Foothills Dancemakers Embrace Modern Dance Values and Aesthetics in a Contemporary World

For those familiar with popular dance trends seen on television programs, “contemporary dance” is often a crowd favorite. But, there is an important distinction to be made between American, pop-contemporary and its concert predecessor, Modern dance. This September, four Pasadena-based dance companies embraced Modern dance ideals in a shared performance that treated the audience to the full gravitas, compositional integrity, attention to nuance, and soul-filled subtlety of Modern dance at its best. 

Griot Dances Choreographed by Benita Bike

While the terms modern and contemporary are sometimes used interchangeably, the exquisite nature of Foothills Dancemakers in Concert at ARC (A Room to Create) may best be appreciated by underscoring the differentiating characteristics of Modern dance aesthetics as expertly illuminated by these four dance artists in eight works. Each of the works was well-paced, masterfully crafted, beautifully danced, subtly designed, nuanced, and refined. 

Benita Bike, initiator of the project, presented two abstract works. Griot Dances, featured four women dressed in watery blues, who performed with a stunning sense of composure, balance, flow, and elegance to music by Diabate, Higdon and Ensemble 3MA. The facile dancers (Nola Gibson, Micay Jean, Lydia McDonald and Skye Schmidt) performed with a refinement that superseded flashy use of technique as frequently seen in contemporary; for instance the opening soloist had an infectious joy and sensuality in her simple movement that was spellbinding. Smart musicality in Bike’s movement generation as well as rich dynamic range propelled the movement forward for the duration of the work. Bike continually renewed the energy of the quartet through craftily reorganizing the dancers in and out of duets rooted in satisfying spatial and temporal designs.

The second piece by Bike was a duet from Entrelazadas. The two skilled dancers in red velvet and black lace dresses performed seamlessly. The piece reflected the energy of being caught in a whirling storm, but the dancers’ performance of the struggle was liquid and effortless as they spiraled down in easy flurries to music by Joaquin Rodrigo performed by Jeffrey McFadden. The interweaving of bodies of Lydia McDonald and Skye Schmidt were abstracted in time and space without succumbing to the trappings of contemporary spectacle. This work, like the first, resonated due to Bike’s intelligent design as she showcased her ability to cull out essential movement, patterns, and shapes to convey the refreshing spirit of the work.

Pennington Dance Group first presented Goodman Dances (excerpts) set to a series of Lieder (short sung solos) composed by Alexander Zemlinsky. Pennington tasked each of the soloists to evoke a unique quality about the experience, the drama, and the magic of love. Pennington’s most salient choreographic device may have been his choice to have the four soloists seated on stools lined upstage; each dancer stood to take their turn and perform a short solo. The dancers witnessing each other established a sense of intimacy and community, like someone standing up from a campfire to share their story or sing their song. The first solo (Becky Chang) was subtle, graceful, elegant; the second (Danae McWatt) was bold, powerful and sensual; the third (Andrew Palomares) was brash, playful and flirtatious as well as being a little outrageous; the final solo (Edwin Siguenza) was commanding with a defiant energy that transmitted certainty and conviction through swift gestures and a grounded stance. All of the solos valued shape, balance, and attention to detail. Each enfolded as fueled by an authentic spirit tactfully avoiding a typical contemporary catharsis that can feel false and forced.

John Pennington’s Skins

Pennington Dance Group closed the show with Skins set to music by Edgar Rothermich, featuring three performers (Danae McWatt, Andrew Palomares and Edwin Siguenza) emerging from large rolls of plastic tarp that crinkled and crackled with each movement. Layered like skin tissue, the dancers’s costumes consisted of maroon pleather leggings, a nude mesh tunic, and a maroon shirt on top.  Pennington’s abstract choreographic vision contrasted his first, more humanistic, work with an Alwin Nikolais-feel evoked through the use of large props which transformed the performance space into the space of the dermis. The dancers reflected the earthy, warm light, generating a tactile and sensory rich world, further evoked by the sounds of the tarp and the dusty monochromatic imagery. Fast and light footwork provided contrast to the otherwise grounded movement vocabulary featuring bold lines and carving shapes.  

Jenn Logan of Nancy Evans Dance Theater performed Clearing choreographed by Viola Farber and staged by Jeff Slayton. Logan is a dancer with vivid stage presence that anchored her performance and grounded her expression. As a reconstructed work, one can feel the 1970’s Modern dance values in Farber’s movement choices which contrasted challenging balances–leg suspended in parallel second attitude– with suspended falling and heavy collapsed movements. Logan tackled Farber’s challenging material masterfully, transporting us into an era which required extensive binding of the body’s energy with only occasional releases into free flow. The emotional strife embedded in the solo’s athleticism was relieved only at the very end of the solo, when Logan’s brow softened and there was a sense of release and physical ease that was the clearing moment. 

