With social distancing making gathering in one place for the annual Richmond Dance Festival an impossibility, the dances were instead hosted online, where a dozen performers responded to our current isolation with thought-provoking movement.
This May, Dogtown Dance Theatre hosted their annual Richmond Dance Festival (RDF) in a video format, since they cannot currently use their beautiful theatre due to social distancing requirements. The chosen theme, Isolation to Creation, prompted 12 different dancers from the region to explore and respond to the amount of space social distancing has required: “six feet.” The creative performances from the virtual festival premiered online on May 12, and I reviewed them in the order that I watched them on Vimeo.
Located in a beautiful old building just south of the James that looks like the school from Matilda, Dogtown Dance Theatre hosts a community dance school and is a professional performance center. It even makes a beautiful reception venue. In the Fall of 2019, the successful non-profit program presented an interpretive dance production set to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which sold out for all three performances. Major productions help to fund year-round operations, which provide performing artists a beautiful space for continuing studies.
I feel sure the artists miss the community aspect of their festival. When I attended RDF at Dogtown Dance Theatre in 2019, I found myself in a casual, Socratic classroom setting where all feedback from friends and family were equally welcome. That day, I saw an amazing group made up of Hungarian women both young and old. With heads held high, balancing swords atop heads dressed in colorful turbans and sparkling coin headdresses, they beamed at us. Their dazzling performance contrasted with the more modern style utilized by most performers, who wore muted street-clothes costumes and performed solo. Some dancers incorporated spoken word, custom tracks, or documentary video.
Like last year, modern dance was the predominant style at 2020’s RDF, and dancers met the challenge of sharing screens and filming their own performances from home. Resident performer Kayla Xavier “looks forward to this festival every year,” and in her performance, made a “hilariously fun discovery of a small and unexpected location.”
“Toilet Humor” by Kayla Xavier: Count on Xavier to incorporate humor into her personal pieces. She brings levity to situations, like being in the bathroom, or being hung over, and chooses popular music for accompaniment. This performance is inspiring and fun. I’d aspire to devote this much energy to my morning routine. As a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic and social isolation, I think this dance is forward-looking and optimistic.
This video reflects modern social media culture in the way we communicate with our loved ones. We share pictures and videos of our private lives when we are apart. This fun, choreographed performance in the bathroom reminds me of TikTok videos that my middle-school-age neighbor likes to make at the park with friends. Xavier wants to inspire self-confidence in others with her work. Through her brightness, she wants to show people that even if you are in your underwear, when you are having fun and feeling good, it makes a lasting impression.
The dance is primarily meant to capture the way we, as a nation, have collectively laughed at our real fear in response to the prospect of toilet paper shortages. I liked the way the toilet paper rolled gracefully into the sink; I always cringe when my TP is at risk of getting water on it, so Xavier made me jump a little. Her dance is a little playful. Her horizontal arm movements and leg stretches complemented the geometry of the bathroom and she used the whole small space. I’d probably hurt myself if I tried to mimic her athleticism, and I know my shower curtain wouldn’t survive a handstand attempt. “My toilet paper!!!” “Let go of the toilet paper!” “Work that toilet paper!”
“Backyard Dance” by Joi Brown: This performance, set to the sound of birds and crackling leaves underfoot, cuts out and resumes at one point, giving the impression that it’s a free-flowing, continuous dance sequence. It emphasizes the process and practice of dance, perhaps showing how a quiet, natural setting can feed artistic expression. The repetition of a twisting, blooming hand motion originating from the abdominal region reminds me of holding an energy ball during Tai Chi. The dancer stretches her balance over her feet, and flows from one movement to the next, with archness and deftness. I’ve enjoyed my access to the outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, and have been reminded of a psychological study that associates natural areas with mental health.
“New Light” by Cara Thomas: More storytelling elements and more creative cinematography in this piece. A dancer is shown in several different places practicing outside the studio: a cement square (maybe outside Dogtown Dance Theatre), on a brick floor in front of a mirror with lots of natural light, and in an empty domestic room with hardwood floors. Set to dramatic, meditative violin music, the dancer, along with other dancers who have smaller performances within the video, release their troubled minds with reaching, twisting, and leaping movements. My favorite camera angles were the shot of the primary dancer’s foot as she reached down to the floor with each stretched toe, and the way she almost looks like she is falling backwards with each step as she backs away from her square at the end of the performance. In “New Light,” dancers boldly face challenges.
“Burden” by Company E, Washington D.C.: This is a piece from an original stage production. It could depict a love triangle or new girlfriend joining a family. The male in the trio seems to be the center of conflict. The original score by Gavin Stewart is brooding and kind of dark. The faces are set and the dance is confrontational. It picks up momentum, and at the end, the dancers, who have been exchanging places and coming together on different sides of a coffee table posing in a sequence of conflicts, all find a position on different sides in a powerful triangle. Their coordinated movements and fierce eye contact made me forget about the table for a moment. I think “Burden” reflects current side effects of social distancing, specifically the amplification of domestic conflicts since there are fewer social outlets.
