Sheetal Gandhi and Ulka Mohanty's “In|Expiration.” Photograph by Steve Gunther

Deep Breath

REDCAT’s annual three-week NOW festival

Performance
New Original Works Festival 2015: Program One
Place
REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), Los Angeles, California, July 30 - August 1, 2015
Words
Victoria Looseleaf

If it’s summer in Los Angeles, it’s time for REDCAT’s annual three-week NOW festival. Featuring nine premieres by some of the city’s foremost dance, theater, music and multimedia artists, the 13th edition was launched with a mostly thoughtful, provocative and awe-inspiring trio of works that happily confirm this burg’s reputation as a hotbed of creativity.

And so it was with “Bloom,” choreographed and performed by award-winning Maria Gillespie and Nguyễn Nguyên, the latter’s first foray into dancemaking. A collage of movement, text and images, set to an intriguing score of various composers, including Pärt, Schubert, Bach and Pergolesi, the work dealt with memory and perspective, with Vietnam its structural glue.

In addition to the textured soundscape, which also featured recorded and spoken word, Fabio Altenbach contributed taped and live video projections. In the wrong hands, this ploy can prove distracting and/or excessive, but here one felt enveloped and involved in these dancers’ stories.

Gillespie, who had been a fixture on the L.A. dance scene for many years before decamping to Wisconsin three years ago, was in beautiful form: Small and delicate, the 43-year old has a steely core and displays exquisite control, veering from swift and hummingbird-like to meltingly graceful. She’s also able to support the much taller and bulkier Nguyên, in the work described as a meditation on “home.”

We learn that Nguyên’s family fled Vietnam when he was eight and Gillespie’s father served as a marine there. Amid faint chopper sounds threaded throughout the 40-minute work—along with crickets, JFK speaking and haunting song snippets rendered by Gillespie’s grandmother, Chole—this unlikely dance duo comes together and splits apart, two rectangles of artificial turf their (magic) carpets of connection.

Projected Barbara Krugeresque text (“Is this a good place to begin?” “Are you thinking of someone now?”), also provides an ever-changing backdrop to the pair’s moves: Gillespie’s jumps, her chest-beatings and neo-warrior poses; Nguyên’s muscular lifts, head-shakings and swinging his partner around, Lindy Hop-style.

Nguyên’s knee also becomes a resting place for Gillespie’s arched back, before he wields the rubberized sod like a combat shield; Gillespie, in turn, kneels on hers, rolls in it and curls up in fetal position. The dancers’ shadows, captured by onstage video equipment, add a poetic touch in the work that vacillates between chaos and control.

“This is a prayer,” Gillespie says, allowing us to feel safe and no longer alone.

Feeling safe is not part of the illuminating, “In|Expiration.” Created by Sheetal Gandhi, a powerful dance/theater artist, in collaboration with performer Ulka Mohanty, the opus is the first version of a full-length piece still in development.

Tackling subjects that range from the Big Bang theory and inflation to individual tales of emigration, as well as racial and cultural bias, the connective tissue here is rhythm—the dancers’ own breaths and percussive footwork, along with the tantalizing sounds made by double bassist Mark Gutierrez.

The work opens with the women seated in lotus position as Gandhi says, “I’ve been thinking about the universe and how it came to be.” Okay, there are no small ideas here—and certainly no relationship to Bollywood—with talk of the breath of Brahman next. Part Stephen Hawking, part yogi and all feminist attitude, the two women rise, slapping their anklebell-less feet firmly on the floor.

More breath-prattle continues as the dancers assay deep plies while talking of “asphyxiation, commonly known as strangulation.” The words of Emma Lazarus are also intoned, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”

Ah, life would be so simple if we all just breathed in, breathed out, breathed free. Gandhi’s and Mohanty’s chests heave, their arms entwined, back to back, as they divulge their histories, as well as offering stereotypical sociological images.

“We are all PhD’s.” “The main thing is everyone must adjust.” “Don’t make waves.”

It is no surprise, then, that physical appearance should also rear its omnipresent head. One can change a nose, but not one’s skin color, they say, Michael Jackson’s alleged vitiligo condition aside. What, then, does it mean to be white, yellow, brown or pink? The dynamic duo poses these questions, all the while moving about the stage with ease and conviction.

One theory espoused is the idea of implicit bias; another exclaims, “fear makes the people go crazy.”
Heightening the mood, Gutierrez vamps on bass, his solo taking flight while Gandhi sings amid fugal breaths, a canon of panting. The movement vocabulary is also a kind of Indian jazz, with faux-goose-stepping and unisons tinged with Bharata Natyam. In addition, a synthesized tape track plays, as Gandhi and Mohanty hold hands before assuming corpse pose—lying prone—on the floor.

Their breaths are exaggerated, their inhalations/exhalations staggered. Accelerating, crescendoing, their pronouncements are chilling:

“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t … breathe.”

Here, in the black box theater that is REDCAT, are Eric Garner’s last words, made palpable, made into art, the politics of dance, the politics of the body. Indeed, it is almost too much to bear.

But bear we must, as a collective sense of mourning stuns, with the healing power of art the last vestige of hope we cling to.

Completing the program: “Crying,” a work authored and directed by singer, co-composer Zac Pennington, and choreographed by Steven Reker. This David Bowie wannabe hammed and glammed up four songs composed by Jherek Bischoff, who performed on bass guitar while conducting a female string quartet. Pennington, a small-voiced, lipsticked and white-faced preener, canoodled with black balloons and a very long white microphone cord until he was joined by dancer Allie Hankins, a quasi-dominatrix intent on having her way with both Pennington and cord.

A divertissement, the piece, thankfully, was performed before intermission, leaving Gandhi and friends the last gasp.

The NOW festival at REDCAT continues for two more weekends with unique programs: 

Week Two, Aug 6-8
Stina Ahlberg: “Sammanfläta (Intertwine);” Mint Park and Hee-Eun Jeong: “BIT;” and director Robert Cucuzza: “Circle Jerk”

Week Three, Aug 13-15
Laurel Butler and Cassandra: “Stellar Tears;” Takao Kawaguchi, Jonathan Hall and Deanna Erdmann: “Touch of the Other;” and dancer Kevin Williamson: “Trophy”

More Stories
Full Tilt