The Festival of Us, You, We and Them at Dance Complex: Connecting and growing virtually

Victoria Awkward and Mickayla Kelly in 'Scrape'.
Victoria Awkward and Mickayla Kelly in 'Scrape'.

June 26-27, 2020.
Online — @thedancecomplex and Dance Complex on Facebook.

Humans evolved moving through the world, together in tight-knit communities. In 2020, human connection consists mainly of small family units and meetings over a screen. For the most part, we’re confined to small spaces and not moving as much as we’re used to. The result is rising depression, anxiety and feelings of physical malaise. The Dance Complex (Cambridge, MA) has offered outlets for human connection and growth through dance, in highly inclusive and welcoming ways, from its founding. 

Its administrative team, led by Executive Director Peter DiMuro, was not about to let a pandemic get in the way of an annual festival that significantly contributes to that mission of inclusive connection and growth through dance — The Festival of Us, You, We and Them. So they took the festival online. It included talks with notable figures (such as Sumbul Siddiqui, mayor of Cambridge; and Somatic Movement Specialist Eliza Mullouk), free classes and performances. This review will focus on a few of the most memorable performances. 

With Excerpts from Journeys — Social Distance Version, Janelle Gilchrist Dance Troupe offers lovely movement and an innovative approach to live-streamed performance — dancers performing simultaneously on a split Zoom screen. Their movement offers effervessance and expansion in a small space. The movement quality is assured but gentle and pliable, through varied levels and facings. 

The movement vocabulary is intriguing and fresh — with shapes that feel balletic in floor work, into reaching high from relevé. Timing elements, such as cannon into unison, are also intriguing. A second song has the dancers moving with a bit more float and ease, which aligns with an airy feeling in the music. This quality feels hopeful and aspirational.

Toward the end, I think more about these split screens of Zoom, as we all know it. The work connects with an experience that most of us are familiar with. The dancers are composed, graceful and joyful. Journeys seems to ask, can we all find a bit more space and grace in that difficult experience of altered human connection? It can be a journey for sure, one that we’re all traveling together. 

In The Village from Papa Sy is a whole lot of joy and fun with a group of dancers outdoors, dancing in a West African Contemporary style. The movement is expansive and rhythmic, also with moments of clear percussion in the movement. There’s lots of grounding, but much of the movement has a lift and reach as well. It feels aspirational. The dancers give 110 percent, moving big and joyfully. The music is beat-driven and joyful as well, supporting that feeling in the dance.

The natural setting, with open air all around, shows through in the movement as well. The dancers move from duets to trios to larger groups, almost as shifted by the wind. Spacing and facing varies and draws me in. There are slower, softer improvisational sections in smaller groups, and then the speed and energy picks back up when the whole group returns. 

I wonder what the effect of more of those section changes might have been, yet the balance of it all — considering audience experience and bandwidth — feels right. In The Village reminds me that dance can bring joy, light and connection in a way that’s truly unparalleled. 

In Jean Appolon Expressions’ Power, Mcebisi Xotyeni rises slowly from the ground as the work opens, alone in an outdoor space of trees and lush grass. At first, the only score is ambient noise from a nearby street. There is a reflective and introspective quality in his movement and presence. Yet soon he rises to full standing and music comes up. He begins to move much faster and through more space, out under the trees and sun. There’s something so balanced and natural about it all. 

Xotyeni dances through varied shapes and directions, and offers multiple energy dynamics of push and pull, of slower and faster movement. Moving back and forth in space evokes a tension, tension that cueing into a power dynamic. Is he finding the power in himself? Grappling with that in the face of being under the power of another person or thing? Wherever those open questions may lead, Power demonstrates an exploring of the power within the body tied with that in the soul. It can stand as a reminder that such power lies within us all. 

In Betsy Miller Dance Projects’ Forest River, Rebecca Lang and Angelina Benitez dance with delightful ease, on a bridge over a small river. They seem to have nothing to prove, nothing to achieve — they only need to be. They’re in harmony with each other and with their surroundings — taking tempo and spatial cues from each other, and moving to and away from the bridge’s varied structural pieces. High river grasses and trees are a sort of audience to their dance. Their costumes of loose, moveable river-green colored dresses make them in harmony with the trees and grasses as well. 

Part of me does want to see more variation in movement — bigger to smaller, faster and slower, big fall and recover. On the other hand, how they draw together in space and then move away has more potential for meaning than any of that could. It’s sometimes also okay to be soothed, rather than exhilarated, I tell myself. Acoustic guitar in the background throughout, “Woods” by Federico Fabianno, adds to that overall soothing effect. 

Camera angles from Betsy Miller (filming, editing and direction) bring us viewers into this world of harmony and just being — as if we are watching the dancers with them unaware. The geometry of these shots — the structures in and out of view, foreground and background — is endlessly visually captivating. For me, somehow that captivation adds to, rather than detracts from the soothing effect. In a time of turbulent news cycles and physical disconnection from one another and things we love most, as we know them, it feels like a dose of soul medicine. The end credits inform me that this place is Forest River Park in Salem, MA. I want to go and dance there myself. 

In Scrape, Victoria Awkward and Mickayla Kelly move together on an empty road surrounded by woods. The only score is the sounds of their sneakers scraping across the concrete and birds singing in the background. There’s something calming and natural about that. At the same time, I wonder, was the sound of their breath cut out? I personally always love to hear the sounds of dancers’ breath as they perform. There’s something so beautifully visceral and honest about it. 

Their technique is beautiful, and their control quite impressive for dancing in sneakers on pavement — yet what seems to be more important than that is their connection in movement. Through standing side by side to circling around each other to lunging away from each other to opposite sides of the road, their attunement to each other is consistent and organic. 

The camera work is striking as well; innovative tricks — such as repeating a turn into a solid, yet softened attitude from Kelly — catch my eye. While their surroundings seem less central to the work than their movement and their connections with each other, the natural setting adds to the pure, authentic quality of it all. In a time of disconnection and social unrest, this work is a little oasis of honesty, beauty and how we humans were meant to live — in connection with each other and the natural world around us.

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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