Review: Dragon Dances presents ‘We Aren’t Alone Here’, ODC Theater, San Francisco, May 19, 2023
Updated: May 24
ODC Theater is abuzz with happy patrons anticipating this one-night only presentation by Erin Yen’s Dragon Dances. The evening partially underwritten by the ODC Theater’s Rental Discount Initiative, features a solo work by Bay Area artist Jin Lee Baobei, a duet by Two in Seven Billion a NYC-based physical dance theater company and a trio crafted by our host Erin Yen. Yen titled this energetic and inspiring 60-minute triptych We Aren’t Alone Here, which brings to my mind the audience-performer relationship and the idea of extraterrestrial life. With those concepts floating around my head, I found much to appreciate in these performances. Each was fresh, inventive and movement based, unhindered by spoken word but for the occasional exclamation.
Erin Yen and her Dragon Dances castmates Madi McGain and Abigail Hinson (L to R) bow; Photo: J. Norris
depths & mirrors, composed and performed by Baobei is mesmerizing from start to finish. In a pool of light, a folded figure is discovered, head bowed, arms extending along the floor, palms up, with fingers slowly rotating. Gestures are gradual, the transitions barely perceptible. Their arms rise from behind as if growing from their stooped back, hands turning inward like faces in conversation.
An experimental street dancer with extraordinary flexibility, Baobei creates silhouettes that defy logic and resembe insects or animals as much as humans. Dislocating their shoulders, their arms form rectangles or triangles that would be impossible for most. On their knees, facing away from us, they arch back, tipping the top of their head to the ground; their piercing gaze penetrates from an upside down face.
The lines and momentum of their elegant arms and hands drive the trajectory of their body. In dialog with each other, at times their arms move symmetrically and at others they appear to disagree, one wandering off until the other draws it back. We see a wave originate in a hand, ripple from wrist, to elbow, to bicep, to shoulder and then roll through ribs and hips with distinct isolations.
The musical choices are sophisticated, providing rich textures and floating transitions from Ryuichi Sakamoto’s atmospheric piano, to Natureboy Flako’s magical synthetic worlds, and on to the ethereal jazz of Pharoah Sanders. And depths & mirrors is well served by Del Medoff’s carefully-crafted lighting. The final sequences feature a cool pallet of slowly crossfading area lights whose pulsing continues as the intensity ebbs to darkness. The complexity and talent displayed in Baobei’s work left me transfixed.
During the pause, before Two in Seven Billion’s Jessica Santaniello and Alex Schmidt take the stage, I realize their company name refers to the seven billion people on earth (8 billion as of late November 2022), bringing additional meaning to the evening’s moniker, We Aren’t Alone Here.
There is an unpredictable wildness in Continued, excerpted from their 2019 company premiere. These acrobatic performers play at the edge between control and abandon as they explore “human experiences that are often overlooked and not shared,” the less beautiful bits, the interstitial and relational.
The soundscape resembles a radio searching for signal. “He started walking, it’s a performance,” is discernable amidst the static as Santaniello enters hunched on all fours. Only her hands and toes touch the floor. She throws herself into a folding chair, knocking Schmidt off an adjacent chair and beginning a chain reaction of skidding, tumbling, propulsive movement.
There’s a knit beanie that they vie for. It serves as a hiding place when tugged down over one’s face; or it may be used as a towel, a prop microphone, or a gag. Most importantly it can be possessed by only one at a time, thus worthy of attention and conflict.
Melding gymnastic skills with dance technique, the pair launch themselves off their shoulders onto their feet and cartwheel over chairs. Harboring a sense of ill-ease, they approach the audience and unnervingly regard us. Contemptuous? Distrustful? Or guilelessly curious?
Elvis croons “Are you lonesome tonight?” as Schmidt sits, a wallflower, visibly quaking while chewing on the hat. A more confident Santaniello dances, drawing hearts in the air she is ready for love; or ready for a fight, as moments later she shadow-punches.
The physical confidence and well-matched camaraderie add to the pleasure of watching these two. Schmidt unleashes a spin on one foot that must have at least five rotations, but who can tell in the blur of motion and flying hair. My take away is that life is complicated and difficult to escape. Under the surface we are all tumbling along, while both competing and working together to get through in one piece.
After intermission, Dragons Dance's Erin Yen and dancers Abigail Hinson and Madi McGain take us on a whimsical and refreshing ride with the premiere of Fly Me. A bouncy compilation of the charming outtakes from the dance numbers in a musical about a moon landing have been assembled for our amusement and amazement. The soundtrack, created by Sawako Ogo, includes snippets of Moon River, Fly Me to the Moon, and the iconic audio recordings of astronauts’ musings.
Posed in windows of light, the trio’s engaging smiles beam. Each rotates through a series of persona and sight gags. One plays an imaginary violin, while another smokes, or serves tea. The third wakes, broadly stretching with an exaggerated yawn. The snippets read like a game of Mad Libs, where the fill-in-the-blank is “shivering” in one phrase, and “jazz hands” in the next. It is not possible to catch them all, but it’s fun to try. I’m drawn to McGain, whose comic timing hits a sweet spot for me.
Silliness is the order of the day. With circling ribs swiveling behind churning arms, Hinson and McGain do the cabbage patch dance. Hands cupped around her eyes to create binocular/goggles, Yen scans the horizon for danger, before joining her friends, the elation of this 80’s dance bringing her onto her toes.
Mission control counts down to liftoff. Newly vested Apollo crew members, the performers bodies jostle as their hands grip tightly to imaginary shoulder straps. Hinson’s face shows signs of nausea under a mask of fear. Yen spins across the stage on her knees, as we hear astronaut Gene Cernan from Apollo 17 singing “Hippity Hoppity,” a lyric he sang while bunny-hopping on the lunar surface.
In this free association match, the logical extension of a moonwalk is a slow-dance to Moon River, which Hinson and McGain take up, as Yen, bathed in un-earthlike orange sidelight, takes slow-motion steps, perhaps mimicking the difficulties of striding gravity-free.
The hijinks continue, concluding with an Oz-inspired, elbow-linked, group gallop to downstage, where sadly they bid us adieu. Back in their window lights, they each point to their own special audience member, mouthing” I love you” and hoping for some well-earned reciprocation as the lights fade.
We Aren't Alone Here cast bows: Jin Lee Baobei, Alex Schmidt, Jessica Santaniello, Madi McGain, Erin Yen and Abigail Hinson (L to R) Photo: J. Norris
Review by Jen Norris, published May 21, 2023
We Aren’t Alone Here
with Jin Lee Baobei, Two in Seven Billion, and Dragons Dance Dragons
ODC Theater, May 19, 2023 7:30 p.m.
Hosted by: Erin Yen / Dragons Dance
Lighting Designer: Del Medoff
Theater Technicians: Colin Johnson and Cole Stuart Johnson
Videographer: Clare Schweitzer
depths & mirrors
Composed and Performed by: Jin Lee Baobei
Music credits: Sabrina Claudio, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Natureboy Flako, Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders & London Symphony Orchestra
Continued (Bay Area premiere)
Choreographers/Dancers: Jessica Santaniello and Alex Schmidt
Music Credits: AGF, Emptyset, Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson
‘Continued’ contains excerpts from our 2019 company premiere of TWO IN SEVEN BILLION.
Fly Me (world premiere)
Choreographer: Erin Yen
Performers: Abigail Hinson, Madi McGain, and Erin Yen
Sound Design by Sawako Ogo
'Fly Me' is the collaborative expression of Dragons Dance's Erin Yen and dancers Abigail Hinson and Madi McGain. Joy is revolutionary, and it is something worth sharing.