Tag Archives: The 418 Project

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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Haaland and Fields Appearing Now at The 418

by Renée Rothman

Local modern dancers Per Haaland and Carol Fields share the bill for a two-for-one concert series at The 418 studio on Front Street. These artists tackle some heady issues as indicated in their titles: the Perfectly Realized Human Being and bipolar Memories. These personal contemplations are kinesthetically and verbally expressed with both pathos and humor.

Per Haaland explores the vagaries of the quest for enlightenment in his suite of dances and video dramas. Haaland provides a poem, spoken and sung at various moments, that indicates the direction in which he is traveling and the tone of his journey:

I can see that you’re seeing

That I’m a perfectly realized human being.

From the look in your eyes

Haaland enters the stage first, as a man who seems to be searching…and is dead tired of it. He flings his body to-and-fro as if by habit rather than enthusiasm and stares blankly around his world. Interspersed with pure dance sequences are short video dramas in which Haaland philosophizes and complains to actor Daniel Mollner. Haaland is also a kind of narrator, appearing for recitations of his poem and his opinions of the limits of spiritual enlightenment and self-improvement.

The highlights for me were in the pure dance sequences. In “Gula Gula” Stephanie Johnson and Evan Adler perform a beautiful duet of young love. Johnson and Adler are perfectly paired dancers both physically and technically and are young artists worthy of our attentions. They characterized the uplifting joy of a newly in-love couple with movements that stretch out to the world and come together again in an embrace. Haaland steps in to indicate that the next sequence concerns marriage. He and Lisa Christensen sit in straight back chairs, staring forward, occasionally trying to connect but not quite remembering how. They dance this struggle out to Meredith Monk’s sometimes disturbing music. Finally, the quartet of old and new lovers meet, trading out partners in various configurations. Are they remembering who they once were and will become as individuals and as couples? In the end, they waltz off, Johnson with Adler, Christensen with Haaland.

The audience also loved Haaland’s humorous banter on a subject they seemed intimate with: the search for enlightenment. Just how perfectly realized can we be, he asks. How much yoga does it take? How many questions need we ask and answer? For an answer to that (it finishes on a laugh) and to experience Fields’ bipolar Memories you will have to attend the next performance!

I was speaking with RD Bolam right before the show and he reminded me of the variety of dance programs The 418 is bringing to the community. Experienced local artists, like Haaland and Christensen, as well as artist from out of town to bring a fresh perspective. The next event, “Tabula Rasa”, features Artist in Residence Leslie Johnson. In November they present their Emerging Choreographers Showcase providing young local artists with the opportunity to perform in one of Santa Cruz’s best little studios. The 418 Project is working hard to bring you an innovative and diverse season of dance. The fact that they are situated next to one of Santa Cruz’s all-time-favorite restaurants—India Joze—makes these nights out irresistible.

For program details, go here.

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The Dancers of Santa Cruz Gather for Ethnic Dance Festival

Santa Cruz Dance presented its second annual Ethnic Dance Festival at Mission Plaza Park last weekend. The first day of the festival was a free, public dance concert. On the second day, local dance teachers offered a series of free classes at the 418 Project (and India Joze was there serving up their treats at both events).

The performers—all local—represented ethnic dance traditions from (in order of appearance): Japan, Mexico, India, Argentina, Brazil, Bali, West and North Africa, Spain, and back to Brazil. That is an extraordinary variety of dance for one afternoon. But there it is: a whole world of dance right here in Santa Cruz.

Japanese Classical Dancer from Studio Mai

Lovely, young dancers from Esperanza Del Valle Mexican Folklorico Company

John and Nancy Lingemann performing a Tango

Made Suryasa in his Old Man mask

The Feldthouse Family Band opened the afternoon their gypsy fusion music and dance. From the Gypsy traditions we also saw the suitably hot Flamenco Romántico with Marianna and Freddie Mejia and an amusing gypsy-cancan fusion from Desert Dream. From the Latin traditions we saw two fast-paced Brazilian groups: Yabas Dance Company under the direction of Dandha Da Hora and Tropicalismo directed by Marsea Marquis. In addition, we were entertained by Esperanza Del Valle’s colorful Mexican Folklorico Dance Company and a some Argentine Tangos from John and Nancy Lingemann et al.

