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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Alyssa Mitchel and the Contemporary Jewish Museum present REGARD, CJM August 4 -6 and 11-13,

Regard, Alyssa Mitchel’s newest site-specific dance takes place in the asymmetrical, high-ceilinged Stephen and Maribelle Leavitt Yud Gallery of The Contemporary Jewish Museum. An up-and-coming Bay Area choreographer, Mitchel has a trove of riches at her disposal: an excellent cast of classically-trained modern-dance practitioners, professional musicians performing live, a muralist with which to work in the creation of scenic units and a two-weekend run at a major metropolitan museum. Producing on this scale is a complicated undertaking for anyone, let alone an emerging artist. If at times the results are a bit uneven, one must give Mitchel and company props for the successful mounting of this ambitious project.


Dancers pictured above in The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s Stephen and Maribelle Leavitt Yud Gallery from left to right: Fabiana Santiago, Alice Wells, Brandon Graham, Juan Magacho, Jess DeFranco and Claire Fisher. Photography: © 2023 Eric Raeber, www.ericraeber.com


Mitchell uses the gallery’s architectural details, walls which slant away from the floor and 36 quadrilateral-shaped windows, to interesting effect. Dancers sit and stand within the deep window voids, seeming to disappear or hover. The canted walls become surfaces upon which to roll, glide, and push-off, creating unusual angles and opportunities to defy gravity. Jess DeFranco and Juan Magacho’s Section 4: Transition duet finds her climbing his body. Splayed atop the wall, which tilts away from them, DeFranco perches atop Magacho’s shoulders. As he bends his knees, they sink as one. He has become her down elevator.


While some dance in museum settings occurs in open spaces where a visitor might discover the work unexpectedly, Regard is presented once daily, theater style, with the audience seated on a single side. The space is decorated with six rolling panels that can be used to mask dancers, or moved to create performance areas. While the dancers arrange and rearrange them often, their small scale, in the monumental space, lessens their effectiveness as space definers. Unfortunately, they also block some potentially interesting moments, such as the first time talented musicians David Goldblatt (cello) and Steven Lin (guitar) perform on stage.


Regard unfolds in eight sections. The movement mixes modern, jazz, and contemporary ballet vocabulary to communicate the emotions of the characters. Section 1: Close, Far and Somewhere in Between, features Fabiana Santiago and Jess DeFranco whose close female friendship dissolves into backstabbing before resolving into a distant peace. Santiago and DeFranco bring a playfulness to their early closeness, sharing a twirling piggy-back ride, holding hands and making palm-to-palm pacts. When silence descends, an uneasiness and lack of trust intrudes. Now as one woman leaps into the other’s arms, the catch is incomplete and leaves the leaper on her knees. The narrative arc is clear, but I longed for a bit more context regarding their relationship.


At the top of Section 3: Seven Stages of Grief, soloist Brandon Graham is shunned by the other dancers, who shield themselves and hide from him. His extreme distress is visceral, characterized by a silent scream, clawed hands and a stumbling gate. Seeking acknowledgement, he approaches the others individually and is universally rejected. Here, as with Section 1’s female friendship, the broadly drawn emotive relationships flirt with becoming caricaturist.


Mitchel has created some truly memorable and intriguing movement phrases, such as one that stood out to me, where dancers their hands on the floor and their feet held in the hands of their partners, dancers perform modulated torso waves over the floor.


With Section 5: Inner Critic, Santiago, as the painter who doubts herself, shows off her keen acting ability as well as her classical ballet training. She allows the many critical voices, represented by a trio of dancers clad in black, to erode her confidence. This section, in which the scenic panels become the paintings in Santiago’s studio, makes the most of the colorful mini murals ORLUarts (Liv Losee-Unger) has created. Dancers face the panels, hands flowing as if in the act of painting the complex swirling patterns.


When the dancers perform in concert with each other, unburdened by props, they are at their strongest. Alice Wells’s Section 4: Loneliness solo, in which with legs spread and arms reaching in opposition she gives the illusion of a woman being pulled in two directions by invisible cords, is more effective for the absence of the ropes, which are danced with, in two other sections. Magacho and Juan Ruiz move well together and I longed for them to be freed of panel moving duties and focus solely on each other in their Section 8 Spark Part I duet.


Mitchel has a wealth of ideas, both large and small. Her work is engaging and thought-provoking, if overly long at 80 minutes. Creating a show of this scale on the heels of her 2022 Exploratorium presentation leaves no doubt she has the wherewithal to meet new challenges. I look forward to watching her hone her skills and distill her message in the coming years.


Review by Jen Norris, published August 12, 2023.

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Choreographer: Alyssa Mitchel Dancers: Jessica DeFranco, Claire Fisher (Aug 4-6), Brandon Graham (Aug 11-13), Juan Magacho, Juan Ruiz, Fabiana Santiago, and Alice Wells Live Musicians: David Goldblatt and Steven Lin Muralist: ORLUarts (Liv Losee-Unger) Made possible by a partnership with The Contemporary Jewish Museum ​~Program Order~ Section I: Close, Far and Somewhere in Between Music: Comfortable Silence by Break of Reality and Footprints by Jeff Grace Dancers: Fabiana Santiago and Jess DeFranco Section II: Trust Music: Opaque by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Skúli Sverrisson and Lento by Durwynne Hsieh Dancers: Alice Wells, Fabiana Santiago, Jess DeFranco and Juan Magacho Musicians: David Goldblatt (cello) and Steven Lin (guitar) Section III: The Seven Stages of Grief Music: Tanti Anni Prima by Astor Piazzolla Dancers: Claire Fisher (Aug 4–6) // Brandon Graham (Aug 11–13) with Alice Wells, ​Fabiana Santiago, Jess DeFranco, Juan Magacho, and Juan Ruiz Musicians: David Goldblatt (cello) and Steven Lin (guitar) Section IV: Loneliness Music: Guitar Concerto I and Guitar Concerto II by Oliver Davis Dancer: Alice Wells Musicians: David Goldblatt (cello) and Steven Lin (guitar) Section V: Inner Critic Music: The Last Winter by Jeff Grace, Rivieradub by Perc & Einstürzende Zeubauten and Zeitgeber by Manu Delago Dancers: Alice Wells, Claire Fisher (Aug 4–6), Brandon Graham (Aug 11–13), Fabiana Santiago, Jess DeFranco and Juan Ruiz Transition Music: Arpeggione (Adagio from Sonata in A Minor) by Franz Schubert Dancers: Jess DeFranco and Juan Magacho Musicians: David Goldblatt (cello) and Steven Lin (guitar) Section VI: Spark Part I: Music: Un Dia de Noviembre by Leo Brouwer Dancers: Juan Magacho and Juan Ruiz Musicians: Steven Lin (guitar) Part II: Music: Guitar Concerto III by Oliver Davis Dancers: Full Ensemble Musicians: David Goldblatt (cello) and Steven Lin (guitar)


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