Last evening I attended a lovely modern dance performance at A Room to Create (ARC) in Pasadena. This studio/performance space is owned and run by John Pennington and home to Pennington Dance Group. The show was sold out, with patrons eagerly waiting to see if additional seating would become available. Pennington means a lot to the LA dance community, not only because of his beautiful dance space, but because of his openhearted and supportive energy for many modern dance companies in the area. The warmth of the audience emphasized just how beloved Pennington is.
The show opened with a reworked quintet from 2005, entitled OUT OF, choreographed by Pennington. The five dancers dressed in all white and moved through the space in sweeping patterns that balanced an ethereal quality of beauty with a grounded earth energy. Pennington tied these dynamics together in stunning designs through space that covered the entirety of the performance space with grace and ease. The piece also incorporated five floor length banners by artist Susan Rankaitis. These seemingly Japanese inspired panels, set the stage for some of the more Asian stylings in Pennington's choreography.
The show continued with three pieces performed and choreographed by PDG company members. Tomas Tsai performed his B-boy-meets-dance-theater solo, MEAN. Li Rothermich performed with Travis Richardson in her impressive and almost acrobatic duet, ECLIPSE. And, Michael Szanyi captured the audience with his larger than life solo, DESCENT. This last piece was particularly interesting for its use of theatrical design.
Szanyi stood perched on a box, dressed in a deep red taffeta skirt that cascaded from his corsetted waist down to the floor where it spilled out in all directions. Set to a piano score by Rachmaninov, Szanyi performed facing upstage the entire time, staying perched in the air as he gestured with his torso and arms in slow, sustained time, never breaking the spell of the piece. The play of the light on his back and the fleeting glimpses of his profile added to the mystery and magic of the piece. The moment in which he reached out with a pointed finger reminded me of Michaelanglo's Sistine Chapel in which Adam is created by the touch of God. This imagery added a huge layer of meaning in the work, as it immediately opened the door for questioning the nature of man, and more specifically of a gay man, as he stands larger than life, perched on a pedestal in his blood red skirt reaching for the finger of God.
After intermission, Pennington premiered his newest work, BLOW. This piece opened with the company of eight dancers exhaling and blowing out in all manners possible: sighing, lip buzzing, shushing, whistling, coughing. The ridiculousness of this situation added a quirky levity to the show that had not yet been incorporated and was refreshing for the audience who now had a chance to laugh. The opening scene moved into a series of duets, in which the dancers manipulated each other with their breath, inhaling to suck them in and exhaling to send them away. Each couple was unique and playful, moving through the space in unpredictable bursts. These duets ended with the dancers moving to the walls of the space which were covered in sound-proofing material (black egg crate foam), and against which the duets could interact by pressing and climbing the wall with the help of their partner. This offered a rich visual experience for the audience who could look between the duets and the four different areas on the wall to choose which moment was interesting and which drew their attention. However, it was at this point in the work that the connection to the idea of BLOW became muddy. Nevertheless, the duets were a visual feast as the dancers related to each other with a variety of emotions including suspicion, aggression, play, and curiosity.
As most of the dancers exited the space, two men were left to perform a duet that was sensitive, patient, and powerful. The dancers moved through the space with speed and agility that was never forced or awkward. These dancers floated through the huge performance space, covering ground in a way that was extremely satisfying for the viewer. The immediacy of the duet was palpable for the audience, and yet, the design and precision of the movement was never lost. Pennington clearly has a way for creating movement that is exuberant, free and visually stimulating.
The piece then took an unexpected turn, when out of the sensitive moment, in walked Li Chang Rothermich in high platform heels, a pencil skirt, blouse, sunglasses and red designer bag. It was immediately evident that this woman owned the stage. Her presence just standing on the stage and looking outward was riveting. Her put-together affectations contrasted the somewhat disheveled young man in the suit with awkwardly short pants and sneakers who occupied the other side of the stage. The energetic and qualitative differences between this well-kept women and gangly young man made for a strange and laughable comparison.
But, nothing compared to the next choreographic moment in which two young men dueled with leaf blowers. Yes! My life in now complete! This outright, obvious interpretation of BLOW was nothing short of hysterical and spectacular. This quirky moment (like the opening) is where the heart of the piece really lies. Smart and funny.
The piece closed with all eight dancers in black recreating the sensation of being blown across the stage in waves of arm gestures and running patterns that transformed the space into a kinetic playground. The strongest moment came near the end during which the dancers lined up across the length of the performance space and moved upstage and downstage in gusts of action that reminded me of the unpredictable and immense power of the Santa Ana winds we know so well here in Los Angeles.
Overall the evening of dance was a notable success. The audience was extremely receptive and gracious. The dancers' chemistry as a whole made clear that they enjoy performing together as a company. Another special aspect of the performance was original music scores for the majority of the works. Edgar Rothermich and Tom Peters each provided scores for this performance. In addition, as a dancer watching this performance there was something extremely satisfying. Pennington's movement looks like it feels good to dance. The traveling through space, the smart designs in the use of gesture, and the luxurious and graciousness of the movement quality all add to the kinesthetic appeal of the performance. I know Pennington offers weekly class, and after seeing the show tonight, I am tempted to make the drive to Pasadena!