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Postcard From Lake Tahoe

Adrian Danchig-Waring is a poet. His body articulates anticipation and pleasure, the tumult of ecstasy, and the ache of longing in Lar Lubovitch’s “Desire,” created as part of Lubovitch’s 80th birthday celebration in collaboration with the Guggenheim’s Works and Process series. The solo depends on Danchig-Waring’s liquid transitions and refined, easy movement. Even when he is purposefully grappling with his balance on one foot or fighting a disobedient leg in a bit of tangled floor work, his mastery of his own body is profoundly felt. But it is Danchig-Waring’s startling openness that keeps the choreography from what might feel in other hands a tendency to toggle between blasé and overwrought. To catch such a singular performance like this is lucky; to enjoy it outdoors, among the pine trees and in front of the resplendent Lake Tahoe, in a program full of such delights as part of the eleventh annual Lake Tahoe Dance Festival, is a profound privilege.

Performance

Lake Tahoe Dance Festival

Place

Tahoe City, CA and Incline Village, NV, July 26-29, 2023

Words

Candice Thompson

Adrian Danchig-Waring in Lar Lubovitch's “Desire.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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Certainly, to be living or summering in the region of Lake Tahoe is already a privilege, ensconced as it is in the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains, lodged between California and Nevada. But festival directors and longtime friends Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher have added on to the natural wonder with a week of performances that fold stars like Danchig-Waring and Boston Ballet principals Lia Cirio and Paul Craig into the small community of Tahoe City. Even as they expand the range of works they feature—to date they have presented over 35 works with more than 35 guest artists and 75 local dancers —the pair remained focused on creating an evening that is accessible and enjoyable to balletomanes as well as new audiences, many of whom come from the area’s hard-core outdoor sports scene and seem drawn to the comparative physical demands of dance. The atmosphere is unpretentious, aided by the picnic-style seating, all the surrounding outdoor recreation, and Hanna and Baecher’s family-friendly approach to producing. This year, I made it to the opening night gala performance fresh off a horseback ride; I arrived at the final performance with my family, our hair still damp from the lake.

I was grateful to have made it off the trail in time to experience the first work of the festival: an embodied land acknowledgment and traditional hoop dance from special guest artist Sage Romero, founder of the AkaMya Culture Group. Romero’s connection to the festival came through photographer Erin Baiano, who happened to meet the hoop dancer, Indigenous filmmaker, and director at a gathering the previous summer in Meek’s Bay. Romero made a heartfelt offering to the Washoe people, on whose shores we were standing in a huddle, and with well-meaning words and a virtuosic hoop dance he laid a foundation for affinity that would reverberate throughout the program. 

Sage Romero, founder of the AkaMya Culture Group, at Lake Tahoe Dance Festival. Photograph by Erin Baiano

With “Half-Light,” the dancing moved onto the outdoor stage. The work was an occasion unto itself as the first score and choreography commissioned by the festival, pairing composer and musician Doori Na with emerging choreographer Holly Curran, who in years past has graced the stage as a performer in the festival. Willowy dancers Dwayne Brown and Amber Neff were well-matched to interpret Na’s looping, and sometimes squeaking, violins and Curran’s slinky partnering that traced concentric circles around the stage. In some sequences the repetition achieved a kind of Philip Glass-like propulsion; in those intervals, Brown and Neff quickened their pace and moved in near perfect unison through sweeping phrases. Later, on the ground, another section of unison movement struck a more intimate and personal chord as the two floated through a series of soft gestures timed against a backdrop of Na plucking strings. 

Inspired by sculptures that were inspired by the performing body, “Half-Light” perpetuated a generative spirit in its form. Ultimately, Brown and Neff backed out the way the entered, walking slowly with arms shading their eyes before spreading wide in a pleasing palindrome. 

Amber Neff and Dwayne Brown in Holly Curran's "Half-Light." Photograph by Erin Baiano

In the second half of the program, Liz Gerring’s “Duet,” and Claudia Schreier’s “Lost Keys,” continued the theme of female choreographers and confident partnerships. And in “Duet,” there was the added treat of seeing New York City Ballet principal dancer Ashley Bouder return to the stage alongside Kristina Berger of Erick Hawkins Dance. In a post-modern series of interrelations and perpendicular lines, Berger and Bouder moved in juxtaposition to each other and the blaring horns of Anna Weber’s music, dressed in costumes of opposites. Less frequently, they linked up in simple, parallel movements: their arms opening wide and closing in simultaneity or their legs reaching into the same line of arabesque. Their bodies snapped and flopped in motions that broke them down only to recover in athletic bouts of running and jumping. Superficially, Bouder and Berger are a mismatch, given their differing technical backgrounds and approaches to movement, and there were times when this dissonance exaggerated their individuality (perhaps Gerring’s point and in previous incarnations of this dance for the Ashley Bouder Project, Bouder has danced with Sara Mearns and Taylor Stanley with Damien Johnson). But their total commitment to the tasks at hand united them no matter the moves: Bouder’s presence and intensity captured in a low lunge, eyes piercing through peering through her outstretched arms; Berger exultantly tilting sideways, resplendent in her Horton temple. 

