Monthly Archives: May 2010

Leslie Johnson’s “Telling Stories” Sells Out at 418

by Julia Chiapella
The 418 Project was burning up last weekend.

Leslie Johnson presented Telling Stories, her first evening-length performance of her dance company Flex, an all-out, high-energy, rock-the-rafters tour de force that left the audience on its feet in raucous applause, barely able to contain its own joy and exuberance at having witnessed such an event.

It’s no secret that Johnson challenges her dancers: they have the bruises to prove it. But, time and again, the nine members that comprise Flex rise to the challenge, flipping, leaping, rolling, and tossing one another into each others arms. To watch Flex in action is to engage in head-shaking, breath-taking astonishment: it’s hard to believe what these dancers can do. That they do it with a constant eye toward perfecting their technique is all the more reason to credit them and Johnson with contributing to the elevated stature of dance in Santa Cruz.

Johnson is a storyteller. She collects impressions and vignettes from her dancers’ lives and incorporates them into her dance with the result that the dancers have a sense of ownership of these pieces. Encouraged to bring who they are to the dance rather than have the dance supersede what they may be feeling, dancers grimace, smile, and cavort with one another. Marry this emotional honesty with a high degree of technical prowess and compelling gestural motifs and Telling Stories captivates from the outset.

Last night’s performance wasn’t without its errors: partners failed to catch one another, leaps fell short, and dancers missed their mark. Because of the nature of most of the dances—fast-paced with a driving staccato beat—the dancers seamlessly moved past these errors, never marking them with their expressions. If Johnson ever slows the pace of her choreography—which she no doubt will to showcase her dancers’ talents and develop as a choreographer—the nature of the dance will be less likely to act as camouflage for such mistakes.

Beginning with dancers filing onto the stage in a single line and splitting into two groups, Johnson is adept at using her choreography to conquer space. From the floor to well above her dancers’ heads, from the rear wall to the space just in front of the first row, Johnson’s choreography occupied every angle and dimension. It’s a geometric configuration reminiscent of Paul Taylor Dance combined with the physicality akin to Twyla Tharp that makes Flex so imminently watchable.

And while all Flex’s dancers are capable, for this performance there were some standouts. The duet by Molly Katzman and Evan Adler was a gut-wrenching homage to the joy and agony that attend an intimate relationship. Not only were the dancers technically flawless, they acted their parts with genuine feeling making this duet a stellar performance.

Also of note are Johnson’s motifs, repeated throughout the evening. Dancers covered their mouths as though trying to prevent themselves from telling the stories they had to tell, eventually letting the hand fly away in a gust of air blown from their own mouth. It was a powerful metaphor for one’s own truths that must be told.

With the majority of the evening devoted to music with lyrics that, more often than not, featured similar tempos, varying the speed and rhythm of her choreography, crafting contrasts between the tempo of dancing and the tempo of the music would add further dimension to Johnson’s work. As an example, the solo piece by Molly done to instrumental music was riveting: without lyrics a single accomplished dancer filled the stage and provided some balance to the drive and power of the rest of the evening.

Whether using props as she did in The Chair piece, or humor as in the dueling partnerships featuring Molly and Evan and two young Santa Cruz Dance Company performers, Johnson’s choreography is endlessly inventive and emotionally compelling. Flex is a company to watch.

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This Week In Dance

by Renée Rothman

After all the activities of National Dance Week, you’d think we’d be slowing down. But, no, we’re not. Last weekend we saw Zari Le’on’s glitterBlack, Anna Halprin at the Rio, bellydancing at The Crepe Place…and that’s just what I was aware of. (By the by, did I mention that Halprin was mightily impressed with the SC dance community…said when they showed the film in her area, the audience was only a third of the size of the Rio turn out.)

This coming weekend we have Flex, Leslie Johnson’s contemporary dance group at 418; Cabrillo College’s Spring Dance Concert at the Crocker Theater; Raizes do Brasil’s capoeira Batizado (their ranking awards ceremony) at Louden Nelson; Sambada at Moe’s Alley; and the Artist of the Year Profile Performance by Robert Kelley at the Rio.

How’s a girl to decide? What are you going to see?

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Anna Halprin—An American Dance Legend Visits Santa Cruz

by Renée Rothman

Once in a while, if you’re very lucky and very determined, you get to see a living legend. The Santa Cruz dance community was honored by the visit of one such legend, Anna Halprin, a charismatic American dance pioneer. Breath Made Visible, a new feature-length film documenting her life, was previewed at the Rio Theater on Saturday night. Halprin, now 89 years old, made a personal appearance and took questions at the end of the film.

