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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: ODC Theater’s State of Play 2023, Festival Recap, ODC Dance Commons & Theater, August 3-13

A multi-disciplinary performance festival grounded in dance, ODC Theater’s State of Play 2023 (SOP), features nine presentations from touring artists, alongside one fully-staged (Tableau Stations) and three studio showings of work by Bay Area choreographers. Curators Maurya Kerr and Leyya Mona Tawil envision that through these artists “the revolution will be embodied.”

Setting the stage for unconventional and thought-provoking experiences, enigmatic selfie headshots of the artists, along with an artmaking identifier for each, decorate the lobby walls. The labels include “Experimenter,” “Risk Taker,” and “Curious Creator.”

Crafted around the voices of people of color, SOP 2023 presentations explore the importance of individual and collective identity, safe spaces, shelter, freedom of expression and kinship. The casts are small but mighty, a biproduct of art-making during pandemic social distancing and isolation, and no doubt additionally, budgetary constraints. The immediacy of the intimate solo and duet offerings feels confessional, which lends a feeling of urgency to my role as a viewer/witness.

Baye & Asa, a dynamic duo from Brooklyn, have been making work together since they were kids. Their Suck it Up is an audience favorite. Performed over the opening weekend, it is often referred to in the Festival Lounge in answer to the question, “What has spoken to you so far?” Amadi ‘Baye’ Washington and Sam ‘Asa’ Pratt hit all the right notes as they ape the facile male depicted in many American advertising campaigns. Initially their antics and stereotypical behavior make us laugh, but their swagger turns sinister, as the action moves ever closer to the audience. The threat of barely contained violence takes the form of a sport hero crushing a can on his head. An anonymous masked figure appears in a bullet-proof vest, as a live-camera-feed projects menacing close-ups over the proceedings. The implication is: deny someone’s full-identity and the results may be catastrophic for all.

Sam 'Asa' Pratt in Suck It Up. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Seattle duo David Rue and Randy Ford (Aisha Noir), who together form the creative team of DANDY explore gender expectations from a different perspective. They tell us they are here to bring the joy and offer a break from the “sorrow, grief, and trauma,” so often associated with Black Queer bodies.

They are fashionable fierceness personified. Rue’s ensemble includes a pink newsboy hat and matching pleated-tennis-skirt. Aisha catwalks in black lace stockings, under a skimpy electric-blue body suit. Their gossipy storytelling, get-real original song lyrics, and booty-shaking/duck-walking dance moves fill the room with exuberance, while also surreptitiously making the case for trans rights.

David Rue in A DANDY Affair; Photo: J. Norris

VITRUVIAN, Jerron Herman’s show, inspired by DaVinci’s iconic ‘Vitruvian Man” illustration, is beautifully danced. Herman is an artist with a physical disability. With VITRUVIAN he shares all that he is, revealing his strengths and weaknesses, and celebrating his innate perfection.

Providing a place of welcoming and accessibility is important to Herman. By projecting, upon the scenery, poetic descriptions of the performance’s musical qualities, the production demonstrates how artistic values need not be sacrificed to accessibility. When done well, as this is, features like captioning increase access, and thus enjoyment, for all.

Over the course of the festival, it is interesting to discover kindred spirits. Audrey Johnson’s land/body/memory is a contemplative a reflective and peaceful duet for Johnson and her movement collaborator Laila Shabazz. Breath and space are characters in their worshipful dance. Arms and chests rise skyward and then fall gently back toward the sacred land. Responding to, moving toward, in unison with each other, we feel their deep abiding connection and observe their awareness of the environment. I find their mindfulness contagious.

Audrey Johnson and Laila Shabazz in land/ body/memory. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Marissa Brown/Lone King Projects’s, How lonely sits the city, has a similar contemplative pacing. It investigates relationships between people and places, through both lived and inherited histories. Stunning larger-than-life films of solo dancers amidst the landscapes of historically Black neighborhoods of Los Angeles are inescapably present throughout the hour-long piece.

Desolate shots of the LA River’s empty concrete viaduct unfurl, as Brown moves hypnotically on the stage, dwarfed by the screen images. Her interior landscape is as vast as the film locales. Unhurried, she lies in stillness for many minutes before initiating a slow rise to her feet.

A sound track of concerned phone messages plays. “I love you – call me when you can.” “Are you ok? Call me back.” Onscreen, a person repeatedly grasps their belly and then grabs their shoulder. While on stage, Brown peers searchingly in to the near dark. The live and projected occurrences aren’t directly related, yet they share a pervasive sense of isolation and uncomfortably.

Tableau Stations’ Home Waves installation also includes rich onscreen environs. Shot around the Bay Area, the footage focuses our attention on the precarity of housing, highlighting areas of decaying infrastructure which some must call home. Onstage the characters appear disconnected from each other, and strain to find balance and safety. The consequences of the absence of solid foundations recurs in many of the festival artists’ work.

Kensaku Shinohara’s Good bye speaks to his struggle to assimilate in America after immigrating from Japan. Shinohara demonstrates his discomfort and alienation with chest beating and anxious footfalls as he circles the onstage audience, transferring to them a bit of his apprehension.

Shinohara wasn’t the only festival participant to invite the audience onto the stage. Both Ajani Brannum and Yanira Castro ask us to participate. While Brannum relies on volunteer readers, Castro enlists the audience in the full creation of I came here to weep. In so doing, she conveys viscerally the harmful effects of America’s long disregard for the sovereignty of the people of Puerto Rico.

Bay Area dancer and choreographer, gizeh muñiz vengel is new to me, and definitely one to watch. The studio showing of her developing work UNA Agua reveals a consummate non-verbal communicator. As the sun pours in the windows, vengel thoughtfully arranges set pieces in the pools of light. Returning in a red one-piece swimsuit, she looks particularly petite carrying a very full watercooler bottle wrapped in her arms. To compensate for its weight, she leans back. Taking wide strides, vengel accommodates the bottle’s girth. With the utmost care she pours from the huge container into a smaller one. As we observe how she adjusts the vessels to avoid spilling even a drop, we contemplate the many ways water is essential for our way of life and how carelessly it is dispensed in most American households. A fascinating improvisation dance follows, piquing my interest in vengel's further explorations and dance making.

I regret that I missed pateldanceworks SOP showing of fault lines: witness. It would have been interesting to see Bhumi Patel’s solo presentation: a response to the ambitious site-specific fault lines she created with many collaborators, atop the oceanside cliffs of Fort Funston recently.

We are so fortunate to have ODC Theater taking a leadership role in presenting thought-provoking new voices for Bay Area audiences, especially in these uncertain times as theater companies nationwide continue to pause programming. Future presentations, scheduled for four weekends between Feb 16 and March 17, 2024, promise to inspire and incite us anew.

Published by Jen Norris, August 23, 2023

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