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Dream On

How do we love Highways Performance Space? Let us count the ways! Indeed, a longtime nucleus for experimental theater, dance and art, the intimate black box venue in Santa Monica was the scene of a 35th anniversary celebration over the weekend. And what a bash it was, with San Francisco-based Sean Dorsey Dance, now in its 20th season, presenting the Southern California premiere of “The Lost Art of Dreaming.”

Performance

Sean Dorsey Dance: “The Lost Art of Dreaming”

Place

Highways Performance Space, Santa Monica, California, June 8, 2024

Words

Victoria Looseleaf

Sean Dorsey Dance's “The Lost Art of Dreaming.” Photograph by Kegan Marling

For those unaware of Highways’ history, it was founded in 1989 by writer and activist Linda Burnham and performance artist and writer Tim Miller, and has been at the forefront of queer performance, social justice and the facilitation of dialogue among artists, critics and the public since its inception. With executive director Leo Garcia (he was artistic director from 2003-2016) and artistic director Patrick Kennelly, Highways continues to host a long list of national and international luminaries that has included performance artist nonpareil, John Fleck, who, along with Highways’ alumni Karen Finley, Holly Hughes and Miller—known collectively as the N.E.A. Four, who had their grants rescinded in 1990 because their works were deemed, “obscene.”

The late great dancer and choreographer Rudy Perez also showed his works there, including the in-progress, “Surrender, Dorothy!,” at the space in 2008. Then there was Spanish choreographer and dancer La Ribot, who performed a pair of one-woman shows—stark naked (the gal knew how to save a few bucks on dry cleaning)—in 2003.

And speaking of nudity, the Highways fête began with the Los Angeles Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an Order of 30th Century Nuns “dedicated to the promulgation of universal joy and the expiation of stigmatic guilt,” being honored with the inaugural BEHOLD! Award.

The quartet of drag nuns, with their colorful habits—mostly in hand, their private parts strategically covered, or not—blessed the space, yakked a bit and spread glitter, along with their message of making people happy as only, well, they can.

From Left: Nol Simonse, Brandon Graham and Héctor Jaime in “The Lost Art of Dreaming.” Photograph by Kegan Marling

With the award ritual completed, “Dreaming,” Dorsey’s fifth work to be performed at Highways, and part of a national tour, began: The multi-year, multi-part, evening-length work, choreographed and written by Dorsey, also featured movement created and performed by the five-member ensemble of queer, trans, and gender-non-conforming dancers.

Replete with storytelling, more costume changes than Cher (get-ups designed by Tiffany Amundson, Krystal Harfert, Melissa Castaneda), that included a lot of satins, spandex, ruched skirts, clinging jerseys, t-shirts and yes, even jeans, the work was set to a score by various composers. Among them were Ben Kessler, Anomie Belle and Alex Kelly, all adding to the textural quality of the opus, one that might best be described, oxymoronically, as having a gentle, yet urgent quality.

With the dancers deploying a variety of balletic and post-modern moves, often performed in unison, there was also a flow to the work that proved open and authentic. Particularly appealing was Héctor Jaime, in the section dubbed, “Is Your World Getting Small,” which could have been a kind of yoga class, with breathing exercises and salutary gestures in evidence. With his über-long braided hair accentuating his angelic looks, he tossed off arabesques and leaps with ease, while, in stasis, the dancer resembled a Rolls Royce hood ornament.

Dorsey’s voice was occasionally heard on tape, but in “Starside,” he recited the text live, speaking of things “primordial,” and “mitochondrial,” finally concluding with the notion that we are all made of “stars.”

This occasional foray into schmaltz, was, nevertheless, appealing, with motifs including outstretched arms and joined hands. And had Louis XIV been alive to witness the dancers in “Invocation” set to music by Christoph Willibald Gluck, this writer thinks he would have been pleased. Here were gestural moves reminiscent of both Mark Morris’s sophisticated simplicity, and Martha Graham’s angst in the form of her 1940, “Letter to the World” (The Kick), with one dancer bending at the waist, wrist on forehead, and leg pointing skyward.  

Sean Dorsey Dance's “The Lost Art of Dreaming.” Photograph by Kegan Marling

Deep pliés and tiny bourrées were also on view, and with Clyde Sheets’ simple but effective lighting—mostly muted spots, but the occasional red and blue served the dance well—meaning several majestic moments were also created.

Jaime’s solo, “Pleasure Revolution,” with music by Frida Ibarra, saw him on the floor, asking, “Why is pleasure such a dirty word? Why is dirty such a dirty word?” With a sly grin, he invoked the earth and the notion that, “We need to start practicing it [pleasure] now!”

Taking their cues from a decidedly disco beat and conjuring images of Saturday Night Fever—whose famous dance floor is up for auction in L.A. this month—the quintet then bopped around as if they were super models, their articulated footwork intermittently Kathak-like and accentuated by bent knee stances. There was something gracious, as well, in their demeanor, which also included spins and leaps, with an astonishingly agile Brandon Graham (reminiscent of the legendary dancer, Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s Desmond Richardson), even doing the splits.

Call it disco breakdancing, meaning these dudes deserved a break, which came in the form of a 10-minute intermission, after which the second act, “Origin Story,” began with “Orion,” and the notion that our bodies consist of 26 elements. Informative and heartfelt, but veering towards the precious, this section proved another standout for Graham who deployed a tree-like pose one moment, before moving swiftly on his toes—backwards.

More “I am” statements were uttered: “I am electric,” “I am holy,” I am powerful,” while various solos, duets and trios proved the avowals true: Graham and Nol Simonse were particularly compelling, the latter a study in determination, before Simonse then partnered David Le, the pair embodying grace and dignity.

More costume changes ensued, before a bare-chested Simonse entered the stage not walking the red carpet, but, well, nearly being the red carpet, flaunting a red satiny skirt with a train fit for a royal wedding. The joyous finale, “Upstream,” saw the cast in corseted skirts worn above the waist, in what looked to be a dance of ecstasy.

A fitting performance for Pride Month, “The Lost Art of Dreaming,” is testament to the power of art, and proved a perfect way to celebrate three and a half decades of the still-relevant, always cutting-edge, Highways Performance Space.

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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