Swiss producer-director Ruedi Gerber compiled archival footage (there’s a ton of historical footage—the Halprin’s were obviously incurable documentarians as well dancers) with contemporary interviews to create a compelling bio-pic of Halprin’s life and loves. It explores her development as an artist from her studies with Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham, to her post-modern avant garde period, to her creation of community dance rituals. Through the film, we watch her when she dances her way through cancer inspiring her to develop strategies for dancing with AIDS patients, senior citizens, and the natural environment itself.

Equally fascinating, though, is Gerber’s portrait of the Halprin family—Anna, her world-renowned architect husband, Lawrence, and their daughters Daria and Rana. In the 1960s, their home and outdoor studio in Marin County, California became a center of dance exploration and experimentation with ongoing classes, rehearsals, workshops, and performances. Everyone was involved. In recent interviews for the Gerber film, the now adult daughters seemed to have mixed feelings about the eccentricities of their home life: we were too young to know the difference between performance and home, they said. Still, in 1978 Daria and Anna founded The Tamalpa Institute to promote and develop the connection Anna had made between art and healing.

The love story between Anna and her beloved husband Lawrence is central to this film. They met and married as young New York artists and lived happily ever after—for seventy years, until Lawrence’s death in 2009. When Lawrence took ill several years ago, Anna composed a devastating piece in which dancers sitting in hospital beds face their own deaths. Anna’s haunting performance was a courageous tour de force. Their love and respect for one another was present throughout Gerber’s film.

A who’s who of local modern dance teachers, students, and aficionado packed the Rio Theater on Saturday night to see the film, but perhaps even more so to see Anna Halprin live. We were generally not a youngish group (I’m guessing mostly over 40) and many of us are facing new limitations as dancers. But listening to the vitality in her voice, hearing her plans for future performances (one, a memorial to Lawrence to be performed at his architectural contributions to The City of San Francisco)…This woman will be 90 in July. Personally, I will never again be able to say “I’m too old to dance” but only “I need a new dance.”

Anna Halprin lives her dance. She dances personal and planetary healing, she dances social change, she dances love and joy and grief. She is a performing artist and a healing artist who asserts her own truth in kinesthetic form. She has achieved a state of dance that few of us in the audience can hope to reach…but then, we’re still relatively young.

Anna Halprin still teaches and dances. Her next public dance ritual is Planetary Dance on June 6.

Breath Made Visible is currently available on DVD at selected theatrical showings only.

(This was cross-posted from Dance Docs Think Tank.)

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Zari Le’on concert not to be missed!

As I left my house last night to head down to The 418 Project in downtown Santa Cruz to see Zari Le’on Dance Theater, I told my husband I was expecting to see some ambiguous modern dance with Africanist styling. I was so wrong. ZLDT’s four woman ensemble marched into the dance space singing “Down to the River and Pray.” Their a cappella voices and boot stomping filled the room and established the space as theirs. For the next hour these four, powerful dancers performed a non-stop, high energy, African-American inspired suite of dances into which we were emotionally drawn.

glitterBlack is Zari Le’on Dance Theater’s evening concert of “contemporary vernacular” dance. Le’on joins the fundamentals of ballet and Dunham techniques with contemporary street and club (“vernacular”) dance. The effect is electric. Her purpose is to express the life experiences of African-American women: her joys, sorrows, prayers, and force of will.

With Katherine Dunham’s Haitian-inspired techniques driving the choreography, Le’on created movements that took up space physically and psychologically. Even a simple walk across the stage was done with bold determination. The irresistible musical rhythms and fierce movements drew us into their world of real women living real lives.

The dancers—Kitami Sari Blakey, Kali Ites Houchen, Shaunah Trumbell, and Le’on, all native Santa Cruzans—shared the leading and supportive roles, more like the traditional call-and-response relationships than a soloist with chorus. Each woman completed the choreography with her own unique style (although I wish their synchronized steps were better synchronized). Their physical presence (no waif-like ballerinas here), the power in their legs, the ecstatic toss of arms and heads, the vitality in the torso, kept us on the edge of our seats.

At the end of the hour, we, the audience, flew off our chairs as if we had been waiting for an invitation to join them. The comments from the crowd were limited to a speechless “Wow!” If you missed last nights performance, make an effort to see them tonight at 8:00. You won’t be sorry.

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First Friday Art and Dance Tour Caps off NDWSC

Capping off National Dance Week, NDWSC joined the six-year-old First Friday Art Tours by arranging dance performances at participating galleries. There were ten venues and my friend Marlene and I managed to stop in at five of them.

