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Reflections on the FACT/SF Summer Dance Festival

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Joy Davis and Eric Mullis. Photo courtesy of FACT/SF. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

“Halidom”, created and performed by Joy Davis & Eric Mullis.

The piece began with wintry, ethereal lighting. Two figures upstage right moved in unison, a swooping gesture that sliced the air in front of them with a ghostly precision. I was mesmerized for a few moments before the image of their gestures crystallized into legibility as figure 8’s, the symbol of eternity. They kept moving.

Maybe it was the cool blue lighting, the ghostly spacey soundscape, or the austerity of their durational movement that occurred with no visible tonal, energetic, or emotional change - I found myself transported to an arctic landscape. The figure 8’s continued, slipping in and out of perfect unison, identical figures interlocking at odd angles – horizontal, vertical, and every angle in between, incremental like a clock that never arrives at a certain hour but ticks in perpetuity.

The gentle insistence of repetition without emotional charge felt like an offering, or simple observation. “Can we peel back the layers of qualification or meaning we ascribe to the experience of living and simply exist?” their dance appeared to ask. Nonetheless, even without any particular destination, I felt an imperative in the insistence of the continued, deeply grounded, yet ethereal duet.

Eventually the mirage split. The lighting changed as an orange glow grew and cleaved into two pools of light – one round and rich, and the other angular, and duller. In the round rich pool, Eric Mullis stepped slowly in a circle with his hands out front, legs low and bent, and mouth agape, as if offering, pleading, questioning, all with the same unemotional insistence that gave the piece such an imperative tone. The contrast between the deeply emotive image of a wide mouth with the blank energy of simple steps that continued always in a circle struck me deeply, evoking imagined scenes of ritual and sacrifice. For me, it contained both a recognition of how minute we are within this vast universe, and how vast we are within our own experiences of it.

While the interlocking slicing infinity signs and the nearly crouching circular procession with mouth wide open both struck me deeply, much of the rest of the piece slipped from memory as soon as I saw it, as if the surface of my mind was made smooth by the lack of punctuation or musicality in the dancers’ relationship to the phenomenological. But even as it slipped away, it left a clear impression in a plane just outside the realm of language. I still feel it as a space at once vast, intricate, and imperative.

“a message of truths” by Dazaun Soleyn, performed by Claire Fisher.

Claire Fisher. Photo courtesy of FACT/SF. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Dark stage. A single figure entered in low light walking slowly upstage. A recorded voice began to speak: “Damn, you stuck dodging the devil the older you get.” There was liquid power in the language, words rushing forth like a coursing river or rich soil. “Here come the Devil, talking to you with a smile and shovel, ready to bury you and your lil' hustle.”

Onstage, as the light continued to rise, I realized the figure’s head was covered with a mask - a beanie hat pulled low with two eyes and a mouth cut out and two horns sewn on top. Their face anonymous and shrouded, I felt as if their humanity itself was obscured from view - the buried figure the poetry alluded to. But burial is not the only fate possible, the speaker insisted: “You do get to decide if this tide will capsize you. The Devil can die, too.

As the poem made way for Coltrane’s saxophone ringing out, the piece transitioned into what became for me a physical representation of the poem’s words. Dancer Claire Fisher moved upstage left for a sensual, tortured solo while standing in a pile of red leaves. Her transformation continued as she travelled downstage right to a pile of flat blue marbles, where she rubbed her body with them as if anointing herself, or cleansing some residue of the past.

The symbolic landscape introduced by the props and the promise of the words was so powerful, I found myself seeking the same clarity, nuance and dynamism in the movement language - a physicality that could both interpret and surpass what felt clearly portrayed through the other production choices. While the movement was stunningly executed, articulate, embodied, and evocative, I felt it didn’t develop as far as it could over the course of the piece. It stayed roughly the same, even while Claire interacted with the strikingly disparate piles of red leaves and blue marbles.

I found that the props were also such striking images and so clearly full of symbolic significance that I was distracted by my impulse to interpret their precise meanings. I eventually landed on a rough heaven/hell interpretation, but only after considering a number of alternate options (paper and glass? autumn leaves and winter snow? fire and water?) that prevented me from fully sinking into the physical experience of witnessing her transformation. The poem primed me for a narrative experience, and I became quite literal in my viewing of the work.

