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Velocity DC Dance Festival

by Carmel Morgan

October 2, 2009 -- Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC

New York City has its annual Fall for Dance Festival, which last ten days and features performances during which multiple companies appear, offering audiences a diverse sampling of dance styles at an affordable price.  This year, Washington, DC launched its own effort to promote dance – the Velocity DC Dance Festival.  Modeled after Fall for Dance, but on a smaller scale, the Velocity DC Dance Festival took place over just two days and included two evening programs, one traveling outdoor work, and one late-night cabaret-style performance.  The Velocity DC Festival was produced by a consortium of leading arts organizations in DC, including the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and Dance/MetroDC.

On Friday, October 2, the Velocity DC Dance Festival started off with a free site-specific work by Austrian choreographer Willi Dorner called “Bodies in Urban Spaces,” which had been previously staged in Paris, London, and Philadelphia using local dancers.  In this version, DC’s Penn Quarter neighborhood became a stage.  Dorner’s work required the audience to move with it, and to see DC’s streets and buildings in a new light.  The dancers, clad in brightly colored workout wear, jogged from place to place, stopping to align themselves in various formations that interacted with the architecture around them.  Most frequently, the dancers piled on top of one another in a fetal position, feet tucked under their bodies, making human sculptures that were packed neatly and tightly into narrow spaces between buildings or other objects.  Once in position, the dancers stayed that way only briefly before trotting off down the street again, leading the audience to the next performance site.  The audience followed eagerly, looking around corners to locate colorful clumps of bodies.  It was kind of like a treasure hunt, and it was a lot of fun!

Friday night’s indoor performance provided an opportunity to see works by seven different dancers/companies: Gesel Mason, EDGEWORKS Dance Theater, Edwin Aparicio, CityDance Ensemble, Nejla Yatkin and NY2 Dance, Ronald K. Brown and Evidence Dance Company, and the Washington Ballet.  All of the performers on Friday night’s schedule were local except for Brooklyn-based Ronald K. Brown/Evidence.  At $15 a ticket, the performance quickly sold out.  The ticket price seemed to make a difference in the age distribution of the audience members, as there were far more people under 30 in the audience than at most dance performances in DC.  In addition to the deeply discounted price, the opportunity to see a large variety of dance probably prompted the popularity of the tickets. 

The program began with Gesel Mason’s thoughtful and entertaining “How to Watch a Modern Dance.”  She humorously taught that modern dance can be appreciated by anyone, especially if you relax, use your imagination, and do not attempt to decipher everything you see but focus on the emotional content of the performance.  EDGEWORKS Dance Theater, an all male contemporary dance company of predominately African-American men, followed with an excerpt from “In Progress: Traveling.”  The men moved fluidly, and there was something gentle yet sad about the piece.  Next was flamenco artist Edwin Aparicio who burned up the stage with strong, expressive, sexy dancing. 

Closing out the first half of the performance prior to intermission was CityDance Ensemble in “Last Look,” which was choreographed by Paul Taylor in 1985 and was restaged by former Paul Taylor dancer Patrick Corbin.  In “Last Look,” the CityDance Ensemble never looked better.  The work began with a colorful pile of bodies amidst a landscape of tall, hinged mirrors.  The men, wearing green jumpsuits, resembled uniformed residents of a mental health institution.  The women, in long silky kimono-type robes in vibrant sunset shades and hints of silver jewels, looked like rich housewives who had too much to drink before bed.  The dancers’ bodies rattled and shook and went slack.  The lengthwise mirrors provided numerous views of their dramatic convulsions.  Strewn across the stage, some slithered and crawled, while others flung themselves into the floor or peeked out from behind the mirrors.  The choreography was challenging, and it was extremely well executed, resulting in an enthralling performance that would rival that of any big name New York modern dance company.

The second half of the show was equally gripping.  Nejla Yatkin’s NY2 Dance Company performed an excerpt from “Wallstories,” a work about the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Yatkin grew up in Cold-War era Berlin, and her dancers expressed various emotions surrounding the wall’s collapse, especially in a series of duets that captured the sensations of separation and longing.  Ron K. Brown and Evidence performed an energetic excerpt from “Upside Down.”  Heads down low, arms flying out and pushing, their well-oiled hips grooving, the dancers moved to dizzying rhythms. 

The Washington Ballet finished the program with Edwaard Liang’s “Wunderland,” a striking contemporary ballet to the music of Philip Glass.  The women’s limbs, accented by the crimson leotards they wore, appeared spindly and spider-like.  There was plenty of interesting partnering.  When they were lifted, the women sometimes held their knees bent as if they had been picked up, frozen, from a seated position.  At other times, their legs, straight and perfectly horizontal, jutted in front the men, as if forming a belt.  When snow began to fall onto the stage, beautifully highlighted by the award-winning lighting design of Jeff Bruckerhoff, one could hear audience members gasp in amazement. 

The audience enthusiastically applauded every work on the Velocity DC Dance Festival program, and the applause was well deserved.  One certainly hopes that DC’s variation of Fall for Dance will become an annual event and grow in size.

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