I don’t know too much about modern dance. I know it exists, I support the idea of it happening here in RVA, but before last weekend, I had never seen any of it in person. Therefore, taking a trip south of the James to Manchester’s Dogtown Dance Theatre last Friday for the second weekend of the Richmond Dance Festival was an adventure into unknown territory.
I don’t know too much about modern dance. I know it exists, I support the idea of it happening here in RVA, but before last weekend, I had never seen any of it in person. Therefore, taking a trip south of the James to Manchester’s Dogtown Dance Theatre last Friday for the second weekend of the Richmond Dance Festival was an adventure into unknown territory. I was open-minded and prepared for anything they might throw at me–or so I told myself. What I saw still ended up venturing outside of my expectations, but definitely in a good way.
Dogtown Dance Theatre itself is a lovely venue that I had no idea existed, especially not in the area where I found it. Located a couple blocks north of Hull St and a couple blocks east of Cowardin (what Belvedere turns into once you cross the Lee Bridge), it’s nonetheless surrounded by a residential area. The building is clearly from an earlier era, one when perhaps zoning divisions weren’t as strictly enforced, and it has a no-frills design that doesn’t call much attention to itself. I was right on top of it before I realized I had reached my destination. Regardless of the unassuming outer appearance, though, the inside has obviously been recently remodeled, and the theatre in which the performances took place was a very nice place to see a show.
The evening was split between performances by Ground Zero Dance and FDANCE, two local dance companies. The three Ground Zero Dance performances were first on the bill, and the evening opened with a performance called “The Fall,” choreographed by Pam England and featuring three dancers–two men and one woman. Based on that title, you might assume it was about the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden Of Eden, but honestly, I couldn’t entirely tell. Modern dance is pretty abstract where narrative is concerned, and I wasn’t always able to get a deeper impression of a story being told. I wasn’t really sure about what was happening in “The Fall,” but after a couple of minutes, I decided not to worry about it, and to just enjoy watching the dancers do their thing. Dancing is clearly a pretty strenuous athletic activity, and the dancers pulled off some difficult-looking maneuvers, so that was cool. Dancers were picking each other up and carrying each other around–they made it look not only easy, but graceful.
The next performance was actually a film, broadcast onto the theater’s back wall. “Behind The Silence,” which was shot in the same building where we were watching it, was a solo dance, choreographed by Rob Petres and performed by Molly Grose. Through use of slow motion, closeups, and rapid cuts between multiple camera angles, the film allowed for all sorts of elements of the dance to be emphasized that wouldn’t be as notable in a live performance. The result was like a highbrow art film, and I’m a sucker for that stuff, so I was into it. Much of this performance seemed centered around a frustration with the limits of one’s physical body–at quite a few points during the film, the dancer would slap at her back as if to scratch that spot right inbetween your shoulder blades that’s difficult to reach from any angle. She also pulled and slapped at a few other spots on her body in an aggressive fashion that made me think of self-harm and eating disorders. And yet, at other points in the film, she engaged in beautiful acrobatic movements. It felt like the dance was contrasting attempts at creating beauty and glory through the body’s most profound abilities with frustration at the ways one’s body ultimately restricts such a quest. The film might have gone on slightly too long–my attention started to drift over the last couple of minutes–but it was quite impressive on the whole.
The final Ground Zero piece, choreographed by Victoria Fink–who was also one of the dancers that performed it–was called “Unveiled Heart.” This piece featured six dancers, three men and three women, and it was pretty tough to keep up with. The dancers were generally paired off two-by-two across the stage, but while you might have expected each man to be paired up with a woman, that usually wasn’t the case. The dancers switched partners constantly throughout. Generally, two of the three pairs would be doing a very similar thing, perhaps even synchronized, but the third pair would be doing something completely different. I tried to pay attention to what all six of the dancers were doing at all times, but usually at least one of the three pairs were eluding my attention somewhat. However, I felt less like the dance was confusing me and more like I just wasn’t prepared enough to be able to keep up with it. If anyone wasn’t holding up their end of the deal, it was me. This dance was full of intricate activities and movements across the stage, and while I didn’t necessarily get an overall narrative message from it, it was fascinating and kept my attention at all times. I felt like I should see more modern dance in the future, so I could become more prepared for its intense and sometimes overwhelming visual language.
