Sarah Elgart presents unique evening of dance on stage and screen in “Unicorn”

Unicorns are having a moment in pop culture, their otherworldly origins a desirable escape from reality. The mythical creature has also become synonymous with people or things that are rare or unique. Taking this trendy definition, seasoned Los Angeles choreographer Sarah Elgart can be seen as a ‘unicorn’ in the city’s dance scene herself, with a resume spanning decades of creating contemporary work for her company Sarah Elgart / Arrogant Elbow as well as on screen, for such directors as JJ Abrams and David Lynch. In her company’s recent performance of “Unicorn: An evening of new dance & dance film works”, we were introduced to a few more unicorns: three exceptionally unique performers and two magical dance films.

 

While gathered in the downstairs lobby of The Electric Lodge, the hall lights dimmed as dancer Charissa Kroeger entered the space, carrying a small handheld projector that she shined on the walls, ceiling, and audience members’ clothing. She and Sam McReynolds (having his own duet with the projector cable) moved carefully through the crowd in what looked like an improvisational exploration. The film featured dancers’ slow-motion movements in white flowing fabric, the site-specific opening introducing the audience to the two art forms we’d see on stage. I wished I could hear the music from the film, as the soundtrack to the piece inadvertently became a selection of Top 40 Hip Hop from the children’s birthday party in the studio next door. Still, it was almost a fitting metaphor for the dance world of Los Angeles – a hybrid of commercial and concert dance that Elgart and all three of the evening’s performers navigate constantly.

After following the two upstairs to the intimate black box performance space, the short film ‘Ideologies’ was projected onto a screen at the back of the theater. The ethereal Kroeger and mesmerizing Kalin Morrow captured the audience with free-flowing, detailed movements in bold-shaped costumes that took on a movement life of their own. Their textured movements were further emphasized by the camera’s timely use of slow-motion and close-ups, a unique way to admire the intricacies of the dancers’ technique.

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Charissa Kroeger in ‘Charissa’ | Photo by Steve Pyne

Site-specific dance pieces and dance on film are Elgart’s specialties – two genres showcased in the next film, ‘Ghost Story’. Four dancers (Kroeger, Chelsea Bonosky, Albert Esquilin, and Storyboard P) glided and articulated their bodies in avant-garde fashions by Issey Miyake, giving off an otherworldly air as they interacted with the angular, futuristic architecture of a New York City building. The genre-blending movements of each dancer, which ranged from hip hop styles to post modern, didn’t feel quite human as the film’s quick jump cuts took us on a tour through the building’s various spaces. Another round of eerie jump cuts through the same spaces, but without any dancers, suddenly felt like looking into another spiritual realm. The editing (Steve Pyne and Sarah Elgart) and cinematography (Victoria Sendra) captured the site-specificity of the contemporary dancing, architecture, and costumes in a way that might have been lost were it not for the added magic of film.

The night continued with live dance in ‘Portraits: 3 solos based on defining moments in the dancers’ lives’. While the program didn’t give any concrete details of what those moments were, each soloist spun a unique narrative touched by Elgart’s cinematic flair.

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Sam McReynolds in ‘Sam’ | Photo by Steve Pyne

In ‘Sam’, a light bulb center stage drew Sam McReynolds like a moth to a flame, until overtaken by an uncontrollable shaking that brought him to the ground. This inner/outer battle continued in a back and forth of precise, bound movements and suspended moments of bliss-like freedom, his strength and control over the quick changes in mood, level, and dynamics breathtaking to watch.

 

‘Lenin’ slowed the tempo after the first piece, with Lenin Fernandez lazily articulating across the back wall of the theater, his chalk-filled hands leaving arcs of white dust on the wall in his wake. Fernandez is almost alien to watch, with a flexible torso and long limbs that undulate in extreme directions. Despite his length, he spent much of the solo low to the ground, hunching, or hinging with impeccable control. By the end, as he unfurled a red ribbon out of his mouth, I was left with the feeling that he’d finally released the heaviness keeping him down.

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Lenin Fernandez in ‘Lenin’ | Photo by Steve Pyne

In ‘Charissa’, a feminine atmosphere took hold as Kroeger dynamically shifted from quick, angular shapes, to soft, sensual movements and detailed articulations of her hands. Whatever dynamic, she seemed to be discovering something new and exciting in each movement, with a serene presence that invited us to feel her bliss. It was fitting to end the night as transfixed with her undeniable magnetism as we were at the beginning of the evening.

The diverse contemporary and commercial dance backgrounds of each dancer seemed well-suited for Elgart’s choreography, the smaller space acting like a zoomed-in lens that brought the performers’ emotional energy into focus as they danced their stories. While the stripped-back atmosphere could have been challenging, each dancer expertly brought an authenticity and investment in their movement that made us feel as if we had just bared witness to an intimate secret.

As has become common at recent dance performances (see Jacob Jonas’s recent production), ‘Unicorn’ offered dance performance both live and on film in one night, allowing the audience to compare the seemingly conflicting art forms instantly. Whatever one’s preference, Sarah Elgart may have the distinctive position of mastering the best of both worlds – a unicorn who can transition effortlessly from stage to screen.

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