Saint Mary's College of CA MFA in Dance

Phenomenal Emergence: A Review of Saint Mary’s College of CA MFA in Dance Concert

A Review of Saint Mary’s College of California MFA in Dance inaugural concert

Thursday, January 29, 2015
The Flight Deck, Oakland, CA

Saint Mary’s College of California offers two new MFA programs in Dance—Creative Practice and Design & Production, the latter of which is the first of its kind in the United States. Thursday, January 29 was the opening night of its first concert, which featured student choreography (the beginning seeds for their thesis work), as well as lighting, costume and set design in collaboration with their peers. Performer, teaching artist, dance writer and Saint Mary’s MFA student Jill Randall invited me to review the show with an eye to creating a critical discourse around writing about MFA performances.

Before I continue, I’d like to locate myself as a writer and a dancer, trained professionally from a young age in ballet and then modern in college. While earning my MFA in Writing & Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, I continued to take dance classes in the BFA program and performed in students’ work. My art practice has always been and continues to be interdisciplinary. From my early compulsions to write in the studio and dance on the page, I began to incorporate embodiment and spatial awareness into my performances of text, and then started to utilize video as a creative tool to bridge text and the moving body. I find that writing about dance, an act that is a partnership of my home disciplines, helps me absorb and concretize the ephemeral experience of witnessing movement and performance.

Looking back eight and 10 years to my experiences in school, I find that my creative process was shaped very much by what we called “Friday showings,” our feedback sessions within the Dance Department during my undergraduate studies at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. We engaged the work using Liz Lerman’s process for critical response, wherein the choreographer directs the structure of the feedback session by asking us to respond to specific questions. I began to incorporate, and value, this process in my writing workshops.

Many college writing workshops have a strict policy that the writer, after reading their work, be silent during the feedback discussion. I found that listening to other people’s opinions, which were formulated blind, without having an understanding of the context of the work, or what I was interested in investigating or developing, was extremely counter-productive to my process and made the workshop essentially worthless. So I believe that providing the audience with a frame, with a context for what they are about the witness, helps them attune and become sensitive to what is taking place, and find a way in. This is true for both writing and dance.

That being said, I’m curious to know the questions these dancers are investigating. As a non-student of the program, listing a couple questions per piece in the program notes would have been helpful for me to frame what I was seeing. A talk-back after the show, where choreographers could pose questions to the audience, would have been helpful as well. But since I’m absolutely new to these dancers, their work, and their processes, I’ll note what stayed with me and drew me in, according to what I identify as the intention or intentions of each piece. In so doing I acknowledge my own aesthetic preferences in terms of what interests me and what I want to witness in performance, and strive to locate the work’s artistic choices and voice.

In Randall’s 15 questions for choreographers and performers, her last is “What is the dream of the audience?” I immediately recalled the work of one of my all-time favorite artists, Korean American writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who studied at UC Berkeley in the ‘70s and began to use experimental video, visual poetry, text objects, and performance in a manner extremely avant-garde for a woman of color in her time. In her text work “Audience Distant Relative” (1977), she writes:

you are the audience

you are my distant audience

i address you

as i would a distant relative

as if a distant relative

seen only heard only through someone else’s description

[from The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (1951-1982) edited by Constance Lewallen, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2001. This book was a companion to the University of California Berkeley Art Museum exhibit.]


So I respond to these works as if a distant relative, my notes alive within the audience’s dream.

Short Bouquets | Choreographed by Jill Randall

This piece features two solos, or portraits. Each begins with a dancer (Valerie Gutwirth or Katie Kruger) sitting on a bench with a small bouquet of flowers. The dancer moves through a series of still poses, and the audience is invited to take a portrait of each dancer on their phones and publish it to social media. I wondered about the intention of starting in this way, as it magnifies the feeling of a photograph or painting “coming to life.”

The two solos side by side contrast each other. In the first, a black dress, red flowers, somber lighting, and string music from an upright bass call to mind the process of grieving, amplified by clear lines and an intent focus. In the second, an orange dress, lime flowers, warmer lighting, and upbeat percussive music creates a much different mood. I like that each solo used essentially the same structure and elements, but that each created a different effect. I wondered if there were more “bouquets” in this series of portraits, and wanted to see multiple solos simultaneously, perhaps in a gallery setting, each “portrait dance” illuminated in its own space.

Caught in the Turbines | Choreographed by Leesha Melson

This piece begins with an ensemble in flowing white garments and the sound of the sea. Among the dancers (Katherine Dorn, Mary Anngeline Douvikas, Elijah Muñoz, Kelsey Peterson, Beth Tritch, Jasmine Williams), I saw a lot of experimentation with partner work, and with the ensemble broken into groups of two or three doing different phrase work simultaneously. It began very softly with intimations of the sea, and at the very end one dancer is highlighted doing much sharper and quicker movements while the rest of the ensemble continues to soften and dissolve, which was a nice contrast. I found that instead of focusing entirely on the density of the technical choreography, I was pulled toward a kind of resonance that existed just above the dancing bodies. A kind of hum or frequency residue started to register, each group giving off a different kind of static charge.

Co-independent | Choreographed by Kelsey Peterson

This piece begins with two dancers (Katy Fessler, Jessica Lim) standing face to face, embraced, underneath the sound of rain. Throughout their duet they stay in contact, something they seem to both desire and despise, that they need but can’t escape. I was drawn in by their emotional connection to each other, and their (e)motivations, which arose in their clear focus, partner work, easeful synchronization, and syncopated disruption. As they kept returning to the embrace of the opening scene, I enjoyed witnessing the dance between fighting and surrendering to a centrifugal force, to the inertia of two bodies already in motion, like space rock colliding, exploding, and condensing over billions of years.

