Irene Hsiao

Midwest Regional Alternative Dance Festival, 10-12 March 2017 at the Epic Center, Kalamazoo

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(photos by Christopher Stevenson)

Kalamazoo is a lovely place to come back to, the kind of town where people seem to know your name and the streets look much the same as they did a year before. Kate Yancho is the enthusiastic new operations manager at Wellspring/Cori Terry & Dancers. She finds me at the train station just as I have my finger on my phone to text RADfest curator Rachel Miller—she’s energetic and on top of things like that—and, though it is also possible that she spotted me as the only Asian in five miles, I prefer to believe it is because Wellspring employs clairvoyants. It’s too early to visit the Inn where I am staying, so we go straight to the Epic Center. That sounds great, and because it is the theater, it is great—and great to know that in this age of dwindling support for the arts, Wellspring is about to welcome over 200 dancers onto their home turf for performances, master classes, and film screenings. Epic Theatre’s house manager, Lisa Poole-Woldring, and I spot each other immediately, and it’s mad hugging time. Her little ones and I run rings around the door before an adult asks us to stop.

The best thing about being in the theater is everything, so I set up a station in the dressing room to work before the first master class begins. And when it begins, it’s the perfect beginning—Tamara Williams, professor of dance at UNC Charlotte, teaching an Afro-Brazilian dance of welcome in an idiom that evolved from an expression of resistance during times of slavery. During the warm up, we acknowledge all directions of the room and each other. We pull waters up from the earth to wash ourselves and hurl energies out to the cosmos. Williams tells us that the primary element we will be embodying is that of the earth. We stamp our feet rhythmically to clear the space and roll our shoulders, hands stacked in fists at the center of our bodies to represent the balance of dark and light. “As you welcome others into your house, remember to give yourself some love,” she calls.

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(photo by Rachel Miller)

RADfest’s program is bigger than ever this year, with 27 dances, 11 films, 5 master classes, plus a full youth program on the roster. Wellspring founder, choreographer, and artistic director Cori Terry began the RADfest in 2010 to bring choreographers to Kalamazoo. Beyond showcasing dance, it has become a celebration of artistic community—and, since this is the first year the master classes have been opened to participants of all ages, this is where mingling naturally occurs—and the classes are packed wall-to-wall. The blend of young and old, students, professionals, and community members, is vitalizing. Several of the instructors devise activities that encourage connecting with others on the dance floor—from Williams, who tells participants to stay within a “family” of dancers as we travel across the floor, to Allison Shir and Florian Alberge, who design contact improv exercises and phrase work for pairs of dancers, to the charismatic Alicia Diaz, whose Improvising Identity class on Saturday afternoon is an extraordinary experience—a guided improvisation class that develops individual expression within a communal structure.

Inviting participants to join her on the floor in a circle, Diaz explains that her migration from Puerto Rico to Princeton, New Jersey as a twelve-year-old was one of the profound shocks of her lifetime, describing her alienation within her new environment and contrasting it to the music, dance, and other forms of Puerto Rican culture she therefore did not acquire. “How can I be a dancer from Puerto Rico and not dance the salsa?” she asked. So Diaz learned the salsa, and, she explains, her current interest is in the bomba, a dance that sets up an improvisational relationship between a dancer and two drummers, one that holds the rhythm and the other that responds to the dancer’s movements. But this is not a bomba class, she says (first, without drums, we cannot be dancing the bomba); rather, it is a study of how traditional bomba steps and the concepts present in bomba dancing can be expressed in the context of contemporary dance. “The bomba requires responsibility, energy, desire,” she says. “The bomba dancer is the mother, the warrior, the lover.”

We pair up and pat each other down with cupped hands, tapping at each other’s bodies like rain. We travel across the room, first keeping low to the ground and full bodily contact with the floor, slowly pressing up to the air, then finding our original partner to negotiate fair allotments of upper and lower space. We stay with our partners for the rest of the class, witnessing each other’s improvisations and offering responses. Diaz teaches us the yubá rhythm that underlies bomba dancing and shows us a few steps, which she invites us to interpret as impulses or loose outlines for movement. Watching my partner dance, I realize I can see her past—at least some of it—and I can also watch her think as she decides what to do with what she knows. She offers one word for me: spiritual. I have two for the class: awakening. Generous.

Soon after, it is time to watch some dances.

Friday, March 10, 7pm

The evening opens with solemnity with Cori Terry’s The Solace of Trees (2016), which begins with the dramatic image of a single man (Brandon Meier) running—leaping—in place, spotlit against a dark stage. Gradually, 4 women (Alexis Harris, Francesca Pileci, Jasmine Statzer, Sara Yanney) enter in black and white costumes, striped like newsprint or birch trees. They are cool, orderly, and demure next to the marathon energy of the man. Duets, trios, quartets, quintets ensue, and the piece resolves in classical harmony.

Corinne Imberski begins spotlit, facing upstage, arms arching in a crescent, in her own This is It:/The Beginning (2016). Her movements are deliberate, beautifully shaped, meditative against a score by David Lang that sounds like gates stamping down one after the other. It’s like watching the shadow of an eclipse moving past—quietly magnificent.

