Psychopomp: An athletic treat rooted in earthy connection. 

The evening of dance choreographed by Psychopomp’s Artistic Director, Shenandoah Harris, offered insights into a world of inter and intrapersonal conflict through movement that was aggressive, bold, animalistic, and highly athletic. The cast of six dancers, Andrew Cropuz, Mizuki Sako, Abby Chuah, Lydia McDonald, Stephanie Mizrahi and Harris, had plenty of space to show off their skills in the lovely new studio performance space at Stomping Ground LA. The evening featured two medium length works focused on themes of mysticism, evolution, and Judaism. 

Psychopomp in performance of YLEM
Psychopomp in YLEM at Stomping Ground. Choreographed by Shenandoah Harris. Photo by George Simian

The evening began with YLEM. The dancers emerged from the shadows, pulling and pushing themselves along the floor. Reaching, pressing, extending, slithering slowly and smoothly across the marley floor in mossy green shirts and pants by designer Ryan Howard. The movement evolved from pushing into rolling with bodies indiscriminately tumbling through space, over the landscape of the dance floor and other bodies that punctuated the performance area. The pace gradually picked up, as the dancers showcased their strength in acrobatic blends of cartwheeling, somersaulting, and log rolling. The partnering continued to evolve as they progressed out of the gooey world of primordial soup into increasingly aggressive and combative partnering relationships until the dog-eat-dog world ate itself up. Harris’ adept knowledge of floorwork and partnering aided the transformation of the human bodies into timeless organisms or perhaps the earliest known microbes she referenced in the program. 

The original music by Riley Smith suited the cinematic intensity of the work filling the performance space with electronic instrumentation in driving 6/8 rhythms. The lighting was bold and highly saturated, aiding the otherworldly aspect to the environment, but at times the lighting transitioned somewhat awkwardly in a way that stood out as slightly jarring amidst the otherwise ever evolving world. 

The drama of the interaction was rooted in the wringing shapes, strong force, and direct gaze of the dancers. The six dancers worked well as a unit, seamlessly transitioning between partners and trios with awareness and sensitive connection maintained throughout. The highly physical demands of the partnering required the dancers to be proficient in grappling with another body while maneuvering and inverting through and between all of the planes in space with ease.

Psychopomp at Stomping Ground
Psychopomp in EYN SOF at Stomping Ground. Choreographed by Shenandoah Harris. In photo (L-R) Stephanie Mizrahi, Lydia McDonald, Abby Chuah, Mizuki Sako, and Andrew Corpuz. Photo by George Simian

After a 20 minute intermission the performance continued with EYN SOF (Hebrew for without end). An opening solo by dancer Abigail Chuah introduced a central movement theme of wrapping and encircling, a common prayer movement for Judaism. The ritual wrapping of a sacred strap around the forearm and hand is one commonly practiced by men in the Orthodox tradition. The choice for the soloist to be female commented indirectly on gender roles and the questioning of religious tradition. The wrapping gesture was practically used around the wrist, but abstracted into space and repeated again and again as the dancer rooted in deep lunges before bold rolling across the space and strongly slapping, chugging, and stepping in phrase work that conveyed both curiosity and personal struggle. 

The remaining quartet of dancers entered and surrounded the soloist in unison step with dynamic gestures in circular pathways. At this moment the narrative became a little less clear in terms of how the soloist, differentiated only by her wrapped wrist, and the identically dressed ensemble were related. The theme of eternity, unending time, and being without end was reinforced with the circular pathway of the dancers. Clarity lacked however in terms of the relationships between the one soloist and the ensemble. The soloist incorporated into the group rather quickly, becoming one of a quintet for a large portion of the dance, until the dancers ceremoniously transferred the wrapped leather and forearm cuff to Andrew Corpuz, and the cycle of the soloist began again. 

EYN SOF shared many characteristics and movement qualities with YLEM. In this work the dancers moved through one hand cartwheels and dive rolls in addition to semi-acrobatic partnering and group work as they did in the first work. The earthy quality of the movement kept the legs bent and rooted in order for the dancers to maneuver their center of gravity through the space effectively. Springs remained largely forceful and weighted; the dancers intentionally slapped the floor with hands and stamped the feet as they pounced to accentuate the impact of the athletic quality in the springing and a real heaviness landing on the earth. The theme of dancers pulling down on each other was common to both works and resonated as a meaningful component of Harris’ broader themes of ruthless competition and potential destruction whether within oneself or between bodies. 

Psychopomp in performance EYN SOF
Psychopomp in EYN SOF at Stomping Ground. Choreographed by Shenandoah Harris. In photo (L-R) Lydia McDonald, Stephanie Mizrahi, Abby Chuah, and Mizuki Sako. Photo by George Simian

The rusty red tank tops and pants (again by Ryan Howard) suited the dance nicely as the color felt naturally human and distinctly warm-blooded after the introductory work featuring the dancers as eerie creatures more than social animals. The lighting by Christina Schwinn started more neutral which reinforced the humanity of the work, but then at times became quite saturated (returning to the look of YLEM) distracting from the narrative of the human condition and inner struggle. A great lighting moment occurred with strobing pulses while the dancers gestured and stamped in canon while situated on a diagonal in the space. The active lighting shifts was a nice touch that matched the driving energy in that section which featured stamping feet, powerful whole body actions, and strong force. While the performance space is quite large, the dance always remained intimate and personal through the proximity of the dancers within defined areas of light. 

Overall the evening was a great success and showcased not only what the company PSYCHOPOMP can offer, but what Stomping Ground as a performance space can offer independent dance companies in the region. The large performance area, excellent lighting plot, resonating sound system, and (roughly?) 100 seat audience worked well for this type of a small group work which benefited from the intimacy of the space to convey the visceral nature of the movement and the urgent intensity of the dancers’ athleticism. The program bill was vague and steeped in mystery, including Hebrew lettering that was sometimes translated and sometimes not. Only one page long, it forewent dancer bios or company information in favor of handwritten texts and line drawn apocalyptic illustrations that alluded to the topics of the work and the intensity therein but missed out on some essentials that may have helped make the work more accessible to a broader audience. In some ways the program became its own member of the show, a separate puzzle to be decoded, alluding to sacred numbers (36 as a multiple of 18 meaning life in Judaism), circular designs as cycles of life, and other less familiar ritual and cultural references in Hebrew. In all, the program reflected the poetic nature of Harris’ style which is highly abstracted but thoughtfully constructed. Harris has bold choreographic vision for making universally themed dances with an athletic intensity that is impressive and viscerally appealing. One can expect to see her work feed and fuel LA dance audiences to reconnect with their earth sourced energy on a cellular level for seasons to come. 

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One Comment on “Psychopomp: An athletic treat rooted in earthy connection. ”

  1. July 3, 2022 at 2:33 pm #

    Hi Beth,

    I live Mizuki! Such a strong dancer. This is a great review!

    Thank you Nancy


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