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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris


Updated: Aug 20, 2022

Should a dance be about something? Even if it is does it matter? What if it is about something esoteric like creativity, which provides a wonderful jumping off point...but would be difficult to pin down without program notes? Do we have a shared understanding of the absurd? Can I truly take in a movement story while also listening to a lecture on the nature of human existence? Attending a show can be like getting onto an amusement park ride and not knowing if it’s designed to delight or terrify. Friday night’s double bill of San Diego’s Dance Riot and San Francisco’s FACT/SF, at the ODC Theater, provided two fascinating excursions.

Dance Riot’s Ex Nihilo, Latin for “out of nothing,” an other-worldly quintet choreographed by Zaquia Mahler Salinas. The work mesmerized and delighted. In darkness we hear a beat-boxer (Johnny Tarr, original sound creator) begin a rhythm to which the doodling notes of a piano are gradually added. From nothing much will be born, as stage-light revealed a group of shimmery beings standing at attention, eyes skyward, waiting. Earthlings? Aliens? Earthlings waiting for aliens?

The stage was filled with swirling beings. They spiraled within themselves while creating circles and arcs with each other. Rounded arms gestured over heads, arabesques spun around the stage. A partner joyfully twirled a colleague, upside down in the splits. Glitter and sweat created a glaze upon their limbs.

Photo Credit: Robbie Sweeny: Dance Riot’s Ex Nihilo

In their duet, the relationship, between the Lauren Christie and Odessa Mae Uno was highly charged and more robotic than human. Christie then led Uno by her head, compelling her to melt sideways, bodyroll frontward, and then bend backward, eventually forcing them both to kneel.

The energy of the piece built over its 36-minute length and physical contact became more belligerent. Near the end we encountered a frenetic duet. Guillermo Castro and Salinas aggressively shimmied their chests at each other before attempting a mad salsa, which degraded into frenzied hand waving, before he lifted her by her shoulders and swayed her back and forth like a rag doll.

The sound score included interludes of philosopher Alan Watts lecturing on a variety of subjects. I found the movement so fascinating that I disregarded the text entirely, however a transcript of it can be found here.

A fan of the unexpected, I was delighted that FACT/SF began their world premiere presentation of For a with the entire lighting grid waist-high over the stage. As the piece began, performers scooted under the trusses lying belly down on wheeled furniture dollies. They used their arms to propel themselves. (Choreographer Charles Slender-White calls this “penguining”).

LizAnne Roman Roberts, caged in by light trusses, performed a series of balletic poses downstage, arms overhead in fifth position, as Katherine Neumann and Slender-White joined upstage, silhouetted against an orange backdrop. The lowered lighting grid allowed us to see only their upper torsos, heads and arms.

As the lighting grid motored back up, the trio filled the stage with near constant movement. The choreography was a compilation of snippets from FACT/SF’s fifteen-year history. Having selected Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, with its varied moods and tempos from fast and brilliant to slow and dreamy, Slender-White did a marvelous job of marrying the music and the movement, matching transitions in the score to those in dancing.

Humor and absurdity were present often, though the audience never laughed perhaps the grandeur of the music dissuaded them? Sections of classical ballet vocabulary were interspersed with striking images and tongue-in-cheek wit. One minute they strutted in coy runway model catwalks, elbows jutting, hands placed breast high. In the next, a duo exited the stage moving backwards on hands and feet, butts in the air a la downward dog, as a ghost-bride entered trailing an impossibly long train. The sheet was yanked off revealing Neumann in lace dress ready for her romantic solo. But, the romance ended quickly as the stage faded to black and she continued her dance while holding a mechanic’s aluminum-hooded light. The light revealed slivers of her movement when not blinding us completely.

Roberts, Neumann and Slender-White are amazingly versatile dancers with a strong bond, speaking in gestures and completing each other’s phrases as spouses complete each other’s sentences. The quality of the movement transitioned often from sharp angular arm sequences to full-bodied balletic phrases or a Giselle spoof stiff-armed Wilis’ tableau. The classical repertoire was sometimes danced with less than full extension, as if marking during rehearsal, only to then be performed full out with precision and gusto as was the final breathtaking grand jete leap into the wings.

Disco Riot and FACT/SF made a marvelous paring. How fortunate we are that they worked to create their peer-organized reciprocal touring program (PORT) in which small alternative dance companies present each other. I can’t wait to see with whom FACT/SF next collaborates.


Photo Credit: Robbie Sweeney of Katherine Neumann in FACT/SF's "For a" at ODC Theater August 2022

Review by Jen Norris August 6, 2022; Revised August 20, 2002

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