I used to think that there was little variety in the modern dance scene in LA, but getting out more and seeking shows off the beaten path has proved me quite wrong. Nancy Evans Dance Theater is a rock solid modern dance company, in residence at Porticoes Art Space in Pasadena. And, when I say modern dance, I want to clarify that Evans' work is truly an extension of the historical modern dance era. Much of what is called modern dance today is really contemporary modern dance, a result of the rule breaking post modernists and the subsequent techniques of contact improvisation and release technique.
NEDT works within a movement frame work that predates these trends. Evans choreography has all the compositional integrity, expressive narrative and shape based technique of the modern dance era, and her story telling through movement still resonates for today. The guest company SolevVita Dance Company, under the artistic direction of Joelle Martinec, was a playfully refreshing contemporary jazz company that contrasted the NEDT aesthetic and balanced the show nicely.
Here are a few highlight from a few different works on the program:
Choreographed by Nancy Evans, Vigil, was originally staged in 2012 and restaged for this performance. A 45 minute dance narrative about death, loss and grief, this was a moving study in character and storytelling through movement. I appreciated the consistent "roles" the dancers played in the work. To me they were the family members left behind, mother, sister, wife and mother in law. Scot Tuper, as the deceased, held the energetic space for the duration of the work, mostly confined to his upstage platform, separate but always emotionally involved. I was particularly swept into the piece during the candle solo by Monica Buckner whose emotive commitment gave me permission to invest in the characters' relationships. Her emotional sensitivity to her gestural solo was detailed, patient and rich. The music included a variety of classical works by Ravel, Liszt, Debussy and Mompou among others. This style of piano scored music, has largely gone out of favor in current dance practices. Most choreographers opting for minimalist scores, electronic soundtracks or popular music. The use of music that is at once beautiful as well as irregular and dissonant blended with the choreographic composition seamlessly. Evans musicianship (as seen in others pieces as well) is embedded in her craft. Music, dance and expression all as one.
Another favorite of the show for me was the quirky and serene Flock of Two by NEDT company member Katrina Amerine. This duet performed by Ashleigh Doede and Jenn Logan was imagery rich while simple in design. The piece consisted of a strong balletic leaning, which worked brilliantly with the dancers' long and birdlike legs and arms. In some ways I saw this piece as more of a contemporary ballet than modern with the curved port de bras, long lines in the legs, springs and turns that worked so well together. I did find myself wondering about the relationship of the two dancers as their focus stayed individually directed for the whole of the dance. With that said, I wondered about their relationship not just to each other but to the world around them and their journey through time and space. The piece closed with my favorite swirling image of the dancers, in which they magically evoked the quality of birds swooping and circling in the air.
Joelle Martinec's SoleVita contrasted the longer works of NEDT with bite sized dances that were charming and fun. An interesting programatic choice was the order of Flock of Two followed by SoleVita's 2, followed by NEDT's Coupling, Cycles 1-3 (choreographed by Jenn Logan). These three duets were so notably different in tone, relationship and story that they could be their own compositional study. 2, choreographed by Joelle Martinec, contrasted Flock of Two, with a jazzy score and classical jazz styling on top of a playful romance. These well matched dancers played over the top characters, who bumped and bonked their way through getting to know each other and falling in love. The contemporary jazz technique and use of a male-female duet has become a very familiar dance formula made popular by So You Think You Can Dance. Nevertheless, this piece was unpredictable in its use of humor and play to tell the story of these young and talented lovers.
Modern Communication also choreographed by Martinec, was a satirical piece about our new best friends: cell phones (and their incredible ability to stop our in person lives in favor of our cyber-lives). Martinec, clearly has her finger on the pulse of current pop culture, and I deeply appreciate her willingness to use the popular contemporary jazz style to comment on the hazzards or pop culture. Her witty use of Sheila Chandra's music entitled Speaking in Tongues, certainly made me smile as it also demonstrated Martinec's use of musicality in her choreography (as well as the dancers' ability to recreate and perform such complex musical phrasing).
The last two pieces I wish to comment on are the two solos performed by the respective artistic directors of the companies. Martinec danced a seductive jazz solo choreographed by Alex Little, called To Be Loved in Return, set to live a saxophone performance by Mathew Thompson. Martinec is a luscious performer, generous, confident and very sexy. She became the saxophone being played, cool and sweet. Her body was alive in a way that made me very sad when it was over so soon.
Nancy Evans took the stage for her homage to mentor Hanya Holm in Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach in meiner Brust meaning Two Souls, alas, Dwell in my Breast (and, I was so excited to put my German language skills to use!). As I had enter the lobby earlier that day, I noticed a slide show projected on the wall including images of and quotes of modern dance legend Hanya Holm. Holm is part of the German expressionist line of modern dance, having studied with Mary Wigman before coming to America and continuing her extensive career teaching and choreographing. I watched the slide show play all the way through, captivated by the expression in Holm's body and the truth in her quotes. . . and I am so glad I did. Having seen the slide show images, I was able to see the physical and aesthetic lineage from Holm to Evans. Dance that is musical, dynamically varied and extremely well crafted. The second half of the piece was set to a piece of music in 5/4 and I could not have been happier watching the rhythmic play of Evans dancing through the space, viscerally connected to the driving music. It was emotionally invigorating and not a surprise when the audience erupted into applause before the lights had even gone out. That is a sign of a well crafted composition.
I realized as I was watching the performance that the Hanya Holm slide show not only informed my understanding and appreciation of Evans' solo, but of all of her choreography. Evans is not interested in post modern thinking or contemporary trends. She is a storyteller, trusting in the power of gesture, shape and rhythm for physical communication. I was reminded just how important a simple moment can be, shifting the gaze from one space to another, holding someone's hands, reaching out for them, turning away. Those are the moments I take with me from this afternoon of dance.
This is the great dance that is happening right here in greater LA. This is the dance that makes you think, makes you stop and wonder about what you value and how you want to be in the world. Remember that the dance world needs your continued support and that you also need the dance world. We all need the reminder through movement that we are all human, and we are all dancing through this thing called life.