In her brief introductory remarks, Carla Peterson, Artistic Director of Dance Theater Workshop
, noted that one of the most important aspects of their 45-year old Fresh Tracks
program is to consider how the young dancers who participate are engaging in a conversation about the form. Fresh Tracks
is a residency and performance program for young choreographers that has existed under a few different headings since 1965. This year's crop of six choreographers is now launching their stint in the program, presenting short works for an audience. This show of DTW's latest pick of promising new talent runs for four nights, through December 11.
In her introduction, Peterson also noted that these artists must be "pit bulls" in order to build careers for themselves. While this is true for all young artists in the world today, it's particularly true of those working in fields like contemporary dance, which is a niche within in a niche of the arts world. It's their challenge to make their young non-dance peers care about their work and see an inherent value in it at a time when our society has a tenuous, at best, relationship with the arts. Like it or not, part of the job of every young artist has become the preservation or establishment of the spaces and opportunities that will allow them to build lives in the arts and to continue to challenge the form, and in so doing, hopefully, to challenge society at large.
With these ideas in mind, I couldn't help but wonder, while watching these six artists at work, what conversations they seemed to be having in their work, both with each other, and with us, the audience.
In trying to figure that out, it was interesting to note what commonalities existed in their work. Aside from superficial commonalities like a preponderance of 80s retro and American Apparel-ish clothing choices, or a reliance in a few of the pieces on light comedy as a narrative device, there were some interesting threads that seemed to tie the work together. The most striking commonality across the pieces was a dialogue around queer bodies, and questions pertaining to gender identity. Two pieces seemed to directly confront the issue, newspaper & me
by Mei Yamanaka
, and Duke
by Yve Laris Cohen
. But there seemed to be slight echoes of these discussions in Marjani A. Forté
, Lindsay Clark
's Goodbye Mr. B
, as well as Jessica's Story
by Rebecca Patek
Many questions of identity start with the assumptions people make based on the way a person looks, whether it be skin color (part of the subject of Forté's EGO
), physical disability or difference, gender, sexuality, etc. Seeing some of these works made me think of the way that the poet Lucia Perillo refers to the body, as the "meat cage." Who better to understand the intricate movements and permutations of the body than those who have had to live in a body that they have spent years coming to terms with, or trying to change. Queer identity is very much a conversation that is opening up in the public right now and some of this work seems very much to be a part of that dialogue.
Half of the pieces also made use of live vocal music, literally the dancers singing during parts of their pieces. So much so that it made me wonder if the choreographers within the program landed on this choice during their year working together. It also seemed to be a trend in the form that speaks to a movement to break down barriers across the performing arts. The theatricality and interactivity of Rebecca Patek's piece spoke to this same impulse to escape the limits of "dance" as a genre distinct from other types of performance.
Two of the real stand-outs in the group were Lindsay Clark and Yve Laris Cohen. Clark is a great dancer who clearly loves to move and her work is charismatic and strong. She's attempting a clever, pop culture and dance form mash-up that spins ballet with Balinese dance with a Martha Clarke animalism, against a backdrop of pop music from different eras. Yve Laris Cohen's work was the smartest and most ambitious of the bunch. The work seems to be challenging masculinity, body image, and gender, using repetition, difference, and change to open up very human struggles.
Also worth noting was Marjani A. Forté's piece. She was perhaps the most talented dancer in the group of choreographers, able to create shape, rhythm, movement, and narrative in her body. Her control and skill allowed her to embody fluidity, rigidity, kinetic energy, spontaneity, and character at turns, changing from one to the other in a split second.
Having seen these six artists work only briefly, it's hard to say who among them will choose to continue, and then who among those will have the perseverance and good fortune to succeed. As with many artists working today outside the mainstream, I imagine these choreographers are questioning what success means in the world today. But it was well worth the time spent seeing them on stage, to get a glimpse of what's on their minds at present and what they might be picking up on in the larger culture. Go see them and join the conversation.
(photo by Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy Dance Theater Workshop)