It’s all a-Bout the competition

TopShakeDance's latest gives its audiences a ringside seat on the action, complete with dummy

Jim McGinn, founder and artistic director of Portland’s TopShakeDance, may be the most physically challenging choreographer in the city.  a-Bout, a piece for four dancers and a 70-pound, 5-foot-4-inch-tall wrestling “takedown” dummy named Chuck, is the latest of a series of pieces that take their choreographic impetus not from music or story, but from physical and emotional reaction to various natural environments and elements; most recently before this the very beautiful Float, which premiered at Conduit last year.

a-Bout, which opened at the A-WOL Dance Collective’s space on North Raymond on the 14th (I saw it this past Friday night, and its run is finished now) is a little different and a lot more conventional than Float and its predecessors, Jamb and Gust.  It is, however, equally hard and physical work to perform.  It contains many of  the components of 1960s post-modern dance, including pedestrian movement mixed with a tiny bit of ballet and the aggressive, competitive moves associated with such demanding sports as wrestling and  boxing, with a bit of roller derby racing thrown in. These are incorporated with the sculptural modern dance vocabulary McGinn has developed over the years.

Erin Zintek (left) and Aneesa Turner. Photo: Scooter Curl

Erin Zintek (left) and Aneesa Turner. Photo: Scooter Curl

Visually enhancing this mix are dramatic lighting by Chris Balo, costumes by Renaissance woman Heather Treadway, whose red fight promoter’s suit for McGinn I found particularly charming, and at one point in the 64-minute show, projections of cartoon balloons expressing such sentiments as “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”  Spoken text,  and music composed by Loren Chasse, with whom McGinn has been collaborating for some time (his score for the 2012 Jamb was particularly felicitous) accompanied the dancing.

The piece is a series of duets, trios and quartets performed by Kelly Koltiska, Celeste Olivares, Aneesa Turner and Erin Zintek, with Chuck descending from the ceiling wrapped in canvas halfway through the show.  All of these dancers, tall, well-muscled Amazonian women, are new to TopShakeDance, the previous company members having departed for various personal and professional reasons. All four also are trained, modern dancers, with Zintek the most experienced, having danced professionally in David Dorfman and Charlotte Adams’ companies.  In a program note, she says she is “passionate about exploring movement in all forms,” and McGinn certainly gives her the opportunity to do just that.

McGinn’s choreography includes many simulated wrestling matches, duets involving lifts, tussling, lots of push and pull that borrows from Contact Improvisation from time to time, juxtaposed against skittering runs, and rapid little traveling steps: what a relief it is to attend a dance performance where the participants do more moving than posing. A duet by Kolitska and Zintek is quite charming; not so successful is a self-conscious little waltz (like two prize fighters in a clutch) danced by Kelly and Chuck.  And because I dislike watching such sports as wrestling and cage fighting, I found those sections of the piece that came closest to replicating them pretty unpleasant to watch.

McGinn is a conceptual artist, assisted in the concept for a-Bout by his wife, Jaime Bluhm. Lord knows, sports-themed dances are not new: August Bournonville did one about jockeys for the Royal Danish Ballet in the 19th century; Christopher Stowell programmed his father, Kent Stowell’s, prize-fighting pas de deux Duo Fantasy for the opening of his first season as artistic director of OBT; White Bird presented Emio Greco’s piece Rocco, which takes place in an actual boxing ring, last spring. McGinn’s take on the links between athletics and art are interesting, up to a point.  The piece is much too long and at times gets quite repetitious.  It is my hope that he takes his choreographic explorations to more interesting places next time, although far be it from me to tell an artist as talented as McGinn what to do.

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