“lost and lonely” by Luisa Innisfree: Luxe, bright sounds from Swamp Dogg, a velvet chair, a Persian rug, and red wine. This dance is strong and a little funny, even though it starts with a worrisome kind of vulnerability – a girl drinking heavily, alone in the dark. Somehow the emphasis on her shoes make the dancer seem vulnerable. She performs burlesque moves and is somewhat transported to daylight and the outdoors. The end of the video shows a series of athletic dance moves that feels more like a workout or practice than an emotional release. I’d call the performance an exhibition of several elements of the artist’s inspiration.
“Empty” by tedted Performance Group: This performer intends to transport viewers from their homes with their video art, which features hand and head movements choreographed to spoken word, as well as light and shadow art made with a projector (I think). The execution of the video was provoking and cool, and I think the speaker’s use of repetition worked well with their choreographed hand movements. Simple color scheme, egg and triangle shapes, and tricks with light remind me of French avant-garde silent movies. Dreams and self-perception are major elements.
“Release Me” by Renay Aumiller: I really enjoyed this outspoken environmental video. The pop song choice and the presentation were simple and did not limit the audience. The skirt is striking and cool, and as the performance progressed, I was drawn to look at the labels on the artful white strip of bags: Hobby Lobby, Dominos, Target, Goodwill… At first, the performer looked like a conductor in a grand symphony, but her movements became more expressive and powerful as the song progressed. First I saw a person, then the skirt, then the dance. Finally, the skirt began to make noise and fluff and bundle, and I became aware of a specific statement about plastic bags and our environment.
Both Aumiller and Xavier express a possessive relationship with their consumables. Aumiller’s brief artist statement begins: “Plastic Ocean. Recycled dreams.” At times, the giant skirt seems to be limiting their movements. (Oh, “Harrison Bergeron!”) I’d certainly be afraid if I was trying to swim amidst all those bags. But a detectable vein of humor is present in this, as the performer jealously holds the bags close, even while “drowning” in them. The performer reminded me a little of my cat who used to go crazy for an open paper bag on the floor. “Release Me” made me remember one of the 2019 RVA Environmental Film Festival selections, “Drowning in Plastic,” and I watched it all the way through to the funny ending.
“Virtually Intertwined” by Dogwood Dance Project: I think this was my favorite performance as a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic and social isolation. The gentle music, the title, and even the name of the company all resonate, reminding me of springtime and delicate growth, making me feel calm. I liked the way my eye was drawn from screen to screen when all the company members were shown together, as if on a zoom chat screen. And I liked how at times, all the dancers were dancing with shadows of themselves. The many different settings on the screen at once — kitchens, yards, bedrooms etc. — didn’t overwhelm. I was reminded of home, safety, and how crisp, beautiful, and abundant nature is during springtime.
“I Dreamed of Solace” by Elsie Neilson: The performer wishes to express “the reality of being [a dancer] confined in an unconventional space.” I felt like this performance was most belonging on stage, at odds with its surroundings rather than embracing them. The dancer’s eyes were cast beyond the kitchen ceiling and row of decorative plates to the rafters over her imaginary stage and the big velvet curtains. And yet, certain movements, the rocking of arms and swaying back and forth, were enhanced by the delicate china plates and the baby gate (which could of course also be for a dog). I felt like she was one of the little porcelain ballerinas in a box in her childhood home as she turned deftly, without fear of striking the wall. Bravo!
“Post” by Kara Robertson of KARAR DANCE COMPANY, original score by Ryan Davis: Both artists meditate on isolation. The dance’s emphasis on feet, hands, and the ground reminds me of the idea that we are pared down to essential business and interactions. For this dancer, it seems like what she has are fundamentals. This is kind of what modern dance in general communicates to me. The setting, sunset in a field, and the music are both beautiful. The chosen title is simple and emotive. I like the way the ending of this video draws attention to the setting. The aerial shot of the grassy field with the dancer in white, a distant speck, looks beautiful.
“Collective Disdancing” by RADAR Dance: I was very excited to recognize Portuguese music. It’s a light and relaxed song choice, but maybe wistful. RADAR Dance shifts from dancer to dancer, one domestic scene to another, sometimes by cutting, sometimes by handing off movements. Whether they dance in a garden, a laundry, while window-watching or in a triangular attic space, dancing in a jacuzzi, on the couch, on the stairs — these ladies are inspired during their isolation by making the most of their daily movements. Sometimes, solitary work can be thought-provoking, or heavy. In another direct response to isolation, these performers present themselves as sharing, and their actions and locations are made more complete when observed together. One of the movements they seem to be focusing on looks like a mortar and pestle grinding, or a robot arm on the assembly line, which could be an interesting comparison of cultural domestic labor. Thoughtful performance!
“The Bunkbed Chronicles: Part 1” by Ash & Elm Dance Co.: The allure of bunkbeds. They are like playground equipment. The title of this piece had me thinking about the fictional Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, bored when they were stuck inside at their Uncle’s house, bunkered down during London aerial bombings. It also reminded me of the Hamm brothers, the twin American Olympians who began their careers swinging from the rafters together in their childhood barn. I thought the dance charmingly resembled child’s play the way the dancers balanced their movements, and sometimes mimicked each other, but were still focused on themselves and discovering on their own movements.
You can see all of these performances for yourself by going to vimeo.com/dogtowndancetheatre.
Top Photo by Dave Parrish