Posted by Kate Mattingly on Oct. 25, 2012 at 9:19 am
Outside of Sidney Harman Hall last Thursday evening, Keira Hart Mendoza’s company UpRooted Dance was releasing balloons into the sky.
Titled “What Goes Up Must Come Down,” her piece transformed the sidewalk into a windswept stage, while dancers with balloons clipped to their bodies and hair floated into the Harman’s foyer. It was a delightful, thoughtful exploration of movement, unfolding outside the theater as patrons entered the glassy facility for the fourth annual VelocityDC dance festival.
But inside the Harman’s 800-capacity theater, the show wasn’t nearly as thought-provoking. VelocityDC artistic consultant Peter DiMuro and dancer Adriane Fang stood on stage running down the “Top 10 Reasons VelocityDC is Better Than So You Think You Can Dance.” It was populist to a fault, raising questions about how good VelocityDC really is at showcasing local dance in a meaningful way....
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There are certain buildings that feel conducive to collaboration when you walk through their doors. Dance Exchange in Takoma Park is one of those places.
DX is an organization that offers classes, nurtures a company, hosts talks and performances, and gathers various communities. It's both an institution and a generator for new ideas. I was there Sunday to watch the rehearsal of a new work, “Heartstrings and Shoestrings: Stories of Love and Woe-Lounge Acts,” by choreographer Keira Hart-Mendoza and musician David Schulman, and observed a generous atmosphere of exploration pervading the studio. Talking to these creators about their process and what drew them to work together reveals not only their unique ideas about performance but also how vital a building can be to supporting artists’ visions.
Hart-Mendoza and Schulman met a year ago at DX where Schulman often accompanies Friday’s professional level class and Hart-Mendoza was teaching. “I love improvising and the spirit of collaboration,” says Schulman. “Being a fluent jazz player is a model I aspire to and when I’m playing for dancers there’s an interesting exchange that happens between different forms of creative expression.”
Mendoza-Hart echoes this idea. “It’s rare for dancers to find a musician they immediately connect with and work well with,” she says. “But that was there from the beginning. David dove in and it’s a lot like jazz: we get each other’s vibe.”
This synergy is palpable during their rehearsal: Schulman’s music enlivens the cast’s dancing and during some sections, Hart-Mendoza mixes his music with recorded songs. There’s a sense of fantasy and seduction in the visual and acoustic landscapes. The cast of six women is wearing high heels, flirting with the audience, drawing us into their interactions, and even pulling us onstage during one scene. Asked what drew her to involve the spectators so intimately, Hart-Mendoza answered, “I’m not interested in audiences as passive members of a performance or dissociated from the work.”
Her approach aligns her creations more with contemporary performance than modern dance: in “Heartstrings and Shoestrings,” there’s a mixture of theatrical elements and an investment in indeterminacy, allowing performers and audience to create the piece together. She has been creating projects here since moving to DC four years ago, and calls her company UpRooted Dance.
Hart-Mendoza describes this performance as “a series of short stories that are connected in mood and theme.” Like pieces by Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, her creation unfolds as a collage of scenes involving props, costumes, and movement, interwoven to depict--and also deconstruct--gender differences. Above the dancers’ heads in the studio at DX there are lighting sculptures hanging from the ceiling made from high-heeled shoes and Barbie dolls. The cast’s mannerisms are both familiar and disturbing. Several scenes during Sunday’s rehearsal used a simple vocabulary of gestures and steps arranged to shed light on normative behaviors and stereotypical female personas.
It’s evident that Hart-Mendoza’s time at James Madison University–as both a student (she graduated in 2003) and a guest artist (she worked with undergraduates in 2008 and 2009)--influenced her creative process. Professor Shane O’Hara, who performed pieces by Daniel Nagrin, shaped her thinking about why and how the arts matter. Hart-Mendoza says of her own process, “Something we have worked on from the get-go is not just learning steps but how are emotion, character, and intention part of how we move. For me at JMU I studied with character-based artists and the questions of ‘who is this person onstage?’ and ‘why are they doing this?’ were really important. This questioning separates my work from other choreographers. I put a lot of pressure on myself to answer those questions.”
In addition to performing with Hart-Mendoza’s company this month, Schulman is celebrating another creative offering: the release of his first CD, “Quiet Life Motel.” An all-instrumental collection of tracks, the album is, in Schulman’s words, “a journey through the night, where the night is where the life happens.” The music draws from a range of cultures. “I’m fascinated by Cuban rhythms and how they are put together asymmetrically but they go together,” says Schulman. Trained as a classical musician he supplements his projects as a composer and performer with radio work. His show “Musicians in their own words” has brought him into contact with artists like Bo Diddley who inspired him with his ceaseless tinkering and innovation, working with technology to find new possibilities. The day Diddley passed, Schulman purchased a looper that allows him to create his own multi-layered and textured music.
In many ways his approach to entwining acoustic elements parallels Hart-Mendoza’s intersecting vignettes. Both artists generate these wonderfully collaborative and evocative worlds, activating our senses and allowing our imaginations to soar. Their performances take place at Dance Exchange for two weekends: November 9 to 11 and November 16 to 18.
The evening was designed to be a fundraiser for a couple of individual projects by the women. Keira Hart-Mendoza, with her company UpRooted Dance is presenting a Soiree at the Jack Guidone Theater on June 12, taking the 1920s as inspiration and performing along with pro ekoh dance, Emily Crew, and Alice Howes. But this doesn’t sound like a typical night at the Jack. The promo materials promise that “you are invited to sit cabaret style in the Jack Guidone Theater with beverages provided by local bootleggers!” One show is for the regular crowd and one is for the “naughty/rowdy” crowd. Love it!..." By Ellen Chenoweth