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  • Writer's pictureJen Norris

Review: The Straw Dogs, The Stories of the People Next to Us, produced by & presented at SHACK15, January 31, 2024

The Stories of the People Next to Us is a project of The Straw Dogs, a collective of Bay Area dance makers comprised of Mauelito Biag, Kara Davis, Tristan Ching Hartmann, Nol Simonse, and Victor Talledos. Together they have conceived, choreographed, and directed this low-tech/high-art evening of dance, music and mingling.  It is performed in, and produced by, SHACK15, a private club/co-working space located on the upper floors of San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building.  

With chairs placed in long rows facing a beige wall and lighting whose focus is simple illumination, we have only the artists upon which to focus.  Dance is the most ephemeral of art forms, part of its power comes from its transience, as this one-night-only, be-there-or-be-square, presentation reminds us. 

Tristan Ching Hartmann and ArVejon Jones in The Stories of the People Next to Us; Photo J. Norris

An original song, “All These Butterflies,” written and performed by Katy Stephan, on keyboard and vocals greets us, poetically conjuring the beauty and the heartache that, woven together, make a life. Victor Talledos sits on the floor, a knee tucked to his chest, appreciating Stephan.  Friends enter quietly, taking perches around the space, all listening, breathing in the song.  An absence of ego and an ethos of mutual respect for each participant’s artistry is pervasive.

Framing questions are briefly shared. What are the stories around us? How do we encounter joy, isolation, love and loss? In what ways can our shared experiences define our humanity? A magical hour unfurls, beginning with a prone Manuelito Biag rising onto straight arms, his long legs dragging behind, as if not yet fully alive. Finding his way to his feet he is prayerful, bent kneed, with clasped hands rising and falling.

The soundtrack is emotionally-charged and varied, with recorded tracks from Philip Glass to Hoodfellas’ ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ (full list in credits). Like the dancing which it supports, the musical selections take us on a journey of highs and lows and in-betweens. 

“Don’t walk away,” James Blake hauntingly croons (“Atmosphere” by Joy Division), as Sarah Bauer joins Biag, biting her thumb knuckle, her angst evident. The stage fills gradually, with each entrant offering a personal movement phrase, all responding individually to questioning inner voices and outward circumstances. Together all ten throw their hands beseechingly up in the air, bringing the passage to a close.  

Well-made contemporary dance flows thoughtfully from small groups to large ensembles. Transitions are created with dancers lingering between sections to regard each other. While a majority of the work originates with the Straw Dogs, guest choreographer Mary Carbonara contributes Concentrate on Walking, a duet for Nol Simonse and Jordan Wanderer. 

The high-pitched vocals of Trio Medieval performing David Lang’s ‘Just (After Song of Songs)’ reverberate. In Concentrate on Walking, I see a couple sorting the give and take of personal space, the need for dominance and independence, and the satisfaction of being even fleetingly in synch. She the searcher, he the finder.  Simonse nestles himself behind Wanderer, who pushes him away and then spins out of reach as he returns.  Wanderer rests her knee upon Simonse’s back, allowing him to carry some of her weight as he crawls on all fours.  Their relationship feels universal.

A trio for the statuesque Camille Henrot and petite duo of Giovana and Giulia Sales brims with the interplay of vulnerability and strength. Giovana folds backwards into Giulia’s waiting arms.  Lowering her head to meet her sister’s, Giulia caresses Giovana’s face.  Seeking shelter or protection, the twins cling to Henrot, their arms wrapped around her neck, bodies tucked in closely.  Henrot sheds them, the heaviness of their needs perhaps as troublesome as their actual weightiness. Can three co-exist? Side-by-side, hip-to-hip they sit. Balance is established for a fleeting moment, before the twins walk away, forcing Henrot to run and grab them or risk their loss.

