Reviewed by Steve Sucato
Another outcome of the global pandemic, DANCECleveland’s Dance On! Virtual Dance Festival 2020 that began Saturday, July 25 and ran for a week, replaced its planned annual in-person American Dance Festival in Cleveland (ADF in CLE). The online event treated virtual audiences to four exclusive pre-recorded dance performance videos along with virtual artist chats and a variety of differently styled dance classes.
In its usual highly thought out and expertly detailed manner of doing things, DANCECleveland, for the four performance videos being reviewed here, created a full-blown audience playbill for Dance On! – something unheard of for most virtual productions released so far. Add to that, outgoing executive director Pam Young impressively landed interviews with the choreographers/directors of each or the dance companies/works being presented that preceded each of those recorded works as background information for audiences on the artists and each work.
And what a line-up was presented: French contemporary dance duo Company WANG RAMIREZ’s 2011 masterwork Monchichi; Chicago’s Lucky Plush Productions’ Punk Yankees; Ohio’s Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in Abby Zbikowski’s Indestructible and Crystal Michelle & Sheri ‘Sparkle’ Williams’ Altar-ing, and Israel’s Vertigo Dance Company in Vertigo 20 and Birth of the Phoenix filmed in Jerusalem. Local audiences may recall DANCECleveland presented Lucky Plush Productions in 2013 and Vertigo Dance Company just last year.
COMPANY WANG RAMIREZ – MONCHICHI
The first evening-length work produced by Frenchman and former hip-hop B-boy, Sébastien Ramirez and ballet-trained Honji Wang, a German-born dancer of Korean descent as Company WANG RAMIREZ, Monchichi, here recorded in 2015 at the American Dance Festival (ADF) in Durham, North Carolina, was a cutting-edge work that I described in a 2016 review of it in Columbus, Ohio, as “combining an abstraction of hip hop dance with other dance styles and martial arts movement that could very well represent the first salvo in the next trend in contemporary dance.”
Performed to music composed by Everdayz (Ila Koutchoukov) along with selections from Carlos Gardel, Alva Noto, Nick Cave and others, the 55-minute work, seemingly inspired by the pair’s real-life work and personal relationship, was infused with atmospheric lighting, humor and a smidge of pathos. It was delivered by the dancers with crisp, smooth, polished and efficient technique and artistry.
Monchichi began quietly with the pair in silhouette on a stage occupied by only them and a leafless tree as a set piece. Wang, costumed in white lingerie, moved first, her arms and legs carving lines in the air and space around her. Ramirez, shirtless, shoeless and in long white pants joined in looking like a hip hop flamenco dancer.
As it progressed, Monchichi played out at times like a mating ritual with each performer strutting their dancer plumage for the other to delight in and take the measure of. The pair revealed their passions, frustrations, fantasies and the fractures in their relationship.
Another unofficial performer in the work was the lighting design of Cyril Mulon that appeared to partner the pair and add further aesthetic beauty with its rapid transitions from light to dark and measured interjections of color into an otherwise monochrome world.
In one such scene where darkness starkly gave way to white light, the pair executed an onstage wardrobe change with Wang donning a red dress, silver pumps and a blonde wig, and Ramirez, a tailored men’s suit. A sensual and playful fantasy tango dance between the pair ensued but gradually devolved into shame and discomfort for Wang. Another memorable moment was a humorous vignette in which Ramirez acted as if he had thrown out his back after lifting Wang with her misguidedly aggressively patting and rubbing his back making his pain worse.
In the end, what made Monchichi such a captivating dance work was its sophisticated stagecraft in the relationship between Ramirez and Wang and the work’s blending of precision movement with a street dance physicality.
LUCKY PLUSH PRODUCTIONS – PUNK YANKEES
Often the best way to address a problem is through humor. That approach was used to comedic brilliance by choreographer Julia Rhoads in Lucky Plush Productions’ 2009 dance theater piece Punk Yankees to call attention to the rampant piracy of the artistic and intellectual property of choreographers and dance artists. No one exemplified this type of piracy more than Lucky Plush Productions’ main inspiration for the work, the music videos of Beyoncé in which she and her team plagiarized the choreography of Bob Fosse and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
Punk Yankees itself uses the credited dance moves and choreography of others to make its point; doing so in a way that makes you smile ear-to-ear rather than cringing in disgust in them claiming it as their own.
