For almost a decade, The Laguna Dance Festival has been considered a gem in the Southern California dance scene. I discovered it a year ago, when I had just moved to the area from across the country, and it definitely diminished my culture shock. Under founder Jodie Gates’ artistic direction, the organization stays active throughout the year—through events, performances, and classes–nurturing a community of dance-lovers in Orange County, where, at times, dance can appear less than abundant.
This year’s Festival presented New York-based Parsons Dance and the West’s Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at the Laguna Playhouse, September 5th through 8th. In addition to being geographically diverse, the two companies also contrasted artistically; however, both were enthusiastically met, with standing ovations on the two evenings I attended. Each company moved me exactly once in that rare way. That elusive moment is the reason I continue to go and see dance, and why I think everyone should. I’m talking about a single gesture or feat that somehow manages to eclipse an entire two-hour performance; a moment rendered viscerally in a viewer’s body; a moment that begins to turn wheels, unlocking something profound in the audience.
Parsons Dance presented seven works–too many, even though one or two were short. David Parsons’ choreography is remarkably musical. A former member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, it seemed as if a few of his sequences (and Brothers, a duet for two men, in its entirety) could have come straight out of a Taylor piece. Ah, well: the fine line between influence and inauthenticity. The first dance, Round My World, was a pretty ensemble piece to compositions by cellist Zoe Keating featuring several intriguing, emotive partnering sequences and the development of a circle theme achieved by port de bras, formations of dancers, and the wind-up twist and turn of multiple backs.
As each piece went on, anticipation seemed to be building in the crowd (or maybe just in me) for Caught, Parsons’ famous solo incorporating strobe lighting to achieve the effect of a person flying above the stage in various shapes. I had watched it on video in the Jacob’s Pillow archives one summer, but now, like seeing a famous monument in person, I was able to apprehend the real thing.
The piece, created in 1982 for David Parsons himself, was performed on Thursday night by Ian Spring, an athletic, fluid dancer. The choreography possessed the clarity of a work that has reached maturity; anything unnecessary or even less than inevitable had been edited, leaving the essence of the work unmarred. Spring performed a few choreographed sequences under moving spotlights before the strobe section began, in which Spring was literally “caught” in mid-air at the height of a jump, over and over again. He repeated several of the same jumps in a row, and he traveled throughout the space, creating the illusion of one suspended above ground for an impossible length of time. As the work progressed, the shapes of the jumps changed and the tempo increased, climaxing in a pike jump that rotated 360 degrees over no fewer than 8 flashes of light. This dance induces shivers.
Cleverly designed, the work defies normal limitations of the stage, and yet it reminds its viewer what can be achieved relatively simply, with little more than a body, intelligent lighting, and precise timing. As I watched, I reflected on the work’s longevity and its demand in the face of all of our generation’s advanced technologies. Overheard in the audience: “That was literally the coolest thing I’ve ever seen! Unfortunately, the final work on the program came off as tedious in comparison to Caught, which was performed second to last.
Two nights later, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performed three works by distinguished choreographers Jorma Elo, Alejandro Cerrudo, and Trey McIntyre, all showcasing the versatility and technical skill of the dancers. The first work, Elo’s Over Glow, set to music by Mendelssohn and Beethoven, impressed me with quirky gestures and recurring themes–a hand that turned a head, legs that ran above ground, a variation of cloche on backs–which developed into clear emotional variations, such as fear, inquisitiveness, and complacent nostalgia. In this piece, Nete Joseph’s costumes, tailored green dresses for the women and blue pants and shoes for the men, stood out against a background that shifted color, bringing refined brightness to the work.
Like A Samba by Trey McIntire was a brilliant closing piece, featuring two women of the company in long, white dresses and pointe shoes and three men also dressed in white. The work literally sparkled to songs by Astrud Gilberto; it was well-executed and fun to watch. The performers were genuine, again showing emotional range: one section portrayed a sense of solitude or loss; others were coy and winsome, still others radiated pure joy.
In between was Cerrudo’s work, Last, and it was here that I again felt that resonant, visceral sensation of being transported by dance. That transcendental instant now takes the rest of the dance’s place in my memory. I know there was musical choreography, a dark tonality, franticness at one point, a beautiful closing partnering section in which energy seemed to flow between the two bodies even when apart. There was a unison section from which small bits of counterpoint branched off; church bells kept time. But before I’d consulted my notes, I was only able to recall with complete clarity the one movement in which I became utterly lost. Here it will not be done justice, for the move has been done before: as one dancer pulled his partner, Katie Dehler, towards him, she arched back, seeming to splay open, and her mouth soundlessly opened in an extension of the movement. That was it. She simply opened her mouth and again the shivers returned. Maybe it was the easy release of her jaw, the naturalness of it, or the way she drew the audience into her face and its expression. Parsons’ Caught exuded maturity as a work just as Dehler’s clear movement style exuded maturity as a dancer, lending integrity to Cerrudo’s vision.
Being moved by movers and movement seems obvious, but many a performance has left me unaffected. At the Laguna Dance Festival last year, the experience made me feel like it would be possible for me to find a home here in Orange County. This year’s festival reassured me that, in fact, I have found just that.