But first we dropped in at Café Namaste on Squid Row Alley across from Motion Pacific. We ordered chai and chrysanthemum-rose tea in the very small entryway and then proceeded through a door. Suddenly, like stepping into Dr. Who’s Tardis, the room seemed bigger on the inside than it did on the outside. A cavernous lounge with rugs and comfy chairs leads out to a small outdoor patio. Great spot to write, have a tryst, or relax over some of the best chai in town.

Sarah Day

After stopping into Motion Pacific to watch a rehearsal of Flex, we made our way to Felix Kulpa gallery behind Streetlight Records. The garden leading into the gallery is filled with re-purposed metal sculptures. Inside are a collection of prints and a table full of wine and lovely nibblies. (All of the galleries had these reception tables and, merely out of courtesy mind you, we felt we should imbibe at each.) Contemporary dancer, Sarah Day, barefooted and wearing a simple blue shift, accompanied by one small accordian, improvised a slow, gliding dance while interacting with one of the sculpture’s in the garden. This open-door telephone-booth fountain made for a delightful prop as Day played in the cascading water like a shy but curious animal. This was the only occasion when a dancer incorporated the space and art into her dance, and it befitted this gallery perfectly.

Flex dancer

We drove over to The Mill Gallery where we saw Flex Dance Company from the Motion Pacific Dance studios. On the walls, paintings of chickens (I didn’t really get that); on the concrete floor dancers. The movements were abstract, driving, and daring. Marlene and I, both veteran modern dancers from the East Coast, reflected fondly on our own early years dancing in unconventional dance spaces. (Back in the 80s I choreographed a piece called “Strange Rooms” after my company found itself rehearsing in an old chemistry lab.) Flex performs a full evening concert at The 418 Project on May 21 and 22.

Next stop, Santa Cruz Art League to explore their collection of local high school art. Much of it was quite impressive, though I almost always disagreed with the awards assignments. Zari Le’on performed in an Afro-modern style with a live duet singing “Down to the River and Pray.” I felt that this performance did not fit well in its environment. Surrounded by walls of student art, I’d like to have seen something youthful and contemporary, like street dancers. Look for Zari Le’on Dance Theater’s full evening production at The 418 Project on May 14 and 15. The 55th Annual High School Art Show at the Art League runs until May 16.

Natasha, Tamara, Misty

We decided to make one last swing by the Tannery to visit the Dead Cow Gallery slated for closure later this month. We were happily surprised to find that Tamara Nelson Bellydance was just preparing to dance. Tamara, joined by Misty and Natasha, performed a series of solo and group choreographies. Being close enough to really see Tamara’s clever and articulate belly rolls was truly delightful. Too bad this nice little space is closing. Look for the Tannery Arts Center’s First Anniversary Open House on June 5th.

All the galleries were well packed for these performances. I don’t know if the First Friday Art Tour is always this popular or if the dancers brot out new visitors. The dance certainly got me into town for the first time, but maybe not for the last. Marlene and I had a blast touring galleries we’d never been to before and hope FFAT will include dancers and musicians in their future events.

It was a great finish to an exciting week of dance thanks to the hard work Abra, Ch!p, and Hana, and the sponsors at SC Cultural Council, Downtown Association, City of SC and Motion Pacific. For details of the events I included above go to

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Free Dance Classes Increase Our Dance Literacy

By Renée Rothman

Saturday afternoon could not have been more beautiful in downtown Santa Cruz. Flowers in bloom everywhere, live music playing, sidewalk sales, and FREE DANCE CLASSES! Sponsored by NDWSC as part of the week-long celebration of dance, the classes were held in the Sentinel parking lot in the mid-day heat. I attended three of these 45 minute classes: Mambo with Michael Mpyngu, Dance of Brazil with Marsea Marquis, and Tahitian Dance with Lorraine Kinnamon. My legs still ache.

Mambo at the Sentinel

Mambo, a forerunner of salsa and sometimes called Salsa-on-2, is a partnered dance and once you get the basic footwork its pretty easy to have fun with it. Especially if you have a really good partner. There were not nearly as many experienced partners as novices, but they did their best to get around to all of us. As leaders, they were so smooth, they made dancing feel as natural as walking (well, almost).

Samba at the Sentinel

Marsea Marquis samba class was really challenging. As I’ve mentioned before, I am always impressed by the speed at which these dancers move. I myself was not built for speed but became so infected with the rhythmic joy her students demonstrated on Thursday night, that I had to make an attempt. Marsea taught a fairly elaborate choreography breaking it down step by step and increasing the speed as gently as possible. Just when we thought we were up to full speed, she asked “Can we take it up a notch?” and we all grumbled “No!” But we did it anyway. Near the end, she said to us that the only way to keep up is to give in to the rhythm and let our bodies shake with abandon. I tried it: It worked! I’ve never danced so fast in my life.

