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Acts of Defiance

One would think that a dance inspired by the events of the January 6 insurrection—yes, a dance!—would not be the ideal stuff of theater, but the eight members of Laurie Sefton Creates (formerly Clairobscur Dance Company), succeeded in giving life to Sefton’s premiere “Herd. Person?”, while the dance, itself, was occasionally problematic.

Performance

Laurie Sefton Creates: Mixed Bill, Choreography by Laurie Sefton

Place

L.A. Dance Project Studio, Los Angeles, California,February 22 – 24, 2024

Words

Victoria Looseleaf

Nicholas Sipes, Maddie Lacambra, Gretchen Ackerman, Marlie Couto, Isaac Huerta, and Sidney Scully in “Herd. Person?” by Laurie Sefton. Photograph by Skye Schmidt Varga

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Seen at the L.A. Dance Project studio space over the weekend as part of a triple bill of Sefton dances, the 32-minute work posits the notion of independent thinking versus a herd mentality. Beginning with seven dancers lying prone and clustered on the floor, with some of them speaking words such as “democracy”—and others too faint to discern—the gist of the rhetoric soon became clear in voice-overs that sampled speechifying from United States’ political figures.

“Do something! Do something big!” President Biden intoned over Erika Poh’s music—at times an organ-like continuo embellished with harp sounds—while the dancers literally crawled off the stage before returning in a variety of formations. 

Angst-ridden gestures abounded, with head-clutching and spasmodic hand flapping recurring motifs, as dancers soon distinguished themselves with virtuosic technique: Nicholas Sipes deployed Nijinsky-esque leaps; Gretchen Ackerman radiated absolute commitment, whether in stasis or moving snail-like across the floor.

Myko Lyric and Marirosa Crawford, both clad in flannel shirts (are political demonstrators still wearing Pendletons in the twenty-first century?) deployed mighty arabesques, as well as unison lunges, their hands under their chins as if looking out for, well, unfriendly forces. There was running in place, as well as much marching in lock step, occasionally to a disco-like score (in addition to Poh’s soundtrack, Delta 5’s and Sasha Matson’s music fueled the dancers). 

Myko Lyric, Maddie Lacambra, Gretchen Ackerman, Marlie Couto, Nicholas Sipes, Sidney Scully, Isaac Huerta, Marirosa Crawford, in “Herd. Person?” by Laurie Sefton. Photograph by Skye Schmidt Varga

And while the work tackles the gnawing threat of losing our democracy, with perseverance, street smarts and, well, some brilliant moves by a devoted few—in this case, Sefton’s dancers—hope continues to live. Indeed, there is not only safety in numbers here, but a kind of inner strength, which was evidenced in the unison sections; and decidedly so when the octet assumed a running-in-place posture, heads jutting forward, arms bent at the elbows.

Open-mouthed, silent screams were also prevalent, giving the moment both an urgency and a torment-ridden quality. Also proving their terpsichorean mettle: Marlie Couto and Sidney Scully, who, along with Sipes, provided breathtaking split leaps as if a single body. 

Dan Weingarten’s clever lighting scheme, including angled blue slashes and illuminated vertical strips (a subtle nod to voting blue, i.e., Democratic, perhaps?), gave extra oomph and drama to the piece. Sefton’s workaday costumes—cargo pants, tank tops and the aforementioned lumberjack shirts—added another note of working-class conformity. 

And speaking of attire, Ackerman and Isaac Huerta, in a seemingly random act of wheeling out a pair of clothes racks and then making quasi-use of them as if they were Diavolo-like structures, proved a momentary, if head-scratching diversion. (Sefton provided the costumes for all three works.)

Nevertheless, if democracy is flagging, one can take comfort in the fact that the dancers certainly aren’t!

Sidney Scully, Nicholas Sipes, and Myko Lyric in “Triptych: Experience in Defiance” by Laurie Sefton. Photograph by Skye Schmidt Varga

The evening opened with Sefton’s 2018 work, “Triptych: Experience in Defiance,” set to a spoken word track written and performed by rapper/poet Jason Chu, whose personal tone echoes, according to the program, “his thoughts about freedom, immigration and humanity’s struggle to stay engaged.” 

Perhaps this 10-minute number might have worked better if Chu had delivered his stuff in person (as he did at the work’s premiere) but since it was on tape and not that compelling—or recorded with verve—the dance, which was divided into three sections—a solo, duet and trio—had less power than it might have. 

Yes, the performers demonstrated mastery over steps ranging from entre-chats and one-legged balancing, to quarter turns and über pliés, but there was a veritable disconnect between the words and the movement. One of Chu’s assorted dictums, “I will not look white people in the face, because I don’t think they have faces,” did not register with this reviewer, while most of Sefton’s movement vocabulary, on the other hand, did. 

As it did in the seven-minute excerpt from Sefton’s 2017 work, “Girl, Get Off,” which, the program detailed, was, “inspired by a dream and informed by societal shifts towards expanding gender/orientation identifiers, expressed from a female point of view.” This plea for sexual tolerance, set to an original ambient score by Bryan Curt Kostors, was, to be blunt, a study in sexuality delivered in an array of duets and trios. 

With a kaleidoscope of deft floor-skittering, abundant unisons and sensuous moments between the dancers—sadomasochism, anyone?—these gambits made the dance seem like foreplay, or, at least, fore-dance, as was also evident in a bit of saucy hip shimmying and Sefton’s ever-present hand-flutterings. Particularly beguiling were Scully and Huerta’s duet, while Ackerman, Crawford and Lyric provided equal amounts of grace and grit. 

Sefton’s issue-driven choreography can be, at turns, thoughtful, engaging, and downright scary, with her dancers definitely top-notch, but sometimes a little humor can go a long way. Still: In today’s dangerous political climate, when the world’s number one dissident, Aleksei Navalny, is murdered in a Russian prison, it’s good to know that we can escape—at least for an evening—into dance. 

Victoria Looseleaf


Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.

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