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Alisyn Hurd’s Stripped (2016) is the third piece that begins with a soloist (Hurd) onstage, here dancing street style with a flowing, introspective aspect, facing upstage. She is joined by the others of Vertical Ambition Dance Company (Jared Hurd and Julius Rogers) in a piece that unfolds in three movements—water, terror, defiance—that, with the angry pulse of Jon Connor’s “Fresh Water for Flint,” speaks as a reminder of the ongoing crisis.

Tamara Williams’s Of the Past (2006) and Alice Blumenfeld’s Chrysalis (2016) are simply to be enjoyed—each a solo that exhibits the performer’s unique presence and undeniable skill—Williams glows like a long hot afternoon, Blumenfeld pounds her flamenco heels like the heart beating when the mind ruminates upon some torment late at night.

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Barbara Selinger’s SNAPSHOTS (2016) is like a paisley tie on acid, beginning with a pod of five dancers awakening like a clock winding up its gears while psychedelic images are projected behind. Even without a platinum blond mohawk, Megan Montgomery would stand out for sheer charisma—this girl is sharp as hell.

Jessica Lynn Fox’s Memory Scrolls (2016) closes the first program in the Judy Joliffe Theater across the atrium with a piece that invites audience members to spread out over the stage and wander along with her. Fox appears almost by magic, holding a long roll of brown paper that she unfurls on the floor with a crack to reveal lines in black and white energetically spiraling along the page. Her fingers trace patterns in the air, matched by the curling of her spine as she travels through the room, moving in and out of the floor. She presents four scrolls in all—the fourth one a blank into which she presses sticks (charcoal? pastel? graphite?) of black and white—a mesmerizing portrait of the artistic impulse, breathlessly close.

Friday, March 10, 9pm

IT OcCurS to mE (2016) begins with choreographer Barbara Mahler downstage center, in your face, exquisitely still, every sinew in view, moving with intense presence between poses like an expert artist’s model. The pace increases as a soundscape by Wayne Lopes comes in, but the genius of the piece is in Mahler’s performance, her finely tuned senses, her detail and precision as she moves between postures that a yogi would envy or simply walks, resilient, alive. It’s enthralling.

Sierra Howard and Alexandra Robinson start upstage right in Angie Simmons’s Bending the Road (2016). “This is a beginning,” one of them announces, before they pace in parallel down the diagonal of the stage. “This is a beginning,” she announces again, as they take the same trajectory, with direction changes, twists and turns, alone and together. It’s the beginning of a wonderful duet that explores movement, human and dancerly, complex and poignantly plain, for two dancers that move so alike they almost seem one. The best moments are those hardly seen—a little fidget, walking, running, falling—that speak so clearly about the rhythms of any long camaraderie.

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Brian Enos’s Diphthong (2004), performed by well-trained students from Western Michigan University, is a curiosity at the festival, a context in which it seems hard to believe it was ever designed to be seen. The piece is still dazzling thirteen years after its premiere on Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and the students, directed by Whitney Moncrief, can hold their own. But in a venue that showcases independent work, a commissioned piece that surely requires licensing for performance seems an odd inclusion.

Sara Yanney’s I Am Going to Dance for You Now (2016) is a social experiment, with Yanney offering three dresses (purple, blue, red) and three songs (country, pop, classical) for the audience to choose from for her solo. But instead of merely documenting taste, Yanney tells a little anecdote to go with each option, shifting the vote with sentimental appeal. The nasty woman in the red dress flipping her hair to Janet Jackson wins by a landslide.

In/out (2016) by Kathy Diehl and dancers is a quiet piece, three dancers completing a circuit, followed by another quiet trio, Colored Her a Lady, by Red Stowall. Stowall’s piece simmers with tension as the performers (Stowall, Paige Bennet, and Laressa L. Mems), dressed as if from the 1940s, moving with deliberate restraint—nodding knowingly to each other, placing their hands over their ears, looking right and left, women with terrible knowledge not openly acknowledged, though, especially with Nina Simone’s mournful rendition of Strange Fruit playing, what they know is beyond suspicion.

Nexus in a Flux (2016) finishes the evening in the Judy Joliffe Theater with a furious ritualistic dance by the impassioned Rainy Demerson, within a circle of potting soil.

Saturday, March 11, 4pm

The dance films screened in the lovely and sadly soon to be defunct Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, where you can have a meal and a beer (someone pointed out to me that there are more breweries than coffeehouses in Kalamazoo) with your flick are a bit of a blur, many of them attempting to replicate the sensation of motion with the movements of the camera, which makes this viewer want to vomit. So here they are summarized as haiku.

mechanical response (2015, dir. Erin Thomas Wilson)

Mean girls in a church

kill one, prey upon another.

Are they vampires?

Hungars Beach (2016, dir. Kate Corby)

Tiny white cabin

Swamp children echo adults

Possibly a rape?

subquota (2015, dir. Marcus White)

Hip hop blurry pop

Jump jump location

Shot upon a phone?

