A Bay pas de deux

Pub date September 17, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionDance

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REVIEW Coming right off the top of the new season, two local choreographers, Liss Fain and Erika Chong Shuch, have thrown a spotlight on the marvelous richness of Bay Area dance. These women couldn’t be more different from each other. One creates cool, intricately flowing balletic dances; the other, spunky and quixotic dance theater.

Fain is something of an outsider if for no other reason than that she choreographs to a different tune. No easy beats or slapped-together sound collages for her. Her most recent Liss Fain Dance performance included Bach, Reich, Messiaen, and Bartók. Fain’s is a refined though restricted sensibility, which manifests itself in carefully structured work that floats through time and stage space without establishing linear trajectories. Often the music gives the pieces something akin to a backbone. Her longtime collaborator, Matthew Antaky, envelopes her filigreed choreography with masterful light and scenic designs. Rarely has Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Novellum stage looked as good.

A world and a local premiere shared the evening with reprises of the courtly couple-dancing Crossing (2004) and the haunting The Line Between Night and Day (2005). Ejmaj Design’s punk leather and lace costumes for the new At the Time suggested theatrically pungent subject matter. But Fain’s slow romp of entangled limbs for Dexandro Montalvo and Bethany Mitchell remained pretty tame.

For the US debut of 2007’s elegant Looking, Looking, inspired by trips to Eastern Europe and Cambodia, Fain responded to Bartók’s folkloric echoes with couple dances and a sense of searching — in the air and on the ground. Full of lively arm gestures, some possibly inspired from Asian mudras, Looking‘s high point came with Montalvo’s partnering two of Fain’s most expressive dancers, fiery Kai Davis and lyrical Daphne Zneimer. Line, performed to parts of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, is a more angular work that, thankfully, avoided literal references to the music’s place of origin: a concentration camp. Somehow it managed to be both elegiac and hopeful.

Also at YBCA, in its Forum space, Erika Shuch Performance Project’s existential musing, After All, Part I, engaged with its excellent performers. The stage oozed with talent and energy, thanks to the eminent, wistful dancer Joe Goode, singer-composer Dwayne Calizo, charming teenage vocalist Gracie Solis, percussionist-actor Matthias Bossi, and actor Beth Wilmurt, not to mention a quartet of dancers and a motley movement chorus of 23.

Drawing from a number of writers, Chong Shuch fashioned dances, monologues, and songs into a circular structure about, well, the meaning of life — as seen mainly from the perspective of a goldfish. Shuch has gathered — and created — marvelous material but it needs to be more organically shaped.

Individual segments work well. Wilmurt inhabited Michelle Carter’s sparkling text as naturally as her pisca-sartorial accoutrements of sunglasses and form-hugging sequins. Though plagued with what appeared to be vocal difficulties, Calizo’s character of a hobo Santa Claus who carries everything with him was a fanciful creation. Bossi roared through Octavio Solis’ "Last Psalm" (an inversion of "The Lord Is My Shepherd") with a mixture of bravado and cynicism. Given the current political climate, he was as hilarious as he was chilling.

Still, what After needs is somebody — just as in the initial fable — to hold it up. As it was, it didn’t leave enough footprints in the sand.