DANCE REVIEW: GroundWorks DanceTheater @ Breen Center by Elsa Johnson & Victor Lucas

Photo by Mark Horning

Sat 4/7

We went to see GroundWorks DanceTheater at Breen Center on Saturday night. It was the farewell performance for Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield, and the lobby was packed with audience members picking up their reserved tickets.

The concert began with éveillé (Awake), choreographer James Gregg’s dark Sleeping Beauty. No one we talked with could fit all the comings and goings of the dance into the narrative that Gregg provided in his program note, but the choreography and the committed performances of the five dancers did succeed in evoking a dark and ominous world in which that narrative could take place.

Much of Gregg’s choreography, we noticed, was derived from breakdance. At the beginning of éveillé, Highfield appears atop a set piece, performing hand and arm movements apparently derived from what b-boys and b-girls call “tutting.” And throughout éveillé all the dancers perform floor work, another kind of movement derived from breakdance. We were impressed to see concert dancers breaking so skillfully, but even more excited to see that Gregg had found a way to make breakdance vocabulary expressive in the context of this archaic narrative.

After an intermission, the concert continued with executive artistic director David Shimotakahara’s Passenger, an exuberant music visualization set to five pieces from John Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances and Dustin O’Halloran’s much slower Quartet #2. Shimotakahara and the five GroundWorks dancers had no apparent difficulty dancing to Adams’ “alleged” dances. The dance vocabulary seemed to vary according to the music, from a hoedown to something we saw as a Hindu temple dance. For the last piece, Judah to Ocean, Passenger picks up on Adams’ reference to a rail line in San Francisco and the dancers subtly make like locomotives.

Seeing éveillé and Passenger back to back calls attention to the versatility of GroundWorks’ lighting and costume people. In éveillé, Janet Bolick’s stark white costumes and Dennis Dugan’s lighting design might suggest bleached bones or bare flesh in moonlight and contribute to the ominous tone of the narrative. In Passenger, Bolick’s bright colors in Dugan’s warm light evoke something more like a freestyle Frisbee session in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

The versatility of the three newest GroundWorks dancers was also on display in the juxtaposition of éveillé and Passenger. In solos, duets and ensemble work, Gemma Freitas Bender, Taylor Johnson and Tyler Ring rose to every challenge as full members of the company. We wrote more about their dancing on our website.

The concert ended with Circadian, a piece choreographed by Shimotakahara that Bagley and Highfield have been performing — together and with others — for nearly 20 years. The audience watched with, we thought, rapt attention and rose at the end to a prolonged standing ovation. Good luck and God speed, Felise and Damien!

Learn more about Felise and Damien’s career with GroundWorks here.

[Written by Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas]

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