There was a brief intermission at this point, followed by two FDANCE performances, both choreographed by FDANCE artistic director Rebecca Ferrell. The first was called “Let’s Go Back To The Part Where You Lie On Top Of Me,” and was performed by dancers Chloe Bowman and Danica Kalemdaroglu. Sure enough, this dance featured some early moments in which the two dancers lay on top of one another, in poses obviously meant to simulate sex. But as it continued onwards, there were clearly seeds of discord being sown between the two. Their dancing began to resemble the tempestuous push-and-pull of a relationship that isn’t going well, but which both partners are trying to hold onto. When one would reach out towards the other, the other would angrily turn away. Things progressed in a steadily downhill fashion as the dance continued, and the overall feeling was one of pain and loss. It seemed that no matter what either party wanted from the situation, they were headed for a negative resolution that neither could prevent. At the end of the dance, the two briefly lay together once again before crawling slowly away from each other as the lights went down.
“Let’s Go Back To The Part Where You Lie On Top Of Me” was sad and intense, but neither it nor anything else I’d seen so far prepared me for what was to come next. We’d been warned that the final dance of the evening, Homemade (House) Grenade, featured nudity and explicit content, and that those who objected to such things could leave before it started. To the credit of the audience in attendance that evening, I didn’t see anyone leave.
“Homemade (House) Grenade” began with Rebecca Ferrell alone and naked, lying on the stage. As some incredibly dramatic music by Explosions In The Sky played, she began some slow movements from her prone position. Just as I had prepared myself for some super-emotional dance performance, though, a woman in a headset strode purposefully onto the stage and loudly declared, “Fuck this cheesy bullshit!” Suddenly the music stopped, the lights came up, and several other crew members began tying back the curtains at the side of the stage. “Get Becky dressed,” the stage manager declared, and two women stood her up and began putting clothes onto her naked body. She ended up wearing a pair of black shorts, a t-shirt that read “OH MY GOD BECKY,” and a big pink dunce cap. At that point, the crew members brought her to the front of the stage. While the stage manager read facts about Becky’s life–many of which dealt with her apparent reputation as a “ruthless heartbreaker”–a tape of sex sounds played through the loudspeakers. We were eventually told that this was a tape of Becky and her current boyfriend, at which time the boyfriend was brought out to take a bow.
I will tell you right now, I was loving this. It felt like a cross between a comedic stage play and some sort of punk rock performance art. I had no idea that modern dance could be like this. And don’t worry, there was still plenty of dancing–the recitation of factual info about Becky ended with a mention that she likes to have sex to Kendrick Lamar, at which point a Kendrick Lamar song played, and she and her assistants began dancing like it was 1 AM on a Saturday night at a hip hop club. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that people who dance for a living are going to have some serious moves regardless of what kind of dancing they’re doing, but yeah, I was impressed.
The piece progressed into a story, still being told to us by the stage manager, about Becky having an affair with a married man–“Mr. Big” (shoutout to Sex And The City). She and her two assistants then enacted a three-person tango in which the assistants played the married man and his wife, and Becky played herself, trying to find a place for herself in the dance that was their marriage. It all ended in tears–literally. After a darkly hilarious sequence in which the stage manager read a list of everything bad Becky had done during the affair with “Mr. Big” while her assistants bent her over and spanked her, Becky sat on the stage with a tissue box, watching a video of pandas frolicking, which was shown on the back wall as a recording of Becky sobbing played over the PA. After a few minutes of this, the stage manager sighed and said, “Let’s get Becky ready for her solo.”
The last five minutes of this performance were a much more conventional modern dance performance–which turned out to be a less melodramatic version of the dance Becky had started at the beginning of the piece–but all the explicit narrative stage-setting helped give it more context than I’d had for all of the previous performances I’d seen. While “Homemade (House) Grenade” was significantly longer than any of the other pieces I’d seen over the course of the evening, my attention never waned. The unconventional first two-thirds of the piece helped provide me with a way in to the more standard final sequence. Set to “Werewolf” by Coco Rosie, her solo dance was sad and beautiful, and I was especially moved by the moment towards the end when what appeared to be snow fell just upon the small space onstage where she was standing (a la The Truman Show). Overall, I was impressed to see a performer not only take such risks with her medium but to also put so much of her personal life into her art. And it’s definitely good that this performance ended the evening, not just because it gave wimps a chance to duck out before the controversial content, but because I think anything else would have been a letdown following that performance. Seriously, I can’t say enough about how cool “Homemade (House) Grenade” was, and I hope FDANCE stages another performance of it again in the future, because it’s the kind of work that could appeal to a much wider audience than the traditional modern dance fan. More people need to see it.
My first taste of live modern dance performance was interesting throughout, and had some very high points. I’m glad I broadened my horizons and checked out some things I’d never normally bother with, and I definitely will be checking back on the local scene in the future. The Richmond Dance Festival continues every Friday and Saturday night for the rest of this month, with performances by Unheard-Of Practices and Movement House, as well as a selection of locally-produced dance films. For more details, check out our article about the entire festival here, or in our newest print issue.