Guilia Sales supporting her Giovana Sales  in The Stories of the People Next to Us; Photo J. Norris

Modeling cooperation and balance Kara Davis and Biag hold hands, while mirroring each other’s gestures. Facing, they lean back, depending on the other’s presence to counterbalance their own. Biag hugs an upside-down Davis to him. Gently twirling, their symmetry is maintained as their heads align with one another’s knees.

Manuelito Biag and Kara Davis in The Stories of the People Next to Us; Photo J. Norris

Philip Glass’s ‘Violin Concerto: II Prelude and Dance from Akhnaten’ is suitably grand to support the full company. In this exploring dance the gesture of a spyglass to one’s eye repeats often. But wait the company is expanding, as audience members join the mix. Norma Fong in bomber jacket beckons are attention. Kelly Del Rosario offers some of his martial-arts-inspired gestures, his feet flexed. Sri Lankan dancer Onara De Silva brings liquid arm and torso waves. Moving from deep plie to a plank, Amy Foley draws floorwork into play. Chris Cornelious glides in on his toes, his swiveling hips and fast feet offer a brief Samba showcase.  Olivia Caldeira Holston initiates a full stage unison, with swooping arms flowing through torsos, the group gathers energy. 

As the ensemble dissolves, a playful jazz-influenced pairing of Tristan Chiang Hartmann and ArVejon Jones fills the room with smiles, both onstage and off.  Jones spins with impressive speed. Hartmann sassily meets him trick for trick.  Their partnering is fluid and easy, closing with Jones twirling offstage with Hartmann draped over his shoulders.

An exuberant finale, worthy of the 1980 musical FAME, finds all sixteen dancers, including the surprise guests kicking it together to pumping house music. Their shared sequence repeats to the four corners of the room, like a sophisticated line dance.  Balance on one leg, the other extended behind, with chests facing a single axis, they resemble a flock ready for flight. And so the fleeting performance that was The Stories of the People Next to Us, concludes, leaving us time to meet the people around us.

Producing a show can be expensive and exhausting, with many resources going into production design elements, marketing, ticket sales, grant writing, and such.  I imagine the contentment, felt from the stage, generates from the freedom of having left the administrative baggage aside for a time, and the pleasure of prioritizing rich generative and performative practices together.

Review by Jen Norris, published February 4, 2024; Revised February 5, 2024


Production Credits/Casting

The Stories of the People Next to Us

The Straw Dogs produced by SHACK15


Production Support:  SHACK15

Concept, Choreography & Direction: The Straw Dogs - Mauelito Biag, Kara Davis, Tristan Ching Hartmann, Nol Simonse, and Victor Talledos

Guest Choreographer: Mary Carbonara

Concentrate on Walking

For Nol Simonse & Jordan Wanderer

Dancers: Saray Bauer, Manuelito Biag, Kara Davis, Tristan Ching Hartmann, Camille Henrot, ArVejon Jones, Nol Simonse, Giovanna Sales, Giulia Sales, & Jordan Wanderer

Additional dancers: Chris Cornelious, Onara de Silva, Kelly Del Rosario, Amy Foley, Norma Fong, and Olivia Caldeira Holston

Live Music: Katy Stephan

 Our Trespasses with Jessen Langley, Hanna Rifkin, & Joe Collins Wicht

Music (in order of appearance): All of These Butterflies by Katy Stephan; Atmosphere by Joy Division sung by James Blake; Just (After Song of Songs) by David Lang, Trio Mediaeval. Garth Know, Agnes Vesterman, & Sylvain Lemetre; Our Trespasses by Katy Stephan; Green To Blue by Daniel.mp3; In Transit by Neil Gaiman & FourPlay String Quartet; Beau Soir by Katy Stephan; Violin Concerto: II Prelude and Dance from Akhnaten by Philip Glass, Ulster Orchestra, Takuo Yuasa, & Adele Anthony; How Do you Wanna Die by Mary Simich; Liuos by Pan Sonic; Love(Aint Always So Good) by isaac gracie; Pumped Up Kicks (House Remix) by Hoodfellas

Video: Victor Talledos

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