Tag Archives: Flex Dance Company

Leslie Johnson’s Tabula Rasa at 418 Project

by Julia Chiapelli

Leslie Johnson’s Tabula Rasa is anything but, though it wants us to remember that all of us started out that way.

Tabula Rasa is, of course, a clean slate. It’s also Johnson’s evening length collection of dance pieces and can be seen at the 418 Project—where she’s currently Artist in Residence—through October 10.

Still athletic, still breathtakingly energetic, Johnson has gathered this collection of pieces around a central idea, one that’s been whacked around as long as peddlers and swindlers have tried to separate people from their money: the effects of advertising.

What Johnson wants to hammer home, however, is how high the stakes have become: with multiple sources of media available and all of them bloated with advertising images, film clips, and logos, children are constantly inundated by messages from advertisers.

It’s a Brave New World, one that Johnson courageously attempts to expose—the Wizard has grown so large, so insidious; it’s like trying to trace the path of culpability in the BP oil disaster—if only to remind us what’s at stake: nothing less than our relationships and our sense of self.

If all this sounds a bit heady, be reassured: Tabula Rasa is a kick-ass antidote to anyone who has the impression, however slight, that our electronic media has spiraled out of control.

The evening begins and ends with that tried and true purveyor of fantasy: the television. As the dancers gather in the dark around the glowing TV screen—eyes glazed, bodies slack—Johnson makes her point: left unchecked, the glowing screen is adept at filling our subconscious with information.

It all seems harmless enough, can look cozy, in fact; the members of Johnson’s company Flex, lean and drape over one another, tucked safely into one another’s arms as they gaze raptly at the screen. But that, in itself, is part of Johnson’s premise: we have to peel away the layers of our, by now, well-accepted conventions and reveal the harm they are doing to our sense of play, our sense of wonder.

Throughout the evening, the Flex dancers display their unabashed dedication to Johnson as they engage in the blistering physicality that has become emblematic of her work. They careen into one another and are tossed, dragged, grabbed, and punched: in one piece, an assortment of clothing is used to wrap around dancers in a decidedly vicious-looking battle for goods.

Special mention needs to be made of Sara Russell and Melisa Wiley. In her solo performance, “Slim Hopes,” Russell artfully dances around the issue of eating orders, imbuing her jar of cookies with a quiet but sensually powerful angst and ardor. Melissa Wiley brings her delightfully passionate sense of accomplishment to “Housewife House Life,” a rollicking piece of commentary that’s a hilarious send-up of the 50s.

In addition, the all male members of the piece “Tough Guise” extend Johnson’s social commentary to the role of gender as she cracks open the double-sided coin of camaraderie and violence inherent to organized sports. Michael Miller, Nick Katzman, Hamid Martin, and Travis Johnson join Flex company stalwarts Evan Adler and Eli Weinberg in bringing all the bravado and thinly veiled aggression to the dance floor in a compellingly performed bit of dance.

Some dancers still need to watch their extensions and it’s a personal wish of mine to see Johnson bring her crushing physicality into quiet moments.

Far and above these assessments is the appreciation for both Johnson and her company as they continue to explore ideas and dance as venues for discovery and excellence.

You can still see Tabula Rasa on October 15, 16 at 8pm

and on the 17th at 6pm at The 418 Project, 418 Front Street, Santa Cruz.

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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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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 santacruzdance.com

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