Violo Farber’s Clearing, restaged by Jeff Slayton

Nancy Evans showcased her latest choreographic exploration with a multi-media work, Safe, using a film and score created by her son Nikolaos Crist Doede. The film and soundtrack framed the performance of the live solist, Evans’ daughter, Ashleigh Doede. The work addressed the question of what it means to be safe in a world of seen and unseen dangers. From the perspective of a young child, the piece was the darkest of the show, as we witnessed Doede experiencing threats both inside and outside the home. Doede in an A-line yellow dress, contrasted the highly filtered film behind her, balancing the visuals so they could be enjoyed as a unified whole. Evans directed Doede’s theatrical and emotionally charged movement in direct response to the images of the screen, giving Doede’s movement a clear context in time and place. Doede, looking physically like a younger version of her mother, Nancy, who is in the film, as well as being her actual daughter and playing the role of the child was poignant as well as coherent and cohesive. Safe did not include traditional abstract Modern dance phrases like some of the other pieces in the show however, the use of realism as well as the carefully attended composition fit within the Modern dance values of the show. At the end of the film, the projection and sound turned off, and we were left in the theatrical space which by contrast was warm and inviting, generating a sense of quiet ease in the absence of kitchen knives, broken glass, traffic, staircases, and doors left ajar. In the final moment, Doede’s character stepped into her own– into a safe space, echoing perhaps how the theater provides a safe space for so many individuals.

Lineage closed the first half with Dancing for Joy, beginning with four mature, female dancers (Brittany Daniels, Caterina Mercante, Teya Wolvington and Ericalynn Priolo) wrapped in sheer tunics with unitards underneath in shades of grey gem tones. The women began sitting in chairs facing each other, gesturing freely and joyously before connecting back and forth, exchanging seats, dancing over, leaping across, and transitioning under each other. Originally intended for five dancers, Hilary Thomas had sadly just injured her calf moments before the show. Nevertheless. the remaining dancers (having danced together for years) were easily able to adjust. They impressively finessed the many lifts and required partnerships in the choreography, performing it seamlessly. This multi-part work closed with a guest performance of Nancy Ware from their community outreach program for individuals with neurological diseases seated in her chair with limited mobility performing fully and sensitively with her standing partner, Michelle Kolb. Ware moved her arms, torso, and legs in ways that were then reflected and developed by her standing partner. It was a gift to see the two vibrant humans dancing together enraptured with an unabashed sense of honesty and joy. 

Dancing for Joy by Hilary Thomas

Due to Thomas’s injury, Lineage modified their second offering of the afternoon, presenting a duet in their repertory called Let Me Be Your Sunshine (excerpt from Healing Blue). Set to music by Chris Pierce, the piece delighted the audience with another touching glimpse of women caring and supporting each other through difficult times. Much of Lineage’s socially-engaged work is rooted in their mission to shine a spotlight on human issues and the non-profit organizations working tirelessly to ease the suffering of people experiencing hardships like Parkinsons, cancer, and women’s reproduction rights. Thomas and her team of beautiful dancers are able to balance the art of their craft with respect and honor for those in the struggle. Similar to Dancing for Joy, this duet performed by Brittany Daniels and Teya Wolvington included solid partnering with a confidence that only comes from years of sensitive, caring, and heartfelt dancing.

The entire cast of the afternoon did a remarkable job of honoring the compositional craft and subtle vocabulary of the choreographed works. Free from a self-conscious weight of having something to prove, the choreographic visions and dancer’s performance were fused into an integrated dance experience. There was no feeling like the dancers were “performing movement” but rather they were conduits for the envisioned dance experience. 

Although this was a Modern dance show with values originating in the 20th century, nothing in the works seemed outdated or irrelevant– quite the opposite.  Modern dance (while having preceded contemporary in the history books) remains more relevant to the complexity and depth of the human experience than some current dance practices that exist only for the algorithms of social media and television ratings. Additionally, the elegant and engaging show included understated lighting design by Azrra King-Abadi and various costume contributions by Jom Tsou, Brynn Holmes, Katerina Amerina, Caterina Mercante, Victoria Orr, Teya Wolvington and John Pennington.  All of the artists conspired to make an event that was inherently refined, while revealing a mature human experience that resonates long and far beyond spectacle and celebrity.

Safe Choreography by Nancy Evans Doede

Categories: ARC Pasadena

4 Comments on “Foothills Dancemakers Embrace Modern Dance Values and Aesthetics in a Contemporary World”

  1. Cheryl Banks-Smith
    October 9, 2022 at 11:25 pm #

    Beth for this very articulate and evocative review of the Foothlls Dancemakers concert at ARC Pasadena the weekend of September 24th and 25th, 2022. I was lucky to have witnessed this stunning concert on the Saturday evening performance. But your retelling of the event and your commentary on the rich legacy of 20th century modern dance, and its relevancy in 21st century dance aesthetic, was a great affirmation on the works of these four established choreographers in our midst and community. Thank you Foothills Dancemakers for sharing your vision, thank you dancers for your artistry, and thank you Beth for adding your keen perspective and support of concert dance in its fullness through your words! I’m so glad that we’re back strong, offering live performances once again! Cheryl Banks-Smith

    • October 13, 2022 at 2:48 am #

      Thank you, Cheryl, for the positive feedback. I do my best to honor the artists and their process as much as possible, while advocating for greater dance appreciation in our community!

  2. Cheryl Banks-Smith
    October 9, 2022 at 11:27 pm #

    P.S. My first “thank you” got cut out Beth. Thank you for your review.

  3. October 26, 2022 at 1:20 am #

    The review very thoughtfully and effectively put the Foothills Dancemakers show into a context. It is easy to say “I like this” and “I don’t like that,” or “she is a stand-out dancer,” but to put modern dance into a historical perspective and explain characteristics that separate it from other dance forms is a cut above the normal review. I thank Beth for her thoughtful writing.

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