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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1 Comment

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

  1. Couldn’t have said it better. Two sold out shows, a very talented group of dancers with energy to spare. I too would like to see more lyrical and less frenetic choreography. Remember Doris Humphrey’s famous words: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” I would also add how impressed I was with the younger dancers in the SC Dance Company. They are already performing at a very high level doing very sophisticated choreography. No question about it: Leslie Johnson as both a teacher and a choreographer is contributing to the vitality of the whole Santa Cruz dance community. Don’t miss their next concerts, scheduled for October.

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