In “Lost Keys,” Cirio and Craig stirred up tension as they formed and re-formed themselves around each other in Schreier’s acrobatic pas de deux. Cirio, who was also returning to the stage from an injury that kept her out of Boston Ballet’s spring season, was in top form, her body stretching with a yawning quality that was both pliable and surprisingly unyielding. This set up made for some beautiful moments floating in air that required deft partnering from Craig—more than once my mind thought of the dead lifts across the stage in Giselle, though the shapes and intentions here were less romantic and more ambivalent. Christopher Cerrone’s music carried a longing that Schreier tempered with more jagged shapes. In a promenade making two revolutions, Cirio faced into Craig, her outstretched leg and foot stabbing into his chest; as they circled around again, her knee bent and foot flexed in a more defensive position that established a distance even though their bodies were actually closer together. As is often the case with Schreier’s choreography, in “Lost Keys,” the familiar is remixed in an architectural way to feel new, and at times, almost foreign. She gives the audience the satisfying sense of travel and discovery through classical technique.

Ashley Bouder and Kristina Berger in Liz Gerring's “Duet.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

While “Lost Keys” was a festival debut for those artists, Marco Pelle’s “Safe From Sleep,” was the result of a long-term collaboration with Stephen Hanna and marked the third time Pelle’s work has graced the Tahoe stage. Hanna was able to harness a great deal of emotional energy, channeling it into a tension that hovered around his body like force field. In a solo that followed Pelle’s emotional journey of love and loss, Hanna was a man of many extreme mood shifts, moving from searching lunges to more syncopated slaps and flicks and finally, a long adagio that melted into a series of turns which brought a feeling of hope even as they dashed him across the stage. I looked forward to seeing this solo again on the closing evening as so many of the performances loosened up as the week went on and by the final performance, many were playing with bigger risks that paid off in thrilling turn-on-a-dime transitions and partnering that felt more spontaneous and playful. But unfortunately, Hanna’s Broadway show “New York, New York,” announced it was closing and he was called back to New York City early to perform in its final shows.

Hanna and Baecher also take care to feature artists from the surrounding Bay Area community every year, this year showcasing choreographer Natasha Adorlee and two artists from her dance production company Concept.04, Kyle Limin and Janelle Gaerlan. In Adorlee’s “Laytana” —which premiered at the Ballet22 gala in 2022—the different casts were a case study in phrasing, offering two individual takes on a brief, rousing solo. While Limin’s power seemed to grow in intensity as the solo built toward a climax, drawing you deeper into this shapeshifting realm, Gaerlan’s presence had a magnetic, otherworldly quality that was immediate and consistent. Both performances left me wanting to see more from them all.

Stephen Hanna in Marco Pelle's “Safe From Sleep.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

While Jacob’s Pillow and Vail International Dance Festival are two large-scale models for Lake Tahoe Dance Festival, it has been heartening to see that the more intimate moments of connection surrounding the dancing remain here even as the festival continues to grow: the hugs between the dancers “offstage” between works; post-rehearsal cold plunges into the lake; and communal dinners at Hanna’s home aka “The Pink Palace”; the care and time the professional dancers give to the local students from the Lake Tahoe Dance Collective summer program who perform short classical repertory works on the same program. 

Every year I can attend I count as a win. The week often coincides with a treasured family vacation and since 2016, I have been fortunate to witness different iterations of the festival. Romero’s hoop dance gave me a new appreciation for all the cycles that Hanna and Baecher have set in motion as new ballet students become graduates; acquaintances among artists grow into deep friendships and future partnerships onstage; dancers develop into commissioned choreographers; and all those babies carried in packs all too quickly turn into the littlest feet on a stage. I feel proud that my friends have created this beautiful opportunity out of the thin, dry, mountain air. And a few days after leaving, it is hard not to already look forward to returning next year.

Candice Thompson


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