Powerful Start to the West Hollywood Dance Festival

Ancient Matter Adri SoloUnder the skillful direction of Chad Michael Hall, MULTIPLEX Dance spearheaded a six day dance festival in West Hollywood that culminated in a Gala performance on Saturday August 20, 2016. The evening of dance featured a number of contemporary modern dance works that highlighted the talented dancers’ physical strength and earthy expression. A particular highlight of the evening was the live drumming by the Taiko Center of Los Angeles. The large drums filled Fiesta Hall in Plummer Park, transforming the space into a dance ritual that stirred my soul.

The first piece was in fact performed by the Taiko drummers. Wu Gu Feng Hua (Drum Dance Wind Blossom) featured three musician/performers and two large drums on 5-foot tall, wooden stands. The performers utilized long staves as mallets, whirling the staves through space with elegant power before striking the drum heads. The sonic textures paired nicely with the elegant movement of the musicians and set the ritualistic tone for this evening of dance.

Becoming Buffalo (excerpt) maintained the earthy energy with a trio of women warriors who cascaded through the space, rebounding in and out of the floor with cat-like prowess. I was so pleased to see this piece, choreographed by Stephanie Gilliland, on the program. Returning to California after many years away, her signature style balances predatory pliés with an unwavering focus that was evident from lights up. The three female dancers performed exquisitely, each able to both perform in exact unison and also take a solo moment in turn.

Jess Harper presented a solo More Revealed performed by Emily Davis. This solo about cyclical patterns and personal growth featured a similar athleticism to Gilliland’s work, but was flavored with a more contemporary LA feel in the emotional narrative. Davis performed the physically demanding work with strong technique and obvious inner drive.

Next, Chad Michael Hall took the stage with Jess Harper in their playfully camp duet, Floorplay. I had seen this piece earlier in the year and enjoyed seeing it again. This piece added a much-needed moment of levity to the evening and got the audience laughing at the absurdist piece about the foibles of the bedroom. The performance space was set up in the round and therefore my new perspective shaped the work a little differently on this viewing. Looking back, I did prefer seeing this work on a proscenium stage, but appreciated how it balanced the rest of the show with a bit of raunchy humor that was all in good fun.

As part of the festival, Hall taught a five day intensive and set a piece on the students in four speedy rehearsals. Entitled “Flux,” this piece was well structured and showcased the skills of the dancers in training.   I appreciated the lightness of simple walking motif in which the dancers pressed through their feet – toe ball heel- while gently swinging their arms. There was an ease and joy in this piece that added a human component to the evening of animal-like crouches and crawls that permeated much of the rest of the show. I also appreciated the intergenerational dancers of many levels having an opportunity to perform. The ritual feel that underpinned the performance allowed for an all-inclusive dance space.

In the penultimate piece, Charlotte Katherine choreographed and performed in a moving duet with Leslie Duner entitled “Bending Inward.” These women, similarly dressed in mauve and grey tunic tanks, shorts and knee pads, were well matched as partners giving the audience a clear sense that they were in fact one person suffering from an inner struggle of emotional fragmentation. One shook with fear as the other calmed and comforted her. Together, they seamlessly partnered through the space, lifting and melting into one another. There was a movement theme of imbalance and falling that moved the piece forward and carried with it an emotional drive that was not overdone, but instead read honest and visceral.

The evening closed with a company work by MULTIPLEX DANCE, entitled “Ancient Matter.” The piece integrated the Taiko drummers as well as projected video to create a multi-sensory dance theater experience. The music, composed by Shih-wei Wu, had the same textural depth, patience, and power as his first composition (Drum Dance Wind Blossom), but added in additional shouts and a wooden flute solo which delicately balanced the resounding drums. The video artist, Dmitry Kmelnitsky, was clearly inspired by the Asian drum form, utilizing circles in his images that mirrored the circular drumheads, and elements of repetition that created a matching visual rhythm to the sonic landscape. The challenge with the video (and to some degree the drummers) was that I was sitting on what I came to feel was the side of the performance space and thus couldn’t see the dancers, musicians and video all at once. So, I was forced to pick and choose who I wanted to look at, like a basketball game where they allowed two balls in play at once. While this could have been overwhelming, I didn’t feel more than a passing sadness at my predicament of not being able to see it all, all at once because what I did see was that full and rich.

Ancient Matter JL Flies

The choreography is this last piece was beautifully performed. Scooting, sliding, dive-rolling, knee spinning, and inverting- Hall’s challenging choreography was not lost on these skilled performers. This type of movement, sometimes called “impact work,” has been in style in LA for some time, and I have never particularly liked it before this evening. I realized that what I seen before were dancers posturing that they were strong, rather than being strong, presenting that they were powerful, rather than being powerful. I actually believed these dancers. Nothing felt forced or fake and I was swept away.

There were just two slight concerns I had for the show. Before the show I downloaded an app that was supposed to enhance the performance with something on my phone. Sadly this did not work for me or my neighbor in the audience. But, technology is consistently unreliable in performance settings, and I was not surprised. If anything, I was so moved by the show already, I can’t imagine how looking down at my phone would enhance it. The tech geek in me is curious what it was about and how it was supposed to work. But, the visceral movement, the live music by the Taiko drummers and the multiple original compositions by musician David Karaganis was certainly enough to keep me engaged.

Secondly, the performance space was wonderfully appealing visually, but I could see that the floor was hard underneath the rolled out dance surface. From an audience perspective this was certainly not noticeable, but from a dance perspective I know how injurious that can be for the performers. For a one day event, the body can usually handle it, but long term, this is not as sustainable. It just goes to show how desperately the LA independent dance world needs additional financial support and safe facilities for the art form to thrive. Hopefully the success of this event will remind our LA benefactors that dance is worth supporting! The WHDF aims to offer the local community access to high quality dance that is appealing, convincing, and inspiring. As part of a three-year grant, you can expect to see a similar event in the next two years. So mark your calendars and see you at the show!

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