Information Wasteland (2013, dir. Lisa Kusanagi)

Shag rug woman plug

Vomit up your eggs

Mix the milk with colored water

Suck up all the dregs

Before I Was a Baby (2016, dir. Jessica Lynn Fox)

This story was written by a three-year-old

Who lived among the trees

Espécie (2016, dir. Luisa S. Román)

What if a man were a table?

Would we mix up their legs?

Leaking from the Cracks (2016, dir. Irene Steinke)

Sylvia Plath

The intense melodrama

Of getting out of bed

Pallas’ Warbler (2016, dir. Erin Wilson)

Mean girls again

This time in Detroit

Bad shit goes down

Un Still Life (2015, dir. Erika Stimbrovsky)

Colors

scribbling

submerge (2016, dir. Marcus White and Ana Maria Alvarez)

Water is scarce.

Esp. in LA.

Saturday, March 11, 7pm

The evening opens with Marthagony: The Spectre-Acle (2015), a bizarre homage to Martha Graham conceived and performed by Jesse Factor. Swaddled in purple lamé, Factor begins back to the audience on a bench in the familiar mode of Lamentation before turning around to reveal a face in drag so heavy it’s practically commedia dell’arte as Graham’s dry voice intones a word she must have used often, sacrifice. She blinks her heavy-lidded eyes, opens her crimson lips, and lip synchs, struts, and pleads her way, loud and proud, through some Diana Ross in a bejeweled dance belt.

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Where Marthagony screeches, Lauren Linder’s Quantum Poetics (2013) is an almost telepathically quiet duet for Linder and Zach Bird, whose soft precision offers a concentrated glimpse of mutual meditation. They write notes on the palms of their hands that they do not share with each other. Nevertheless, they seem to know at each moment precisely where the other is.

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Alexis Harris’s Now Is the Masterpiece (2017) is a pleasant vehicle for four women that showcases strong technique and clean lines, leaving the theater sedate before Alicia Diaz enters like a phoenix showing all her feathers in There I Go Rising (2017), slowly revolving with her arms and fingers outspread, hair rising like a crest to a recording of Maya Angelou reciting her poem, “Still I Rise.” Diaz is a phenomenal woman, no doubt—the luscious energy that Angelou celebrates smolders off her expressive body. Her movements speaks as clearly as Angelou’s writing, but I wonder what would happen if the dance did not attempt to replicate the message of the poem but instead fitted herself in like a polyrhythm or a commentary, not just an echo but a voice in her own right?

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Leslie Dworkin’s Upon a Time (2016) is done in masks and suits (uncharitable question: why do white people need to wear white masks?)—two jazzy and heartless (white) men, one small (Dworkin) and one tall (Kent De Spain), tussle over a rose. Though it is ruined, they try to sell it anyway, in a grim allegory about the ills of capitalism.

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Nekeshia Wall’s Mason Woman (2016) begins with a film montage of the pentacostal Church of God in Christ and its founder, Charles Mason, preaching, before Wall herself appears, demurely dressed in black. Possessed by the spirit, real or imagined, she writhes until her clothes come off, and her near-nudity is an accusation, though it is unclear whether the piece stands against men or their systems of power and their claims of divine right.

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Valerie Alpert’s Until Home (2016) is a portrait of shared trauma depicted through the purely physical relations between four dancers who stay near to each other, dancing duets or quartets, or dropping to the floor to scrub at it anxiously with the palms of their hands. The partnering is seamless, the mood sustained throughout.

Saturday, March 11, 9pm

An excerpt from Michael Estanich’s It’s About Love Again This Year (2015) is a cheerful start to the second program of the night with cloying character work by RE|dance. Dressed in flowing candy-colored dresses for the ladies and a suit for the gentleman and accompanied by familiar pop tunes, the piece is easy on the eyes and fun to watch, with low-stakes confessions, like “I like hot sauce on everything,” and grown adults shouting “woo!”

Gierre Godley’s Flowering Spade (2016) channels vaudeville in a charming vignette of anticipation and unrequited love, with Godley turning quotidian tasks like pulling up his suspenders and tucking in his shirt into polished, witty displays of technique.

Ser y Estar (2017) places Dmitri Peskov center stage under a spotlight, moving alone to Mozart, before Niurca Marquez enters, scattering a seemingly limitless supply of rose petals from her bosom as she rapidly clatters her heels. They do not dance together so much as embody disturbances for one another, each compelling on his or her own, incoherent together.

Amy Wilson’s #shift (2017) is all flowing hair and miniskirts, and, somewhat like an American Apparel advertisement, the girls seem a bit too young to know what they are doing.

Ophelia (2017) presents Jeremy Blair in top classical form to Richard Strauss’s Drei Lieder der Ophelia. Hearing Shakespeare’s text for the mad maiden sung in German in Strauss’s eerie and forceful compositions juxtaposed with Blair’s muscularity, his floor-length white skirt sweeping open like a banner, is chilling.

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Speculoos (2015), by Allison Shir and Florian Alberge, finishes out the evening on a high note, with a sweet and quirky duet that illustrates the fluster and rush of new love. No deep thoughts here, but the expression is a delight to behold.

 

Curious about what went down in 2016?

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