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Barney Yates


Emerging Choreographer Series #7
Presented by MNE Performing Arts (aka Mare Nostrum Elements), in partnership with LaGuardia Performing Arts Center (LPAC)
February 24 and 25, 2020
The Little Theater at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, 31-10 Thomson Ave., Long Island City
Reviewed by Barney Yates February 25, 2020

On February 24 and 25, 2020, MNE Performing Arts (aka Mare Nostrum Elements), in partnership with LaGuardia Performing Arts Center (LPAC), presented its 2020 Emerging Choreographer Series, a program of new works. It was the product of a highly competitive audition process in which 90 applicants vied for nine spots. The series has been developed so that its young participants get the benefit of a lot of thorough mentoring. Judging from what I saw, it worked. Of course, mentoring is a rather invisible part of any performance--you never know what you would see in its absence. But there was overall a high level of conceptual thought and execution in the evening. A youthful mind was evident in the dances, but no empty-headedness. Also, the work did not fall into the trap we see too often in student projects at elite colleges: too much of this (he said, pointing to his head) and not enough of this (he said, pointing to his sacral chakra).

Mare Nostrum is led by Nicola Iervasi and Kevin Albert. The organization supporting this series includes a seven-member selecting panel who choose the participants, nine personal mentors the participants can go to for advice and support, and a panel of five industry experts who (in addition to the mentors) give feedback two weeks before the premieres. The program aims for diversity in both choreographers and their styles. Modern, Contemporary, Tap and Experimental works are all welcome.

Mare Nostrum, by the way, means "our sea" in Latin. It's how the Roman Empire referred to the Mediterranean. In this context, it's regarded as a body of water touching many nationalities and cultures.

The evening started with a lobby installation. There was a red carpet laid out for "The Show" by Emory Ferra Campbell. A girl in a slinky dress (Marjorie Gross) strutted stylistically, aware of her watchers, who included an 'admirer' played by the choreographer, Emory Ferra Campbell. The 'star' was on display, wearing a diamond necklace and bracelet. The scene moved into the theater and was played to faster movement. The music changed from "Smoke Gets in your Eyes" to "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" The admirer mimicked her idol's movements from behind. When the 'star' finally disappeared upstage, the 'admirer,' now clad in a blue slip, danced alone to "Moon River," displaying more verve than her idol. It was an examination of a dual phenomenon: that of craving and resenting attention, and of the complex relationship between young women and those whose sense of beauty and style they would soak up osmotically.

"Come Heels or High Waters" by Rebecca Van Dover in collaboration with the performers was a lifestyle piece with narration. A group of women entered as if in a fashion show. There was an announcement about what your high-heeled shoes mean. Dialogue moved to the dancers, who explained how heels make you feel, what they say to your audience. Amid demanding movement, the dancers maintained their dialogue effortlessly, which I admired. What I did not admire were the tattoos on the dancers' bodies. They were like graffiti ruining the images.

Note to young dancers: If you were doing voice overs, tattoos wouldn't matter. But in dance, you're in a visual medium. When you present irrelevant messages on your skin, you are requiring the audience to consciously ignore distracting visual content in order to fully appreciate images that the choreographer, costumer, lighting designer and scenic artist are working hard to give you. Call me an old fogy, but I think that your skin should be a blank slate, not a book that somebody already colored.

"Tilt Shift" by Peter Cheng in collaboration with the performers was danced by two men and four women, all of diverse races. There was conflict all through. The idea was the bruising inner life of being LGBTQ and a person of color. The feeling of being an outsider dominated the piece's abstract movement; there was nothing literal in it except in the beginning, when everybody seemed to be picking on one dancer.

"Ten Hail Marys" by Spacejunk (Ashley Yehoda and Lillian Joergensen) in collaboration with the dancers explored the idea of failure. The setting was a nightmare gym class. In each segment, a taskmaster blew the whistle and the participants applied themselves to athletic undertakings like jumping off the proscenium with great agility, doing planks and stretching against the back wall. The participants got winded pretty quickly and the coaches spoke so fast you can't understand them. Driven relentlessly to achieve even higher, the trainees were exhausted and beaten to the floor by the end.

In the post-show Q&A, Isaac Iskra, choreographer of "Tilted Glass," identified himself as a high-functioning person on the autism spectrum. Every dance in the evening had a brave message, but his was perhaps the bravest. Four dancers explored the inadequacies of the self-image of those with different kinds of minds. They moved to hand drums, shared thoughts like "I'm not dumb, I swear," "I'm just panicking" and "I don't want you to think any less of me" and danced the fears that go with these statements, which can also be inspirational.

After intermission, we got "Invitation to Go Deeper" by Samara Seligsohn, in which five women dressed in Persian-looking costumes by Seligsohn, sporting red bloomers, tap-danced to nice rhymes about meditation. Following this was a work in progress, "LLÈVAME (R3$TRK†)," choreographed and danced by Edgard Toro. In a work about drug addiction in a queer safe space, Toro stripped his shirt to a sort-of bra and acted like a stripper, then prayed for serenity frantically. It was obviously a fragment of a larger piece.

"Heavy Handed" by Kelsey Burns in collaboration with Kelsey Greenway, with costumes by Burns, was set in a dance competition. Two women, costumed like transsexual club performers, did some really mean Salsa dancing with fast partnering and gymnastic stretches as their personalities clashed. One was insecure, the other was overpowering, but both were terrified to lose. For them to be a team, it was like taking two rough stones and banging them together to make them smooth.

The closing act was "It Will Happen Again Tonight" by Dolly Sfier from Lebanon. A woman entered in darkness with a flashlight, finding seven dancers standing with red balloons and dressed in white. One was killed off; they squabbled and fought. The lighting changed hues, ending up white as a slow-mo ending took them over. But wait, we are not finished. They were all tagged by the puppeteer-leader, who tied them to the back wall. Their balloons were burst and the whole thing came to an end with fast, trembly and jerky movement. It was a disturbing view of arbitrary punishment meted out by authoritarian forces and the dream-logic that takes over in such situations.

It was in "Tiled Glass" that I really realized the strong backbone, integrity and daring honesty of all the dances. Young, brazen and eminently worth nurturing are these choreographers. Kudos to the Emerging Choreographer Series. Would I go back next year? Adamantly yes!

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