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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Bellwether Dance Project "Aurora Sad Magic" Sept. 14-16, 2023 ODC Theater, San Francisco

Updated: Sep 17, 2023

The room is abuzz on opening night of Bellwether Dance Project’s 2nd Season at the ODC Theater. There is much to anticipate with two premieres followed by the revival of Foley’s Let the Witches Slip (2019) on the program. Bellwether’s Artistic Director and Choreographer Amy Foley constructs dances that draw us in, intrigue and move us. This trio of pieces is distinct yet has a “through line of grief, resilience, and feminine power,” per the program notes.

Aurora Sad Magic was created at a time of grief for Foley who lost her father unexpectedly six months ago, at the start of the rehearsal process. The title references an Alaskan folktale in which the Aurora Borealis is said to contain the souls of those we have loved and lost. The gently morphing green and orange streaks projected on the sky drop suggest a space vast enough to contain our collective loss.

Grief can be isolating and yet it is also universal. Sitting with arms hugging bent knees, seven figures peer up at the sky and then bow their heads. Scooting in from their separate realms they face in, creating a circle. As if we are watching a time-lapse photo, the passage of time is indicated by the periodic counter-clockwise shifting of the group. Rolling to their sides the bodies become the spokes of a wheel.

Rising, Caitlin Hicks sets her feet and windmills her stiff arms in backward arcs. Dancers Roseann Baker, Iva Dixson, Claire Fisher, Olivia Caldeira Holston, Elena Martins and Juliann Witt take turns attempting to stop Hicks’s perpetual motion. The whistling of wind in Ben Juodvalkis’s moody score chills us. The stage becomes a windfarm. As if grief is contagious and best carried by many, the whole cast faces into the corner, arms churning along with Hicks.

The movement vocabulary is full of sharp arm gestures and wide legged stances. There is a rawness to the motion of cleaving one’s chest open with claw-like hands and high jutting elbows.

The collective is ready to bear the weight of the lone figure, both figuratively and emotionally. In one memorable sequence Dixson is eased up from the ground and held in the embrace of another who provides a place of refuge and stability. Sadly, Dixon's muscles seem like jelly as she soon collapses rag-doll-style to the floor when released.

Sounds of bubbling liquid and the distant voices of children intercede as composer Juodvalkis evokes the underwater quality of dreamscapes. The performers’ limbs are heavy. Repetition is both a comfort and a trap as they sway, arms swinging in tandem in front of their bodies. Grief is work, and mundane as much as it is transcendent.

The cast of Bellwether Dance Project's Aurora Sad Magic takes their final bow at ODC Theater; Photo: J. Norris

I am so glad Foley chose to offer us one of her signature solos, this one created by herself. It is a joy to watch her perform What’s the Matter. It begins with a live reading by Meriweather Campbell of her poignant poem entitled “How Do We Begin Again?” inspired by conversations between Foley and Meriweather about balancing the loss of a parent with the responsibilities to carry on. The oratory is short and might have been offered without movement, as one doesn’t want to choose between watching and listening.

Embodying the effort required to carrying on at times of enervating sadness, Foley sits on the floor with her legs extended in front of her. She reaches out and uses her hands to fold her feet up, one at a time, from pointed to flexed position.

As the poem ends a soothing Chopin nocturne fills the space (pianist Melissa Boucher). Foley’s mood vacillates, at times energetically striding with confident high steps, at others she drags her prone body across the floor. Her dancing includes gestures of utilitarian tasks such as folding, gathering, or pushing something into place. Frustrated, she jumps, grasping increasingly desperately for something out of reach. Moments of comfort occur as she pats herself on the back, providing reassurance for herself, or for a child. The piece concludes long before we would ever tire of sharing her movement-based musings. We sigh as Foley she pauses in a final lunge with an arm extended to the ceiling, her back gracefully curved.

Pianist Melissa Boucher, Dancer Amy Foley, & Poet Meriweather Campbell bow after What's the Matter; Photo J. Norris

Let Slip the Witches is a bit of witchy wonderment, conjuring a subtly othered world. Hushed incantations from breathy overlapping voices fill the space offering “witch,” “healer,” “goddess,” “mother”, “seeker,” and more. Del Medoff’s lighting applies the jagged projected patterns, by artist Julie Chang, onto the performers and the floor, while allowing the backdrop to be appropriately atmospherically vague. The high contrast between light and shadow is echoed in the light skin of exposed faces and arms that play against the flat black costumes.

The performers communicate in body percussion, slapping thighs, chests, and naked arms to generate complicated rhythms and replies. Their bodies react to invisible forces, one of which knocks at shoulders causing the women to twist and fall back. Tilting angles appear, in their postures, in crooked elbows sprouting from necks, and swaying stiff bodies.

The cast includes Aurora Sad Magic dancers Dixson, Hicks, Martins, Holtson and Witt, all of whom add their own enchantress vibes to the proceedings. A twitchy solo by Witt left me on edge. Her hand trembles uncontrollably, and as she reaches to still it, the powerful pulse becomes a jerking shoulder or a vibrating foot. She clutches her skull attempting to quell the spasms, causing it to shake painfully. The throbbing power seems to abate only to resume elsewhere in twittering fingertips. Inescapable isolated vibrations possess one body part at a time.

Let the Witches Slip only grows stronger with age. I am so glad we had this opportunity to see it again. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait four more years for Bellwether Dance Project’s 3rd season.

Review by Jen Norris, published September 16, 2023

Cast of Let Slip the Witches bows, floor patterns by Julie Chang, at ODC Theater; Photo J. Norris


Production Credits

Bellwether Dance Project, under the direction of Artistic Director Amy Foley, presents their second home season with two premieres, Aurora Sad Magic, a septet inspired by human grief and how the natural world may help make sense of it; What's the Matter, a solo, danced by Foley, alongside a poet and a pianist; and acclaimed work from 2019, Let Slip the Witches, which has been called "flat-out transcendent" (Life as a Modern Dancer). The show features collaborations with composer Ben Juodvalkis, visual artist Julie Chang, and poet Meriweather Campbell, as well as a cast of some of the Bay Area's most captivating performers: Roseann Baker, Iva Dixson, Claire Fisher, Caitlin Hicks, Elena Martins, Olivia Caldeira Holston and Juliann Witt.

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