Review: UNA Productions: ‘Grass is Green’ April 20 - 22, 2023, ODC Theater, San Francisco, CA
Updated: Apr 22
I am dying to know what other viewers thought after attending UNA Productions’ Grass is Green, choreographed by Chuck Wilt, which made its West Coast premiere at the ODC Theater Thursday night. It’s a fascinating evening of contemporary dance with a twist provided by drag queen and cellist Rose Nylons. My takeaway was that life is complicated, human connection is essential and it is important to choose joy when we can.
While the title Grass is Green suggests a natural setting, the show is performed against a neutral black drop. The grass you find here is conjured as dancers skip through meadows, scoop water over their heads or spin with their chests and faces tilted skyward, arms extended. Costumed in black evening wear with subtle touches of fringe on a lapel or the edge of a pant leg, the performers, supported by Del Medoff’s impactful lighting, take us where we need to go.
Grass is Green performance photo, Rebecca Margolick on floor, Rose Nylons in green skirt. Source: UNA website.
Eyes and faces are open and communicative, linking the dancers to each other. We feel their mutual admiration and concern as well as the pure pleasure they share as they dance together. I can’t recall witnessing a troupe that felt more authentically related then these seven dancers and their drag queen/cellist.
It’s a rich work, accessible in movement style, sophisticated in delivery, with lots of stand-out moments. It’s unpredictable but all the pieces fit and echo throughout. There are no posh soaring leaps or stylized partnering but rather earthbound, human scale coupling and dynamic clubby beats.
We begin with Rose Nylons in a sparkling ebony evening gown, with plunging neckline and an oversize gold necklace. She whips around her blond mane, prancing through the space lip-synching Donna Summers’ “I Feel Love.” The stage pulses in red and blue light as a trio of disco-dancers crowd her, creating a teeming club scene. Watching the high energy fun, we see ourselves in a sampling of simple line-dances.
With Nylons's exit a deep bass thumping takes over, so deep our seats vibrate. The dancers move as a pack, punching the sky, running and pivoting in patterns trapped in a box. Anxiously stepping, carrying weight in their bent arms, hands go to chests as the rumbling continues. Is it the cacophony of a powerful natural sound of a waterfall? or a volcano? or is it an engine’s drone? The power is undeniable. The sound takes on a physical manifestation in the trembling ripples of Dominica Greene’s quaking behind as all others pause to watch her. As her solo ends she bends to lift something, a signal for the others to reanimate and join her in the gesture to toss it up and over their heads. I enjoyed the pacing of Wilt’s choreography that makes room for each talented performer to shine while others observe, and then flows organically back into group work.
Nylons returns to the stage to accompany the dancing in the next sections, playing first a sonorous cello piece and later a repetitive piano motif. the dancers bend at the waist, their backs flat, arms extended sideways as they face the floor, perhaps weighted by the problems of the world. Rebecca Margolick, who is magnetic all evening, balances on one leg. Bent forward, her torso and other leg parallel to the floor, her arms pinwheel through space.
Performers comfort one another, Wilt lays their head in the lap of Kira Fargas. Soon most of the dancers lie face up on the stage. Nylons has stopped playing the cello, her focus drawn to a field of distress. Greene clutches Margolick, trying to avoid the pull of the floor. Margolick struggles to lift her partner’s weight, as Greene sinks slowly backward, their hands clasped until she finally succumbs. A body rolls to its side, the head contorted until its face presses into the ground. Another body contracts, the head and shoulders lift off the floor as the knees bend and the feet flex, before relaxing to flat once more. Rose and Margolick step gingerly through the forms, stooping to provide aide, brushing hair from one’s eyes, kissing another’s hand.
As they slowly rise, their arms flap in unison like long winged birds, the backs of their hands meeting above their heads before falling slowly to their sides. A knee bend develops, deeper with each flap and slow-motion step; the flock moves in silence, their limbs edged in white backlight.
Photo: Chuck Wilt and Tushrik Fredericks with Rose Nylons at piano from UNA website.
A partnership forms between Wilt and Tushrik Fredericks. Bent toward each other with arms back, each in the pose of a downhill skier, the tops of their shoulders touch. Fredericks’s head is tucked under the taller Wilt’s chest. Their bodies create a sturdy shape, an arch with spikes. An intimate, playful, trusting, loving partner dance develops. When they finally physically split, they chase each other in circles, never breaking eye-contact despite their long strides. It concludes with Fredericks balanced spread-eagle on Wilt’s shoulder a la “Dirty Dancing.”
A series of powerful duets follow, each deeply felt and hypnotically performed. The piece concludes with all dancers on the stage, pairings forming and dissolving easily with an expansive freshness, as if to say we can all be something for each other. They pogo on two feet bouncing merrily and running in large arcs. No longer earthbound, they sweep through space taking great sloppy stag leaps. We see bits of gestures from throughout the piece in the chattering head bops, and gathering scooping arms, the music swells and smiles beam, leaving me feeling that we can survive the hard bits with the help of one another. Joy is accessible and restorative even in difficult times.
Grass is Green repeats Friday April 21 and Saturday April 22 at 7:30 p.m. ODC Theater.
Review by Jen Norris, published April 21, 2023; edited 4/23 for spelling & pronoun corrections.
Program here: https://www.una.productions/grass-is-green-program
UNA Productions: GRASS IS GREEN
Choreographed by Chuck Wilt
in collaboration with the performers
Performers: Kira Fargas, Tushrik Fredericks, Dominica Greene,
Dasol Kim, Rebecca Margolick, Hadassah Perry, Chuck Wilt
Drag queen & live cellist/pianist: Rose Nylons
Costumes by Caitlin Taylor, Idel Dorleans and Rose Nylons
Rehearsal Directors: Jennifer Payan and Rebecca Margolick
Dramaturgy by: Dominica Greene
Lighting Design by: Del Medoff
Music by: Donna Summer, Sylvester, DJ Koze/Nils Frahm,
Julia Wolfe/Matthew Welch, Rose Nylons, Michael Nyman
Grass is Green was co-commissioned by The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center for its world premiere in 2022 and had its NY premiere at the 92Y Harkness Mainstage Series. Grass is Green was created with support as an Artist in Residence at the 92nd St. Y's Harkness Dance Center, as an Artist in Residence at Brooklyn College through the CUNY Dance Initiative and as an Artist in Residence at Berkeley Ballet Theatre. The work received additional support from Marta Miller's Certain Bird Residency in Vermont, KT Nelson's RoundAntennae Residency in San Francisco, LITVAKdance and Evolution Dance Center in San Diego and Westlake School for Performing Arts in Daly City.
Grass is Green was developed with the vital contributions of performers Hadassah Perry, Kira Fargas, Tushrik Fredericks, Dominica Greene, Dasol Kim, Rebecca Margolick, Courtney Mazeika, Alisya Razman Adam, Kyle Filley, Maxi Canion, Jamal Abrams, Babatunji Johnson, Jennifer Payán and Haley Williams.
The SF Premiere of Grass is Green was made possible with support from :
Matrice Kirk, Robert Perry & Christopher Newell