From the Eastern world, Ohgi Umetsuzu brought graceful duets and solos in Classical Japanese dance. Made Suryasa delighted us with his Balinese old-man masked dance. Santa Cruz newcomer Revital Carroll performed a beautiful Odissi piece. African traditions were represented by another relatively new group of dynamic West African dancers, Mohamed Bongoura, Satrunin Ba, and Vivien Bassouamina. (Welcome to the community, all of you.) Representing North African bellydance we saw RaksArabi and Desert Dream.

Dancers and fans of dancers gathered at Mission Plaza, one component of the state historic park around the Santa Cruz Mission (some of it dating to 1791). The stage was located at one end of the plaza, Under Direct Sun. It faced a nice, grassy area, also Under Direct Sun. It was very hot…cook-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot. Most of the trees surrounding the park aren’t tall enough to offer a lot of shade, plus they are at a distance from the stage. Still, it got cozy under those trees.

Visitors clustered beneath patches of shade

The shady view of the stage

I camped out under a small tree—had to lay down to see the stage, but it was shaded. I made forays out to the green for a closer look, take a picture, and dash back for water. The dancers—in full and often elaborate costume—warned us that they might not make it through their performances. We were especially concerned for the barefoot dancers: I hope they had buckets of ice waiting for them backstage.

These kids had the right idea

But the dancers carried on, to our communal delight. As a friend of mine said recently, Santa Cruz may not have the very best in ethnic dance, but we more than make up for that in passion and dedication to these extraordinary expressions of the human spirit. But, in addition to that, we have some genuine expertise in ethnic dance cultures. I applaud the producers of this weekend for providing yet another opportunity for us to rub shoulders with the dancers of Santa Cruz.

Sunday I attended two of the five free, hour-long dance classes sponsored by 418 Project. Now, you know I love to watch dancing, but it doesn’t compare to getting into a studio and becoming the dancer myself.

Crystal Silmi has attempted to kill me before with her “warm-ups” but she held back for the sake of newcomers. Still, it was non-stop action from the time the drumming commenced to our zhagareets at the end. Let’s see if I can remember what we learned: Basic Egyptian, The Twisty Hip Thingy, Arabics One to Infinity, Traveling Choo Choos, Some Other Stuff including Taxeem (slow movements) and Snake Arms (always a crowd favorite). After each new step was drilled, it was included into her choreography. As our knowledge of steps accumulated so did our ability to dance the choreography. It was very gratifying and I loved every second of it.

Made Suryasa teaching Balinese dance

Student dons a mask and strikes a pose

Young and old joined in

After a lively break of meeting and greeting, we gathered again for Made Suryasa’s instruction in Balinese Mask Dance. This classical dance form requires that you stand in the most peculiar position: feet apart, knees deeply bent, torso stable, shoulders hunched up to your ears. The shoulders are perched high up, with the head tucked in to frame the masked face and to better mimic the actions of the shadow puppets upon which the dances are based. Arms and hands are contorted into sharp, angular forms as the feet slap out their steps. Given my weak joints, I elected to observe most of this class and found it most informative. Made Suryasa is a master of his art and a lovely teacher, as well.

The dance classes continued with Mohamed Bongoura teaching West African, Noga Vilozny teaching flamenco, and concluded with the Lingemann’s tango lessons. I would love to have stayed for them all. Stepping into a dance studio is like coming home for me. It doesn’t even matter if it’s an old room on a third-floor walk-up, the corner of a stage, or a modern dance studio with clean wooden floors and perfect mirrors. As long as dance has happened there, the space becomes charged with the energy dancers.

(P.S.: I tried to get pictures of producers Abra, Hana, and Chip but they were moving so fast my camera couldn’t pick them up. Nonetheless, thank you and your team for bringing us the Santa Cruz Ethnic Dance Festival.)

I hope you will all consider attending the third annual ethnic dance festival in 2011 and to take classes with our local ethnic dancers and musicians.


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Food as Art; Art as Nourishment: a collaboration between The 418 Project and Indian Joze

by Renée Rothman

“We are attempting to encourage Food as Art and Art as Nourishment,” said co-producer Ana Elizabeth in her introduction to “Raices Flamencas: a Gustatory, Dance, and Musical Journey.” This was the first official collaboration between dance studio The 418 Project, and newly reopened India Joze, a fusion restaurant. India Joze and The 418 Project share a space at 418 Front Street in Santa Cruz. The small restaurant space is in the front, the dance studio in the back, and a foyer is shared by both. The 418 calls itself a “community center” where performing artists can teach, collaborate, and perform: they arranged for the musicians and dancers. Chef Jozseph Schultz of India Joze specializes in “explorations in culinary anthropology” and provided tapas and drinks. They are perfectly suited to showcase the artistry of cooking and the spiritual nourishment of the performing arts.

