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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: Natasha Carlitz Dance Ensemble presents “Gallery” March 29 & 30, 2024 Cubberley Theatre, Palo Alto, CA

Updated: Apr 5

Natasha Carlitz Dance Ensemble’s (NCDE) Gallery, a series of nineteen dances, is arranged around the theme of an art exhibition.  Each selection is inspired by a specific work.  As we enter the Cubberley Theater, part of a community center in Palo Alto, a rotating series of artworks is projected onto the backdrop. Performers, cast as museum goers, ponder the works, tilting heads thoughtfully or in silent discussion with a companion. 

High Release Dance company members view artwork images during pre-play of Gallery; Photo: J. Norris

Natasha Carlitz has been making dances for her company since 2005.  In the intervening years, she has created more than a dozen evening-length programs. The vast majority of Gallery’s dances were created in the past year and a half.  The company members all have day jobs, but share a deep love and commitment to dance, rehearsing together twice weekly through much of the year.  The ten company members in various arrangements make up the cast of the sixteen works whose choreography is credited to “Carlitz with the dancers.” A guest company, High Release Dance, offers a lyrical piece “Above and Below,” inspired by two atmospheric Georgia O’Keeffe paintings with choreography by Carlitz.  NCDE dancer Alyssa Plummer supplies a jazz-meets-contemporary duet danced by emerging artists Samantha Kennedy and Liam McCullar.

Carlitz’s choreography is recognizable for its strong and determined lines and forms.  A certain athleticism is required as dancers do forward rolls, kick up toward handstands and arch into tabletop poses. The movement is more mechanical than flowing. Arms thrust, feet flex and torsos and joints hinge rather than rippling or waving.

Carlitz takes an interpretive dance approach to each artwork. As the costume designer for eight-nine costumes in the show, her choices are derivative. The duo in “Connect,” informed by Yayoi Kusama’s “Ascension of Polka Dots on Trees,” wear head-to-toe red and white polka dots.  The characters in “Four Stories,” are clearly dressed to match their doppelgangers in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (1942).

White tops sport perpendicular black lines, whose occasional rectangles are infilled with a primary color, echoing the geometric artistic technique Mondrian used in “Composition with red, blue and yellow” (1942) which stimulated Carlitz to create “Square Dance.”  With upright postures, a quartet pivots to the four corners of the room, maintaining their angular relationships when crossing through space.  Their arms extend in stiff lines, breaking at the elbow to form right angles which further reinforce the linear approach of her inspiration, Mondrian.

Each dance begins with its dance-name writ large on the back screen and ends with an image of the source image.  Having seen the opening montage, it is not difficult to guess the originating artwork as we watch.  Is this the goal? Is this satisfying to the viewer?  For my part, a less didactic approach to expressing the impact of these fine artists’ works would have been more interesting. 

Copious program notes make clear that Carlitz took pleasure and care in selecting the music to pair with each artwork.  The early 16th Century Netherlands painting of three female musicians visibly includes sheet music of Claudin de Sermisy’s “Jouissance Vous Donneray,” and thus this French chanson accompanies the courtly dance of a trio of women in Renaissance-inspired dresses.

The literalness of performers, dressed as workman, pulling themselves onto the stage on their knees, arms pushing forward across the dancefloor in homage to Gustave Caillebotte’s “The Floor Scrapers” (1875) is not helped by the insistent Napoleonic marching song, which Carlitz imagines the workers “might well have sung as they worked.”  

Natasha Carlitz Dance Ensemble members bow in front of a collage of artwork images; Photo J. Norris

The whole evening feels like an introduction to contemporary choreography workshop, where on the first day the students break into small groups to make short pieces, inspired by a work of art.  The group that gets Barbara Hepworth’s bronze sculpture of three interconnected ovals, “Forms in Movement (Pavan)” (1956), link arms to become one entity and then pretzel themselves into different shapes reinforcing the voids as much as the arcs of their limbs.  The Calder mobile folks connect themselves with long rod-like arms touching another’s shoulders as they explore their interrelatedness. One can imagine how clever they feel when noticing a mobile’s subtle adjustments to air currents which they render with repetitive heel lift/knee bend motions that leaves all wavering slightly.

The evening is at its strongest when the stage is full.  The self-consciousness of unsteady balances, or out of synch sequences, which catch the eye and characterize much of the small ensemble work falls away. We appreciate an abundance of movers and the patterns they carve through the space.  The finale “Chroma,” based on Victor Vasarely's color blocking “Planetary Folklore (Participations), (1942) is quirky and engaging.  Nine dancers, each in their own cube of light, face us in deep plié, arms posed angularly overhead, they tilt sideways drawing a bent leg into the air to teeter in tandem for a moment.  Later, lying in formation, legs poking skyward, in first position with heels married and feet turned out, they pull their heels down and press them up creating a field of pulsing strands around a lone dancer’s standing arabesques.

Wayne Thibaud’s “Jolly Cones,” is brought to charming life by choreographer Avery Rissling, with collaboration from Katherine Seely, Isaiah Youngblood, as well as performers Skylar Rose Adams, and Sophie Otewalt.  The physical humor and comic timing are spot on in this delightful narrative duet. A droopy and sad-clown ice cream cone is cajoled and propped up by its joyful and encouraging playmate. Drawing her dour friend up from the ground, we giggle as her charge collapses, ragdoll-like.

Carlitz’s art selections reveal her attraction to vivid colors and abstract modernists.  These artists were on the vanguard in their days.  Matisse’s primary color collage “The Snail,” is so deconstructed as to be unrecognizable as a creature and yet Carlitz chooses to begin and end her dance titled “L’Escargot,” by creating the profile of a giant snail, piling six dancers into a rounded clump adjacent to a seventh who stands, arms waving, as the antenna of her mollusk.

I was first introduced to Carlitz and NCDE at a 2023 showcase where they shared the full company work “Shtetl,” inspired by Chagall’s “Introduction to the Jewish Theater,” (1920).  Her work has a clear point of view which helped it stand out in that variety show format. Gallery is overlong and comprised of too many parts.  While Carlitz is clearly a font of ideas, she would benefit from collaborators who may bring additional intellectual rigor to the choices being made.  In choosing herself as the director, producer, costume designer, and choreographer she eliminates the advantages of an inquiring artistic colleague or editing eye.  

Review by Jen Norris, published March 30, 2024; corrected April 5, 2024


Photos of artwork referred to in this review.

Henri Ma

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