Dance+: The more we dance together…

They were dancing in unison at the first Dance+ festival program

Because it was a warm day on Thursday, I took the elevator to Conduit’s fourth floor studio to catch the first program in this year’s installment of the Dance+ festival. Most of the people in line with me seemed to understand that the warmth would likely extend to the studio itself, so they dressed down and dressed cool. I did, too, and you’d be advised to do the same as temperature rise this weekend…because I think you will enjoy what’s happening on the dance floor. Fortunately, official word is that floor air conditioners are on the way to buttress the ceiling fans.

I’m going to describe specifically (and briefly!) the four pieces I saw in a moment. But first a word about unison dancing, when two or more dancers are dancing the same steps, either at the same time or serially (maybe as part of a little movement “round”). Unison dancing is a core tool for choreographers for lots of reasons: At the beginning of a dance it can establish the movement vocabulary of the piece, for example; it can emphasize a certain passage; it can provide a thesis for further movement antithesis to play against, even it just involves some independent solos. We could go on!


For me, unison dancing can have other effects that are harder to explain, less technical and more atmospheric or subtextual or…something. For example, a lot of dance feels somehow “utopian” to me: In an ideal world we all meet each other and know our parts, when to partner and when to solo, and in solidarity we might start dancing together in unison. The underlying power of those disco scenes in Saturday Night Live was the almost tribal sense of connection the dancers had. Country line dancing has a similar effect.

Even in modern dance, which often seeks to describe or convey the effects of our dystopian world, I find a model for a better world: we’re all fit and agile and know what to do. And yes, unison dancing underscores that sense. It also factors into the erotics of dance, for me, but that’s a subject that takes more time and thought than I have available at the moment! But never fear, the erotic comes up in at least two of the dances in Dance+. And all of them had lots of unison dancing in one form or another.

Enough preamble: For Dance+ we have four dances, each less than 20 minutes, performed by small ensembles, often the result of a deep collaboration between a choreographer and another artist (composer or set designer, for example). And actually, the first piece on the program wasn’t a performance at all, it was a computer-animated video.

Black Friday; Parking Lot Dance II/Paul Clay and Todd Barton
Video artist Clay projected Black Friday onto one large central and two smaller flanking screens, starting it on the parking lot of a Target store before Black Friday shopping day, assembling a crowd of humans (who all look the same), sending the masses into the red mist melee inside the store, and then gathering them for a celebratory and, yes, tribal and, yes, unison “dance” at the end. I don’t know why I put parentheses around that dance: It was choreographed, an eerie intersection of the robotic and the naturally human. I’ve been syncopating my arm movements differently since seeing it!

I probably don’t have to underscore the theme, but maybe I should mention that Clay and composer Barton’s take on consumer culture is genuinely clever and looks and sounds great.

Jen Hackworth's "Beast," sculpture by Meghann Gilligan/Photo by Meghann Gilligan

Jen Hackworth’s “Beast,” sculpture by Meghann Gilligan/Photo by Meghann Gilligan

Beast/Jen Hackworth and Meghann Gilligan
Gilligan created the props for Beast, specifically a long red boa-like object, a black bird/dragon headdress, and a white geometric “sail,” not very tall but big enough to mostly conceal one of the dancers, Keyon Gaskin, for most of the dance and then an erotic mixing of limbs and torsos by Gaskin and Hackworth at the end of the piece.

Hackworth and Claire Barrera do most of the heavy dancing, and their very precise unison dancing near the beginning of Beast got me thinking about the subject to begin with. You have to be well-rehearsed to dance anything complicated in unison, and they did. Then they spun out into solos, usually very big movements or floor work, before experimenting with the props and concluding with the duet.

This Beast was a little scary, dangerous, unpredictable, and carried over the theme of discord and alienation from the film, oddly enough, though it didn’t end with a happy dance of contented consumers.

Revivify/Alter Structure
Alter Structure is Roland Ventura Toledo, who in Revivify created a dense sound environment with words from Maya Angelou and Steven Hawking, among others, mixed in. Toledo performed at a central console onstage, and as he began two black-suited dancers, Stephanie Lanckton and Mizu Deseirto, stood well behind him at the back of the stage, their backs to us, arms and bodies tilted at identical (unison) angles. When we saw their heads finally, they were encased in silvery masks. As the soundscape moved through various textures Lanckton and Deseirto continued to move in slow and angular ways, at first, mostly in unison, and then gradually picked up the pace and explored the spasmodic, before ending up in their own tangle on the floor at the end, then a separation, lovely really, reaching back for one another as they parted and the lights went to black.

Right. Anxiety. Because of the fans, maybe, I couldn’t understand many of the word in sound environment. One fragment from Hawking: “spontaneously created out of nothing.” He must have been talking about the Big Bang, and yeah, a universe spontaneously created out of nothing has scary implications.

Anna Conner and Company/Photo by Jim Lykins

Anna Conner and Company/Photo by Jim Lykins

Luna/Anna Conner + Co.
Conner comes from Seattle (everyone else on Program 1 was Portland-based, and she and her dancers Autumn Tselios and Julia Cross performed her very high energy, rough-and-tumble, toughly erotic choreography with great skill, including the most complex unison dancing and partnering of the evening. At the end of the show, members of each group were instructed to tell the audience 10 words about the piece. Cross said: “Our goal is to access our true vulnerability and power.” And they nailed it. Is there a story in Luna, a tale of dominance and submission in the roughhouse partnering that goes on? I didn’t process it that way, probably because narratives need characters and specific characters didn’t emerge for me. That didn’t keep Luna from engaging me at a very visceral level.

Program 1 of Dance+ continues at 8 pm through July 12.

Program 2, which features Zahra Banzi and Dylan Wilbur, Meshi Chavez and Roland Toledo, kle marshall and Meagan Woods, Christopher Peddecord and Lindsey Matheis, and radical child… and Kara Girod Shuster, runs at 8 pm July 17-19.

All shows are at the Conduit studio, 918 SW Yamhill St., Suite 401.

One Response.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I went last night, Friday, and the air conditioner functions pretty well, but I found the spoken text for Revivify completely inaudible. I think “Luna” is pretty terrific, if a bit too long. Conner, Cross and Tselios are extremely interesting dancers to watch, and the work stands on its own without a lot of fancy program notes. This, frankly, is what I expect from a dance, that the dance, to paraphrase W.B. Yeats, will say the things there are no words for. I mention Yeats because “Beast” takes its title from the Irish poet’s apocryphal poem, and while the interactive set pieces (thank you Isamu Noguchi who is the father of three dimensional sets) are quite fascinating, I thought the choreography fell short.
    I very much enjoyed Black Friday, which has considerable wit, and particularly Barton’s score. Barton “invented” the music of the people Ursula Le Guin writes about in her novel “Always Coming Home”. Everyone, in everything (with apologies to Gertrude Stein) danced well, and valiantly, given the weather.

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