“Raices” was a benefit for The 418 Project, a non-profit group raising money for a permanent space. (No word yet on how much they raised.) The Saturday evening event featured a more formal dinner, atmosphere, and entry fee. I attended the less-formal event on Sunday night.

“Raices Flamencas” was conceived of by David RD Bolam who became fascinated by the multiple musical and dance influences that became flamenco. Flamenco emerged in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia, an historically volatile area both politically and culturally. In both the musicality and kinesthetics of Flamenco we can still hear and see influences from the arts of Islamic Moors from North Africa,  the contradanzas of Spain, North Indian dance, and songs of the Sephardic Jews.

Bolam brought together local artists to express the lineage of Flamenco. The first half of the show—“Primero Course”—demonstrated the roots of Flamenco cante (song), toque (guitar), and baile (dance) in Sephardic and North African music, and Indian dance.

Kat Parra, a Ladino singer, opened the show. Ladino—aka Judaeo-Spanish—is a hybrid language with both Spanish and Hebrew roots. It is the vernacular language of the Sephardic Jews of Spain, Portugal, and North Africa (as Yiddish is the vernacular of Ashkenazi Jews). Kat performed songs both sacred and secular and the emotionally lavish tones in her voice foretell the duende of Flamenco cante or song.

Fattah Abbou and Mohamed Aoualou are Moroccan-born Berber artists who moved to Santa Cruz about nine years ago. Since then, their fusion of North African and Western musical traditions have entertained and educated local dancers and musicians alike. Though both performed on Saturday, only Fattah performed on Sunday (with an unknown accompanist on drum). Fattah’s fast and precise finger work on his banjo (originally an African instrument) perhaps prefigures the Flamenco toque (guitar) style.

Revital Carroll performed Odissi, one of the classical dances of India. Although the Gypsy migrants—aka Gitano in Spain and Romany in their own language—who came to Andalusia probably came from the Punjabi region, there is evidence that Flamenco baile has roots in Kathak, Kathakali, Manipuri, and Bharata Natyam. In addition, Indian dance and music in Spain predates the arrival of the Gitana. Revital’s performances of Odissi reflect these ancient influences on Andalusian arts perhaps especially in the florid use of the hands.

The second half of the show—“Segundo Course”—was all Flamenco. It featured Rubina Valenzuela as leading singer and dancer. She was accompanied by Ricardo Diaz on guitar and Diana Alejandre on vocals and palmas (rhythmic clapping), each of whom also performed solos. Rubina’s dance group, Flamenco Sin Fronteras, performed several group numbers including the always charming Sevilliana’s. The passions expressed through the Flamenco arts—cante, baile, and toque—are infectious and made me wish we had a regular Flamenco showcase in Santa Cruz again (hint, hint anyone?).

But what made this event so special was the café-style arrangement of tables inside the dance studio. Instead of rows of chairs, we sat at large round tables seating 8-10, or rectangular ones along the rear. We were invited to bring our tapas and wine from India Joze into the studio before and during the performances. Chef Jozseph created wildly delicious tapas inspired by Moroccan, Spanish, and Indian cuisines. I’d love to know how he made such a perfect vegetarian chopped liver! Tasted just like my Aunt Rose’s, and I’ve really missed it. Altogether, it made for a lively and inviting atmosphere; just the sort of place the Santa Cruz community likes to gather.

This is a modern community acting as communities have traditionally done: eating, drinking, and greeting friends while enjoying music and dance in a communal atmosphere. I cannot wait for another gustatory, dance, and music adventure between these two, much-loved Santa Cruz institutions. Maybe an evening of Brazilian samba, capoeria, and candomble? Or, how about a night at the Casbah? Someone? Anyone?…

The 418 Project has several concerts coming up, including Artist in Residence Leslie Johnson’s new work, Tabula Rasa, for two weekends in October.

Chef Jozseph is teaching a tapas cooking class at the Westside New Leaf Community Market on Tuesday, September 28, 5pm – 8pm.


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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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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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