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George Jackson Review July 2011

Cast in Flesh

“Vasanth”, “Frida”, “Homenaje a David Alfaro Siqueiros”
Dakshina – Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company
Gala Hispanic Theatre
Washington, DC
July 8, 2011

by George Jackson
copyright 2011 by George Jackson

This U.S. premiere of Anna Sokolow’s homage to the painter Siqueiros made it quite clear that the late choreographer hadn’t dance steps in mind. Sokolow transformed the Mexican artist’s humanist expressionist visions into sculpture. Her clue undoubtedly came from Siqueiros’ murals which were projected as backdrops to the action. The pictures show in-the-round cubist forms – loaves, logs, boulders, rocks – evolving into the shapes of people, both those living and those dying. In several scenes the dancers are grouped as a small choir. Sokolow keeps the group in motion, molding it firmly yet not pausing too picturesquely. Formations arise and subside as the group divides, sometimes by gender. Countercurrents occur and there are, in passing, instances of counterposture. With a cast of just 9 (and sometimes fewer), Sokolow is able to launch an irresistible pulse, an effect for which other choreographers require massive forces. She is equally adept in using the dancers as individuals.

Two duets stand out. Lovers, a woman and a man (Stacey Yvonne Clayton and Jimmy Erickson), meet and bond ever so tenderly. Holding onto each other and onto a flower he has given her, they become a pair. Projected behind them is a Siqueiros painting which shows the flower capped by a lightning bolt spelling the word “PAZ”. Another pair, two men (Jamal Ari Black and Singh), link in a hatelove encounter so intense that even death can not end it.

The dancing is stylistically exacting. Cast members, even when used as soloists, must remain sculptural, projecting a roundness plus a group cohesion. In some scenes the dancers speak in Spanish for short durations and their words must seem like thoughts they themselves can’t help listening to in their heads.

Apparently, Sokolow’s “Siqueiros” was performed only once previously, 1984 in Mexico City. The accompanying music is credited to Silvestre Revueltas, Carlos Chavez and Rafael Elizondo. The Spanish texts are from the writings of Pablo Neruda, Rafazel Alberti, Paul Eluard and Rodolfo Mier. Brian Allard’s lighting helped to sculpt the choreography’s shapes. Judith Hansen had chosen a broad palette for the colors of the costumes but viewed them through a gray fog, suggesting both Mexico’s visual riches and the stringencies of human predicaments. Sokolow’s choreography, authoritatively set by Lorry May, will be much in demand once it becomes better known.

A good companion piece for the premiere, yet a contrast too, was Sokolow’s “Frida” – which Lorry May revived for Dakshina in November 2010. It focuses on Frida Kahlo, another Mexican painter, but shows her as a person as well as artist. For this portrait, Sokolow also sculpted bodies but not as fully as in “Siqueiros” and in certain passages one misses a varied vocabulary of dance steps. This time a single dancer, the alert Melissa Greco Liu, was the principal Frida throughout and it helped build the role and provided a climax. Frida’s conflicted duet with the famous Diego Riviera (with Singh in the brooding male role) was a stunning study in tension and restraint.

“Vasanth”, the opening work, looked crowded on Gala Hispanic’s stage when all 11 cast members were milling about. Its snaking formations shaped themselves more distinctly earlier this year at Kennedy Center’s ampler Family Theater. This rite of spring fable needs tightening, yet I like its meld of techniques. There is an Indiadance/balletic pas de trois of considerable charm for the fable’s sacrificial Cupid figure (Graham Pitts) and two women who admire him (Sudha Radhakrishnan and Shailaja Maru Parijat), and a duo for Shiva and his beloved (Singh and Greco Liu), which has a lovely ballroom flow without being unIndian.

No question that Singh, as Dakshina’s artistic director, makes daring choices across the technical and stylistic divides of modern dance, India dance and ballet. Moreover, he does so on a paltry budget. That his gambles often pay off is likely due to his meticulous rehearsal staff – Karen Bernstein and Harriet Moncure Williams. If only the directors of our big dance companies had a bit more Diaghilev in their drawers.