A.M.V.A: Together we can’t, separated we wouldn’t | Choreographed by Mary Anngeline Douvikas

This piece begins with a human-size picture frame and four dancers (Allegra Bautista, Rachel Garcia, Kelsey Peterson, Sarah Vincent) standing behind it. The lights pop quickly on and off of the frame, then fade in to show all four dancers arranged curled in some way on the floor. The lights dim and shift again to focus on one of the dancers who begins to move. I appreciated the subtle shifts in transition that the lighting helped achieve. I wondered about the frame; I got the sense of a family or a group of close friends, but I didn’t get a strong sense of their collective relationship to each other. Each person moved in a solo bit, which seemed to echo my feeling from Randall’s piece of photographs coming to life. I wondered about each person as a character presenting their own story, and how they might fit and be shuffled into a whole.

Distance, no Distance | Choreographed by Shaunna Vella

This piece begins with the serious placement of pinwheels, Astroturf, and a kitschy kitchen photo of tropical fruit. Shaunna Vella enters with a low lawn chair and an ice box, and cracks open a can of Tecate. Alyah Baker joins Vella in this constructed fake beach paradise setting, and as they dance they self-consciously make fun of themselves and satirize their relationship to each other, and to the entire construct of idealized romance. The movement was punctuated by speaking, gesture, and moments of absurdity, which gave it a texture like Astroturf on marley and provided a satisfying, interesting balance. Toward the end both dancers continue seriously to Frank Sinatra singing, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.” The jarring juxtaposition of Christmas on the beach, while ridiculous and unexpected, was also a joy in itself to witness. Like the contrasting textures of earlier sections, I welcomed the seriousness and depth the dancers reached here, alongside the piece’s levity.

InAppropriate Miss | Choreographed by LaWanda S. Raines

This piece begins with several dancers moving underneath a large piece of sheer fabric that extends across the entire stage. From the spoken text and the choreography itself, the piece is actively pushing against, and working through, this “box called girl,” resisting the boundaries of sexism and misogyny and confining definitions of the feminine. Some of the movement seemed to be sourced from images and representations historically gendered as feminine, bringing with it all those layers of cultural connotation. But the movement also turned its back on the gaze and the imposed boundaries of the box.

I had just seen the trailer for the new documentary The Hunting Ground about sexual assault on college campuses. Toward the end of the piece one of the dancers lies with her back on the floor and does some of the movement that was done in the very beginning underneath the sheer fabric, pushing up against something. Because I had just seen that trailer, and because only moments before one of the dancers repeats the phrase “don’t help the girl in trouble, being harassed” and for the first time includes “being assaulted,” I was disturbed by this image.

Raines stayed on the outskirts of the space, supplying the textual motivations and catalysts that anchored and drove the piece. When she joined the ensemble (Curtis Askew, Feli Cazares, Melanie Olsen, Mackenzie Shine) toward the end, I felt that the choreography seemed to settle and resonate in her body in a way I hadn’t seen in the other dancers, and I found myself wishing I had seen her embody more of the movement herself.

The spoken repetition of the text by all the dancers continued throughout, and after some time it began to pull me out rather than tune me in to the movement. I wondered about the choice to reach a cacophony and overstimulation with the repetition of those phrases, and how repeating less could still build a cadence or correspondence with the words over time.

follow the light into darkness | Choreographed by Leesha Melson

This solo piece begins with dancer Jasmine Williams working along a diagonal pathway. The movement sequence is one torn between two directions, a fear or need to move forward and a need or inability to move away. The sequence moves backward, forward, and back again, speeding up and beginning to erode. I am curious to see a part two or continuation of this, to trace where and how this repetition and vibration transforms.

Human | Choreographed by Vanessa Freeman and dancers

This ensemble included dancers Allegra Bautista, Tiffany Davis, Mary Anngeline Douvikas, Kelsey Peterson, Kaylee Smith and Hailey Yaffee. What stood out to me the most about this piece was its use of “wave canon” or cascade, which evoked a spilling and falling executed by the group. It reminded me that I’m usually more drawn to a dancer when I can see an emotional engagement, and even more so when I’m let in to the internal landscape of the choreography and its felt sense. I notice when someone is making the movement their own, and looking to the texture of the space to hold them.

Still In Her Graces | Choreographed by Milissa Payne Bradley

This duet of ballet modern was executed with technical grace, and while it’s not a form I work in, I appreciated Jamielyn Duggan and Nina Pearlman’s commitment to the material and their engagement with the audience and the space.

the GORGEOISIE | Choreographed by Todd Courage

The concept for this piece seemed to be everything we want to do as people and as performers, the layers and constructs we want to add, to make ourselves more “comfortable” or palatable for other people, our compulsion for artifice—essentially to hide in plain sight. During the piece dancer Mary Anngeline Douvikas and Todd Courage have a conversation (pre-recorded and played back) about the process of making the piece and the performance itself. I was bothered by Courage’s disembodied voice and found myself wanting the conversation to be taking place in real time, with Courage visible in the space as well.

I was intrigued by the character of the French maid, played by Stephanie Coffelt, who entered and exited the space with a dissident nonchalance, and with accessories on silver trays, a white boa, and silver balloons. After Douvikas dances to Rihanna and a song from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, I was drawn in during the third section when Douvikas relinquished her costumes and the artifice seemed to fall away. Rather than a character or an entertaining presentation or a music video, I finally saw the movement itself.

The program continues Friday, January 30 and Saturday, January 31 at 8pm. Purchase tickets here.

This review also appears in MFA Dance in Review.