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2009 Local Dance Commissioning Project

Jason Garcia Ignacio with CityDance Ensemble

by Heather Desaulniers

September 10th, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Millennium Stage, Washington, DC

The Kennedy Center’s 2009 Local Dance Commissioning Project kicked off this week on the Millennium Stage, and this year’s premiere evening featured a rich, diverse program by CityDance Ensemble.  One of their incredible dancers, Jason Garcia Ignacio, was the project’s first honoree commissioned to craft an original work, “The Mountain.”  Though this debut was clearly the focal point of the evening, it was really the entire CityDance Ensemble that shone.  Everything about them was entrancing: the choreography, the dancers, the inventiveness and the risk.  What impressed me most about the company was how chameleon-like they were.  They can easily and successfully adapt to any environment and any style of dance: neoclassical, Tanztheater, and ethnic stylings.  This young group can do anything and everything, and do it all well.

There were two pieces on the program that can best be described as neoclassical modern dance.  Both “Scorched” (2008) and “Glancing Blows” (premiere) were contemporary works, yet both conjured visions of Balanchine.  Kate Weare’s “Scorched” was a sexy amalgamation of modern and ballet, with a spattering of jazz, musical theater and social dance mixed in.  So many choreographers shy away from combining these styles together because of a perceived notion that jazz, musical theater and social dance are ‘less-than.’  Weare’s captivating piece illustrates the strength that comes from this type of collaboration.  That is what neoclassicism actually is.  It is not a term reserved only for ballet, it represents pushing the limits of what any dance form has become; looking to be expansive and inclusive.  That’s what Weare accomplished with “Scorched.”  It was a neoclassical celebration of what is possible just like Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”

Paul Gordon Emerson’s “Glancing Blows” was the second neoclassical piece, not because it was the most balletic work in the program, but rather because of Emerson’s unique take on partnering.  Again, neoclassicism pushes established boundaries, and Emerson’s partnering definitely accomplished that goal.  This new duet for company members Giselle Alvarez and Maleek Mikhail Washington employed a deep connection between two bodies in space.  There were very few moments in the piece when the two were not physically connected in some way.  And, in the moments where they were not touching, their bond was palpable in the space between them.  Emerson worked primarily with partnering that limited lifts.  This requires much more imagination on the part of the choreographer and much more skill on the part of the dancers.  Duets that are full of lifts may look spectacular, but that’s what they are: a spectacle, tricks.  The partnering in “Glancing Blows” is really about two bodies connected as one, not one being paraded around by the other.  Again, it reminded me so much of Balanchine, specifically Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell in “Agon.”

There was more than just neoclassicism in the evening’s pieces.  Meisha Bosma’s “Souvenirs” (2007) was dance theater at its best.  The deconstructed narrative of tension, nervousness, fright and dizziness was abundantly clear in the movement.  There was an off-balanced feeling in the work that left the audience also in an uncomfortable state.  Something was purposely unfinished and unresolved in the movement.  Yet, as with much good dance theater, this ambiguity was both emphasized to and anesthetized with the audience.  In my experience, only dance theater can successfully produce both of those feelings at the same time.  There was even an ‘ode to Pina Bausch’ moment, where all the female dancers were in a line at the front of the stage with painted-on smiles, doing small, percussive movements with their hands and heads.  All that was missing was the negligee dresses and the long, loose hair. 

The main event of the evening, Jason Garcia Ignacio’s, “The Mountain,” was a narrative glimpse into real-life events that occurred in Manila in the early 1990s.  The most impressive aspect of Ignacio’s piece was that he was able to instill a real sense of Filipino heritage and culture into all aspects of the work.  Not only did he diligently research and teach the style of dance required to all of his dancers, but also, he was able to get a level of authenticity from them that suggested these performers had been studying this form of ethnic dance their entire lives.  This piece was so authentic that we could have easily been watching it at the acclaimed San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.

There is nothing wrong with being compared to great traditions in dance like Balanchine, Bausch and the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.  The comparisons simply show that CityDance Ensemble really can do anything that it wants to.  It has the talent on both the creative and technical sides to pull from so many different traditions, and build on those traditions while forming its own unique identity.


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