The work begins with a mock post-performance chat by the Rhoads and the dancers with the audience. The spoof chat was not only funny with the dancers answering questions supposedly asked by audience members but were never heard by anyone, but was a clever way to set up to the rest of the work and what it was about. The chat then gave way to the first of Punk Yankees recognizable recreations of others’ choreography, Ohad Naharin’s popular Minus 16 with the dancers seated in chairs in a semi-circle and tossing their bodies backward one after the other.
Some of the works most memorable moments were a send-up of British songstress Kate Bush’s ethereal mime dancing in version one of her music video for 1978’s “Wuthering Heights” (a second video for the song had her frolicking in the woods), and the company in a spoof of 1970’s TV series The Brady Bunch’s show opening in which the dancers projected their faces into the famous stacked grid of squares along with images of Mike (Mr. Brady) and Marsha still occupying two of the squares.
By work’s end the company had sampled movement from dancemakers José Limón, Stephen Petronio, Larry Keigwin, Tere O’Connor, Alvin Ailey and others — all the while driving home the message of plagiarism-bad, making fun of plagiarizing dance, laugh-out-loud funny.
DAYTON CONTEMPORARY DANCE COMPANY – INDESTRUCTIBLE AND ALTAR-ING
A work commissioned by the American Dance Festival, Abby Zbikowski’s Indestructible, like Company WANG RAMIREZ’s Monchichi puts forward another unique hybrid dance style. Zbikowski utilizes African and Afro-diasporic forms and the physicality of sports and acts of manual labor to create hers. The result is a regimented form of aerobic contemporary dance that rivals the intensity of extreme exercise programs like Insanity and P90X.
Indestructible was danced to a soundtrack of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) dancers’ sneaker squeaks panting, grunting and the barking out movement commands like “hut hut” and “switch” along with music by American experimental hip hop band Death Grips that was used for transitions between the work’s sections.
Simply put, DCDC’s dancers killed it in the 15-minute stamina destroying work that had them moving through a barrage of foot-stomps, runs and hops about the stage, and spins to the ground. With Indestructible, Zbikowski showed she is a choreographic force to be reckoned with and one to keep an eye on.
Next, the final dance work in American treasure Sheri ‘Sparkle’ Williams’ 48-year career with DCDC, Altar-ing showcased the ageless one’s incredible artistry and skill. The uplifting and spiritual solo co-choreographed by her and Crystal Michelle was danced to music by Smokie Norful and saw Williams costumed in angelic white dancing with her signature ease, speed and attack in choreography that celebrated with smiling enthusiasm Williams’ dancing and her dance career that brought joy and beauty to countless individuals.
VERTIGO DANCE COMPANY – VERTIGO 20 AND BIRTH OF THE PHOENIX IN JERUSALEM
Created in 2012 in celebration of Vertigo Dance Company’s 20th anniversary, Noa Wertheim’s Vertigo 20 opened on a cold, concrete-looking set of walls that framed the stage on three sides. Vertigo’s dancers sat atop shelves that protruded from the walls with one dancer obscured by four white balloons.
French café music began as two female dancers with Eiffel Tower-shaped hairdos moved slowly across the stage walking on tiptoes and then rolling to the stage floor. Like many of Wertheim’s dance works, her contemporary choreographic movement for the dancers was mostly abstract but precise, stylized and aesthetically pleasing. And while each of her past works featured this same movement language, each brought to it its own mood and emotional impact. Vertigo 20 was no different and was jam-packed with the lush choreography Wertheim and company are known for.
In one tender duet section, a male and female dancer pushed and pulled at each other and rocked back and forth on flat feet in an embrace like some lullaby of lovers. The pair then gave way to a quartet of women in a slow hip-gyrating waltz across the stage continuing Vertigo 20‘s fluid and languid vision of a sophisticated dance work for sophisticated dance artists who made it sing throughout.
Set to equally lush music by Vertigo’s music manager Ran Bagno, Vertigo 20 switched visual and musical moods throughout but never strayed from its achingly beautiful dance movement. The work’s final scene found Vertigo’s dancers sharing the stage with a forest of single white balloons tethered by weights to the stage floor. The dancers moved about them as they had done from the outset of Vertigo 20, in a spellbinding waltz of allure and meaning.
Rounding out Vertigo’s offerings was a documentary-style film of Wertheim’s 2004 work Birth of the Phoenix filmed in Jerusalem during the pandemic. The eco-dance work shot under an open geodesic bamboo dome and narrated by Wertheim, relates humanity’s destruction of the planet and now the COVID-19 crisis with the rise of the Phoenix bird from Greek mythology. Offering up hope that humanity and the planet will rise again.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.