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Congress in Session

While the US Congress is still out on summer recess, CONGRESS VIII is alive and kicking, as well as spinning, vamping, breaking, and, well, blowing the roof off of the intimate L.A. Dance Project space, where eight cutting-edge commercial choreographers and a bevy of top-notch dancers dazzled the crowds in three sold-out performances over the weekend.

Performance

CONGRESS VIII: mixed bill choreography

Place

L.A. Dance Project Space, Los Angeles, California, August 25-27, 2023 

Words

Victoria Looseleaf

Baptista Kawa in “A Sharing.” Photograph by Carlos “The1Point8” Gonzalez

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Founded by Zak Ryan Schlegel, a three-time Outstanding Choreographer of the Youth American Grand Prix who is currently a Joffrey Ballet School educator, as well as a performer with New York-based Shen Wei Dance Arts, CONGRESS is a bi-monthly dance salon that serves as a platform for cross-genre movement artists. Presented in partnership with L.A.D.P. and dancer/actor Denna Thomsen, the collective not only defines the meaning of community, where fellow creatives develop and share their work, but also raises the bar in today’s dance world, both technique-wise and choreographically.

With introductions and brief remarks before and after each number by the soft-spoken Schlegel, who could pass for a young Bob Fosse, and, in throwback mode, a pillbox hat-wearing Thomsen, the tone was set with the opening number, a steamy scenario by Robbie Blue. 

With its post-postmodern “Cabaret” feel—bring on the chairs and move over Liza Minelli—the dance, “Robbie Blue’s Darling Diamond Dollies,” featured eight thong-clad, butt-slapping, plié-executing women who were floozied to the max, especially when deploying the deepest of deep splits. Set to music of the Dresden Dolls, the dance upped the sexy ante when an octet of men arrived, with shades of bondage and discipline also part of this erotic romp. That Blue has choreographed for, among others, Beyoncé, was very much in evidence in this fierce, high-octane number.

“Robbie Blue’s Darling Diamond Dollies” by Robbie Blue. Photograph by Carlos “The1Point8” Gonzalez

The bare-chested Congolese, L.A.-based performer, Baptista Kawa, amped up the thrill factor in his solo, “A Sharing,” choreographed by Jacob Jonas and set to the music of Frank Ocean. In an extraordinary show of strength, agility and sheer athleticism, Kawa, his dreadlocks flying, offered effortless back flips—in series of threes—one-armed cartwheels and pyrotechnic-like pirouettes, the dude never failing to nail his frequent, awe-inspiring landings.  

In a change of pace, Mayte Valdes and Carlos Barrionuevo, who have displayed their tango bona fides at such festivals as Jacob’s Pillow, performed their “Watashi” as if they were a pair of heat-seeking missiles. Displaying the art form’s requisite slinking, slithering and strutting to Taro Hakase’s and Luis Bravo’s music, the pair proved the perfect ambassadors for this dance of seduction, their pliant, twisting moves and flamboyant posturing so easy on the eyes. 

Lex Ishimoto in “Again and Again.” Photograph by Carlos “The1Point8” Gonzalez

Another tour de force performance: Tony Testa in his “Blackbox 1: Excerpt.” Part Butoh dancer—a smallish part—part breaker, and part funk fusion master, Testa, barefoot and gyrating to the music of Vivaldi—who says you can’t bust moves to classical music (hello, Lil Buck and cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing Saint-Saëns’ “Dying Swan”)—made use of strobe lighting that captured some of the dancer’s mid-air gyrations. Whether doing a kind of half-handstand or neo-popping, Testa was all limbs in a number that was slightly reminiscent of David Parsons’ 1982 iconic solo, “Caught,” and brought down the house to close the first half of the program.

After intermission, the super smooth Lex Ishimoto, winner of season 14’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” served up his, “Again and Again.” With music by Jordan Rakel, Freddie Joachim and Gyrefunk, the piece was a study in b-boy virtuosity. From balancing on one elbow in a neo-crow pose to cutting a Tai-Chi-esque figure, albeit a rubbery one, the dancer’s virtuosity never failed to excite.

With “King of Something Tiny Somewhere Angry! Mad!”, Nico Lonetree delivered a dynamic work that made use of music by The Walkmen and the late Ryuichi Sakamoto, with 12 dancers delivering the goods as if in a rave—or a terpsichorean revival meeting. There was a lot of push-pull action that veered into rough trade territory, during which a trio of men in mime-y black and white striped tees also cavorted in unison (think “Petrushka”—on acid), taunting and confronting the others.

Mike Tyus and Luca Renzi in “Howl” by Tyus. Photograph by Carlos “The1Point8” Gonzalez

The challenging—and absolutely riveting—work, “Howl,” was a journey into the flesh, with choreographer Mike Tyus and Luca Renzi in a startlingly brave nude pas de deux. As if Greek statues coming to life, the duo began the work rolling on the floor in unison, with the voice of Allen Ginsberg reading his “Holy, Holy, Holy” from his masterpiece, “Howl,” serving as the soundtrack. As the poet intoned the words, including, “the world is holy, the soul is holy, the skin is holy,” the pair’s twizzled bodies also brought to mind Martha Graham’s prophetic words, “Movement never lies.” 

Assuming plank postures one moment, plow positions another, the men moved to the memorable text as if possessed. To say that these single-minded creatures owned their sculpted bodies with a staggering degree of determination, is an understatement. That they allowed us to be witness to their work was an honor, making their art something to truly behold. 

Closing the evening was Mandy Moore’s “Shack Attack,” set to the B-52’s frothy tune, “Love Shack.” The choreographer of Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, as well as oodles of films and TV shows, Moore, who won a primetime Emmy award for season 23 of “Dancing with the Stars,” delivered a hip-shaking, sock hoppish, shimmy-fest of endless energy, the eight dancers oozing unmitigated fun, their enthusiasm contagious.  

With the audience—many among them also dancers and dancemakers—a stomping, wildly applauding group of acolytes making the evening that much better, this reviewer left on a high note, one echoing Ginsburg’s words, “Everything is holy! Everybody’s holy! Everywhere is holy!” Amen!

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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