Hula at the Sentinel

I saved a little energy for Lorraine’s Tahitian class by sitting down for ten minutes. She began with a little Hawaiian hula which is soft and breezy, before turning to Tahitian. Tahitian moves the hips faster…much faster. She taught us a piece of choreography she learned on one of her visits to Tahiti and while we didn’t look all that graceful, we managed to get through it. Much of the Polynesian style is very subtle: the way the feet roll off the ground, the soft shape of the hands, and the bend in the knees provide it with the feel of the islands.

There are a whole week of free classes offered all over Santa Cruz and I strongly recommend you take one or two. Pick something you’ve always wanted to try or that you love to watch or that one of your children studies. As audience members, we can benefit by taking even a single class. It puts you inside the form providing you with intimate knowledge of the art.

The primary sensory experience of dance is kinesthetic. Even as watchers, we experience the kinesthetics of dance by relating what we see to our own experiences in movement, whether in dance or in ordinary activities. When we see a ballet dancer balance on one pointe shoe, we automatically remember our own abilities to balance and empathize with the ballerina. We appreciate the difficulty of her task because we know about balance empirically. Kinesthetic empathy is a natural ability, an innate form of intelligence, but we can increase our sensitivity as witnesses to dance by engaging in it ourselves: by educating our own kinesthestic sense.  Become a smarter dance aficionado; participate in one of the many freebies available to you this week. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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Thursday Nights World of Dance

by Julia Chiapella

Under blue, windy skies, National Dance Week waltzed into downtown Santa Cruz last night with a vibrant sense of community.

The Aerial Collective—Saki, Anna Fletcha, and Abra Allan—began the evening, their aerial high jinks setting the tone for the event amid the ethereal notes of a single piano. Attached to a cable from above, they took to the wall outside Lulu Carpenters as the earth-bound cast their eyes above and held their breath. They jetéd and somersaulted in languid arcs, cavorting as if gravity had no power. Those of us below were spellbound.

For this kind of thing, there’s no place like Santa Cruz. It was a good time to remember that.

Kicking off a week of both planned and spontaneous dance around the county as well as a grab bag of free lessons for the interested, Thursday night’s Dancing in the Streets event was good evidence that we harbor enough dance to make any city of similar size look flat-out sluggish by comparison.

And while, for some performers, stages were cramped and the wind chill factor hardly conducive to proper warm-up, dance schools and companies toughed it out, infected by the gorilla theater enthusiasm of crowds literally at their feet.

Three stages set up within a block of one another showcased over 20 dance schools and groups: in front of Cinema 9, on Locust between Pacific and Cedar, and on Pacific outside Jamba Juice. For the most part the proximity worked, but when the high-energy throb of Beat Techniques started off the Locust Street performance area it threatened to overwhelm the classical accompaniment for Santa Cruz International Dance in front of Cinema 9.

No one seemed to mind.

Ballet dancers in tutus kept their elegant cool while, around the corner, break dancers popped and crimped, flipping off each others’ backs to bring it home to the beat. Further down the street, the Te Hau Nui Polynesian Dance Company let the simple power of the hula remind us of the warmth of the tropics, their bodies a lilting testament to the magic of aloha.

If you were lucky enough to be there, it was a world tour of dance.

Brought to us by Santa Cruz Dance founder and Director Abra Allan, there was something for everyone. From the Balinese drama of Made Surya to the respectable rendition of West Side Story’s “I Want to Live in America” contributed by UCSC’s Random with a Purpose, the breadth of the evening was impressive. There was tango, modern, hip-hop, salsa, and ballet. Belly dancing, West African, and Afro Brazilian. Fusion was afoot as Raks Arabi and Kazoo melded belly dancing with hip-hop. Emerging choreographers brought the goods as Leslie Johnson’s dance company Flex braved cramped quarters to preview a new set of pieces to be performed May 21 and 22 at the 418 Project.

At evening’s close, everyone gathered at the intersection of Locust and Pacific for the finale, kept behind a large circle outlined on the ground. Anticipation was running high. The lighted hula hoops of Hoopalights and fire dancing of Nocturnal Sunshine brought the event to an end and, riding high on the joy and infectious energy of a night that allowed the human spirit to soar, it was something of a letdown. More gimmickry than art, the two groups sacrificed technique for theatricality. Not a bad thing in and of itself but for this event, it needed to be taken up a notch. Put fire in the hands of the Aerial Collective. Now that would be something.

In the end, tired feet and happy hearts wandered away, the words of Alan Watts from one of Beat Techniques numbers acting as a mantra for the night:

When we dance, the journey itself is the point.

Santa Cruz Dance Week continues through May 7 with spontaneous performances around the county and free classes at a variety of locations. When the urge strikes, get up and dance.

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