Eventually, Claire broke free from the mask. She launched into bigger dancing that plunged her into an arabesque, flinging her to melt against the wall. This movement, such a departure from the relatively contained movement in the rest of the piece, provoked a satisfyingly visceral response in my body. The opening track had made me hungry to not just witness, but feel the transformation they spoke of. I did in that moment - I wonder about the experiences of my fellow audience members.

Alex Carrington & Chelsea Reichert. Photo courtesy of FACT/SF. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

“my beloved comet” by Maurya Kerr, performed by Alex Carrington & Chelsea Reichert.

The third piece of the evening returns to me in poetic moments and a felt sense of rigorous duration. It began with two dancers travelling downstage like lopsided mirror images of one another. They were identical in tone, speed, and cadence, but one crawled while the other walked. Slowly, steadily, they continued towards us with focus so sharp and wide it could’ve sliced through to another dimension. Then the lights went out.

They came up to illuminate a neck-to-neck duet, the two dancing with and around one another, in spite of one another. In their unbreaking connection, I felt a sense of deep intimacy, and also challenge and tension. Lights out.

The piece continued this way. Pools of light in the dark, moving snapshots of something at once eternal and instantaneous. The relentlessness of the images, and moments of darkness between, lent a kaleidoscope effect to my experience as I watched. Overhead, Ben Juodvalkis’ unforgiving soundscore - as relentless and rigorous as the movement in its range of tones, moods, and effects, but consistent in the droning quality of something that never came to a close - lent a dystopian quality to the universe I saw unfolding onstage. I found myself leaning very far forward.

The sound of the dancers’ labored breathing and the neverending soundscore became my last felt vestige of time. Moments of darkness like black cocoons seemed to traverse something much larger, while the dancing itself became fractal - at times enormous, at times minute, but always with a razor sharp focus. Their two bodies fit together with shapes both organic and mechanical. This juxtaposition was echoed in the soundscore (at one point wind became a helicopter became the ocean). An unusual virtuosity accumulated like layers through duration as their unceasing intimacy - impersonal, unromantic - continued to unfold in the face of their own exhaustion.

Near the end of the piece, the lights came up on dancer Chelsea Reichert moving on the ground like a dying fish - tension wracking her body and her focus never wavering. In that moment, I felt as if her humanity had been slowly eroded over time like a rock under the constant flow of a powerful tide. The dancers finished by moving backwards in the way they began, this time parallel to instead of towards us, as if nothing had changed except for the orientation of the universe that continued to shift on its axis.

“Backstitch Back” by Charles Slender-White.

The piece began with amber light streaming down the back wall to illuminate a line of five performers dressed in ornate, old-timey dresses and rompers. They moved with simple gestures in shifting groups of unison - sometimes all five together, and other times in groups of two or three mirrored figures. Layers of music, and a voice speaking the lyrics of “These Are The Days” in a deadpan tone offered a compelling audio backdrop. A single performer soon left the wall to deliver a lyrical performance downstage, and then returned to join the back line.

The five fanned out, filling the stage and executing sweeping, graceful movements with formal lyricism and high skill. Chime-like voices in the audio track began counting from 1 to 6, then 1 to 8, alternating back and forth between the two counts with a cyclic regularity. The cycling numbers, lingering sentiment of “These Are The Days”, and (to my eye) old-timey costuming painted the piece with a tone of nostalgia.

Then a man’s voice like a minister delivering a sermon layered into the soundscore over a violin. “Sometimes at the end of the day we need a story to relax,” he intoned. He launched into telling a story about a man and a woman sitting on a bench. The woman kept asking the man for reassurances of his love for her, and he kept providing them. Dancers Amanda Whitehead and Keanu Brady moved forward to interpret the story with more formal, lyrical choreography while the entire stage continued to constantly remake itself as all five moved through intricate, interlocking patterns.

I was struck by many of the elements in this piece - the costumes, the lighting, the soundscore, the impeccable skills of the dancers, and the interplay between ensemble and individual - but I wasn’t entirely sure how to read the whole, especially in relation to the love story that to me felt somewhat gendered and stereotypical. Specifically, I wasn’t sure where this tone of nostalgia was meant to land in relation to the story, the costumes, and the formal movement, which together evoked for me a sense of restrictive institutions and times past. In light of this reading, I found myself not enjoying the airy, lines-for-days dancing and intricate patterning in the way that I think, given a different handful of elements, I would have immensely.

Read these pieces on "Life As A Modern Dancer" at


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