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Blossoming

How does a gifted choreographer become an artist? I thought about this question a lot after seeing “Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon,” former ODC/Dance member Natasha Adorlee’s first full-length piece.

Adorlee is an astonishingly promising choreographer; this became evident last summer, when Amy Seiwert’s Imagery premiered the central duet of this work at the company’s thirteenth and final Sketch Series of experimental new work. (Adorlee was Imagery’s final artistic fellow, and this month’s culminating hour-long production in the simple black box space of the Joe Goode Annex was also produced by Imagery.)

Performance

Natasha Adorlee, “Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon”

Place

Joe Goode Annex, San Francisco, CA, January 19, 2024

Words

Rachel Howard

“Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon” by Natasha Adorlee. Photograph by Rob Suguitan

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At Sketch, you didn’t need to know that the duet was inspired by Adorlee’s mother and father and how they met in Taiwan; you could just marvel at the action unraveling to Roberta Flack’s eternally moving recording of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Joseph A. Hernandez and Kelsey McFalls chased and tumbled and entangled with delirious sensuality. He spun her upside down; she put a foot under his armpit to lever him to the floor; he held her on all fours by her knees and hands as she arched and writhed; at one point, she even bit his hand. 

At the finished hour-long show, Hernandez and McFalls were again exquisite, she in a backless halter dress, he in a thin white shirt, his thick black hair in two loose knots. The final sequence, a long kiss that begins with Hernandez above and McFalls on the floor, then spins her beneath him with lips locked as she rises, then spins him beneath her until he braces her hips and turns her around and around, the kiss unending—again this was spectacular. Whole-hearted dancing, inspired by textured, surprising choreography—the basic material of a dance artist.

“Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon” by Natasha Adorlee. Photograph by Rob Suguitan

Adorlee is also founder and artistic director of a film production company specializing in visuals for dance, and this was evident at the premiere of the complete “Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon.” Three tall panels bore vivid video street scenes from Taiwan, and the opening’s simulated rain even fell onto the performance floor with projected droplets and puddles. (Lighting design by Thomas Bowersox and 3D design by Mark Johns.)

But if the full-length expansion of “Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon” was visually impressive, it was also entirely literal. (OK, the time-lapse blooming flowers projected before the central duet weren’t literal, but they were cliché.) This seems to me a bane of West Coast dance at the moment, this trend of telling literal stories rather than using the literal as a springboard to odd images and archetypes. If you’re going to tell a literal life story in dance, you need to shape it with some of the skill of a literary artist. The attendees leaving the theater seemed to share my bafflement at the flatness. As one friend said to the other of Adorlee, “She chose a strange part of the story to tell.”

“Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon” by Natasha Adorlee. Photograph by Rob Suguitan

More accurately, in my opinion as someone who writes and teaches memoir, the trouble was that Adorlee didn’t choose one part of the story at all. Rather, Adorlee’s mother spoke from the screen in black and white footage (this was beautifully filmed) and told each part of her life story with equal weight. In early sections, Adorlee danced as her mother’s ancestors, wearing a red and black robe and swirling in movements drawn from Tai Chi. After her mother met her father—an American serviceman—all three sometimes danced together, but the choreography of these sections felt like filler. Sometimes, Adorlee’s efforts to create drama seemed overplayed: After her mother moved to the US with her father, Adorlee dramatized the citizenship test, asking the questions aloud at the edge of the audience as dark music played beneath. Immigration is certainly a potent topic prevalent in Bay Area dance, but the larger work didn’t explore problems of the immigration system per se, so the tension here seemed unearned, an unexamined leaning into old tropes.

“Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon” by Natasha Adorlee. Photograph by Rob Suguitan

Then, near the end of Adorlee’s steady chronological march through the mother’s story, shortly after the last child’s birth, the husband suddenly died. Accompanied by old photos of the sweethearts, this section was very touching—the father in waist-high belted shorts and a broom-fan moustache, the mother tiny and sweetly glamorous, leaning over a railroad track with a dancer’s grace. In other words, the larger story had great potential for pathos if shaped with an artist’s attenuation to form and theme, into a larger whole.

So then, how does a choreographer become an artist? How do you develop an ability to work with more than the literal? How do you find that personal understanding of and attenuation to form? 

You make work and learn. And make more work and learn. I look forward to seeing how Adorlee continues to develop.  

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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