangling the layers? When she returns downstage, she is starkers, and not one person in the audience doesn’t check to make sure—in case the poncho doesn’t flash open at a vantage point convenient to you, she flops into a split and crawls upstage, vacuuming up her leavings. Done with less mastery it could have been gratuitously graphic, but Lisa K brings to it wit, skill, and a mind lustrous and inexhaustible as a shark tooth—brava, madam.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

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Aaron McGloin and Gierre J. Godley in Project 44’s 3 Breaths, photo by Mark Simpson Photography

The second evening begins with more of the same in Aaron M. Wood’s 2007 The Making of Me, in which he interrupts a finely executed dance of the modern ilk by stripping off his shirt and pants before a projected text that contains a list of adjectives (“male,” “American,” “gay,” etc) that others use to describe and create him, juxtaposing his exposed body with words that suggest an anxiety over being understood, even as he notes in his text that these words both are and are not him, so please “choose [them] judiciously.” This exhortation to use our words is followed by Jeremy Blair’s 2:00 AM, Delancey St. (2009), a projected photograph of an alleyway before which a jazzy, jaunty, pop’n’lock-y romp for two men and three women in jeans hints at the possible dramas that might occur with an odd number for couplings without becoming dramatic. Project 44’s 3 Breaths (2014) almost defies description, making it the absolute highlight of the evening, beginning with choreographer Gierre J. Godley bearing the slender body of Aaron McGloin in a dim spotlight, slowly rotating like a melting wax figure before releasing him into the space for a duet that makes McGloin a moth to Godley’s flame, fleet and airy, bound by an unseen magnetism to Godley’s weighted form, an exhausting, splendid, unreasonable, merciless, necessary pursuit, danced with an intensity that is revelatory in itself. Umbilical Pilgrimage 1 (2016), has Erin Drummond in a long gown wound with extension cords making a Matrix-informed protracted passage to a (by now antique-looking) computer monitor, which she plugs into the outlet at her piko, causing images of untouched forests and animals I want to call ocelots and squirrels to flash across the screen. She hovers over it like a protective eagle, embraces, and then curls around it fetally, sucking her thumb, transitioning from mother to child at the flip of a switch (my biggest question: why the dress? Here’s a dance where nudity would legitimately work). The pace picks up for Christa Smutek’s tightly constructed Architect of the Mind (2015), performed in taut formations by the SueMo Dance Company, which becomes an array of clock gears, piano keys hammering in concert, a very intricate machine (of women) conducted under (male) soloist Tyler Kerbel’s lead—this imbalance frequently occurs in dance, but one wonders why a (presumably female) choreographer would choose to reinforce this (patriarchal) scheme. The stage is then transformed by a small crew of RADfest girls for Michel Kouakou’s Trace-Race/Checked (2016), who set out posts and awkwardly weave a precarious web of cellophane wrap between them, in which Kouakou is a little fly moving with powerful, tribal pulses before he gets caught in the sticky bright snare.

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Erin Drummond in Umbilical Pilgrimage 1, photo by Christopher Stevenson

Of the films projected between the programs, Takeshi Ohashi’s Dream (2015) is exactly that, a sepia-toned sea fantasy in soft focus, with Ohashi and Caroline Brethenoux moving as tides, waves, ocean winds, harmoniously, with no beginning and no end. Charli Brissey and Courtney Harris’s Pas (2013) is a whimsical little wink at ballet, ballet instruction, and the French language, containing both elegance and farce. Lisa K brings it again, this time with her sister, Juju Kusanagi, in their delightfully fantastic itsy bitsy (2015), a trip down the rabbit hole with the best of guides, odd dolls, Alices who couldn’t stop sipping and nibbling from the rocks and bottles.

Saturday, 19 March 2016, 9pm

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Judy Yiu in Never Stop Blooming, photo by Christopher Stevenson

Judy Yiu’s Never Stop Blooming (2014) confirms the Hollins University dance department’s development of personal idiom and strong visual design in its MFA graduates with a striking set of suspended, silver-tipped branches, beneath which Yiu articulates her limbs with delicacy and precision to sensitive percussion accompaniment by Vladimir Espinosa, moving between organic yearning and the martial unfurling of a traditional red Chinese fan in a costume evocative of Pocahontas. Alexis Harris’s duet for herself and Jasmine Statzer, Suit of Cups (2016), is a hushed interlude in blue, a peek at something private between the two. Bethany Philipp’s 2015 A Poet or a Fool presents Cunningham-inspired lines and asymmetries on a quartet of dancers to a soundscape by John Osborn that considers the form and feeling of epigrams, itself a bit long for its subject. Like other pieces in the festival, Hannah Seidel’s Home Place (2014) is a solo to her own voiceover, this one an account of family history that includes the eating of garlic dipped in honey. Seidel’s dancing is of this flavor, heavy and sensual, quietly luminous. Ali Woerner and Thayer Jonutz’s everything Left of shattered (2016) is an ensemble piece for five dancers, accompanied live on electric piano by Jon Anderson, well-structured and executed, in white costumes with geometric cutouts that look unzipped in the back. Heather Acomb and Courtney World’s Between States (2014) is done by Kathy Diehl and World in brown ruffled overalls, one short, one long, like construction workers playing Lincoln logs or Jenga with themselves as the pieces.

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RADfest volunteers setting the stage for Michel Kouakou’s Trace-Race/Checked

So: alternative dance—qu’est-ce que c’est? For that, we need mainstream dance, and, like pornography, we know it when we see it, but it isn’t exactly defined, either, meaning perhaps “classical” dance like ballet or (by now) jazz and modern dance with codified techniques like Graham, Horton, Limon, “traditional” dance like Bharatanatyam or Irish step dancing (side note: in hotel breakfast room, met a second year law student from Notre Dame in Kalamazoo for her ethics exam who told me she had grown up doing Irish step dancing in the Sunset district in SF—keep an eye out for her and her 2L friend, Jesse Costantino—I’m sending them to meet you), “commercial” dance like hip-hop has become and everything they put on So You Think You Can Dance, “theatrical” dance like kabuki and the stuff on and off Broadway, “social” dance like tango, waltz, salsa, swing—what other categories am I missing? If we have a name for it, isn’t it part of the mainstream, even if it’s Butoh, even if it’s Gaga, even if it’s turfing or turfin’ or turf fein or however the hell you spell that (new theory: if we haven’t agreed on a way to spell it, it might be alternative?)?

I go to the theater to experience the alternate: a life, a sound, a shape, a feeling, an impulse, a desire, a hope, a misery, a scene, a love, a fear, a dream, a vision, a hallucination, a frisson, a magic, a reality, a taste, a violence, a forgiveness, a redemption, a law, a cosmology, a universe that is not my own. I want to be shaken, shocked, broken, reinvented by it. You tell me this is not worth fighting for.

 

Irene Hsiao

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