By David F. Pendrys
(Note: The company has put photos from the event on their facebook page.)
On a Sunday afternoon not long ago the dancers of the Sonia Plumb Dance Company put on a six dance performance entitled “Fire or Ice.” Plumb wrote about the performance as being inspired both by the desire to perform to live music, and the various types of music available as well as how students she was teaching were learning and mixing varying styles. The result is a mixture of different music and different dance styles spread throughout.
The last time I saw the company in action they were performing a dramatically different type of show. In the “The Odyssey” they told the epic story through dance. It was a single and familiar narrative. Thus “Fire or Ice” proved to be a fascinating departure.
Dance is a precarious art. The dancers must not only execute their own elements, but also time it with the movements of their fellow dancers timed to the music. Beyond execution, as is true in any art form, the goal is to create an effect. All of the six pieces blend execution and effect nicely.
Before I go into specifics the entire company of Sonia Plumb herself, guest artist Paul Dennis, Kayla Rodriguez, Raechel Mangna, Bryan Smith, Isaac Lerner, Alida Lamagna, Juanita Harris, Julio Cruz, Reynaldo Garcia, and Gabrielle Mack performed splendidly. The entire show was choreographed by Plumb, though Dennis collaborated on the third piece.
“Bach in Space”
One lone cellist, Eric Dahlin, provided the background music of Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G and #3 in C for this opening foray. This was to some degree a more traditional dance in presentation with Harris, Lamagna, Lerner, Mangna, Rodriguez, & Smith serving the cast. The women were in dresses of different colors and the men in pants and styled tank tops essentially. There was a great deal of elegant and powerful maneuvers throughout.
“The sound of the note patterns and overall “feeling” one gets from listening to the Bach’s cello suites was really the inspiration for the choreography structure for this piece,” Plumb explained in writing. “The dancers’ bodies in space, meeting and re-meeting with no other backstory than enjoying shapes in space with a light touch of humanness.”
The piece started slow and is fluid and later picks up as the dancers make their entries and exits. They couple up at times and the couples change throughout. The dancers did not move much in a unified structure but instead were scattered about the stage. There were plenty of balances, scales and turns naturally and they are delightful to see. It is notable that space itself relies on balance making the frequency of those elements appropriate. There were also lifts. Smith who distinguished himself in “The Odyssey” in addition to his own quality moves initiates numerous smooth lifts featuring several of the dancers including a long one of Mangna. Lifts are impressive in the requirement of strength but also discipline in holding a static position while being carried and doing so beautifully.
A recorded version of Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa was used in the background of this two part dance. The dancers all wore leotard/unitard type outfits with white shirts over them. Garcia, Lerner, Mack, Mangna, Rodriguez, and Smith made up the group. This piece featured the group during various forms of handstands early on which earns bonus points from me. Bells rang in the background and unlike the last piece there was unison movement with three dancers per side. The strings accompanying them sounded dire as there were turns and leans in unison.
Three pairs evolved, one included a man and a woman, one was two women, and the third two men. Various lifts were scattered about what follows involving several different pairings. Other spins in unison happened as well. Unlike a traditional stereotype where the men were doing all the lifting, even the woman to woman pairs were engaging in the lift and turns together. While it may not be that unexpected within the arts community, it is still a remnant of some dance genres to find a typical pas de deux placing the lifts entirely on the men so it is nice to see the difference. Also critically, there were no gendered roles in this piece, no difference in clothing, no difference in roles really. A lot goes on, it was noticed that Alida Lamagna performed a short big leap, and several of the dancers threw their legs forward only to change their position and back in mid air. The group also did a split leap together. Eventually a clamor picks up as the first part of the dance ends.
The second part went in a different direction as Smith and Mack perform a duet. There was an apparent conflict between the two as they are sometimes pushing and grabbing, and other times trying to caress each other. Repeatedly Mack would be lying on the stage as Smith stood over her which was strong on imagery, and also an impressive feat for Mack to convey emotion while laying still. Each also were able to perform solos amidst this sequence. The other dancers would later return but the pairing was the focal point. Smith being solid in his role is not surprising, an Mack as an apprentice nailing it is quite the achievement.
“The music intrigued me to be contextually open and allowed me to choreograph within the notes without being pushed around by the music,” Plumb explained about the piece overall. “There is depth within the spatiality of the sounds. As I have revisited the dance, I keep looking for more and more depth within the relationships of the dancers. Like looking through a prism, we sometimes only see partially what is really going on between people.”
“Fire or Ice”
Plumb and Dennis were the only performers in this exciting piece. The Daniel Salazar Ensemble was on hand to perform Isaac Albeniz’s Leyenda. The piece has been described as flamenco in nature and features Salazar on guitar and a large group of musicians with him. Plumb was clad as fire and Dennis as ice with a blueish tint. The costumes were designed by Gail Fresia and are effective. The music moves back and forth proceeding steadily but other times entering a frenzied flourish reflecting naturally the different paces of ice vs. fire.
Fire moves faster and unleashes more elements as ice slowly moves as if trying to keep up but slower. Importantly fire isn’t moving so fast that the connection between the two dancers is lost. The dance remains between the two. She begins facing the audience while he is facing the band. This position changes later but the dynamic stays the same. The juxtaposition is fascinating considering the two are in essence dancing together but at different speeds, yet it works.
“I wanted to create a duet that symbolized the meeting of two cultures. This piece was truly an artistic collaboration and exploration in the dance studios that came to life with Daniel’s music and his ensemble’s performing,” Plumb outlined. In a previous writing she had explained the questions asked by the piece. “I want to create a dance that expresses the challenges, frustrations, beauty and trust of two cultures coming together to find a common language – much like a marriage. How do you create a new synergy without losing your own self? How do two very different cultures learn to work together when they literally don’t speak the same language?”
Dennis, who is a former member of the prestigious Jose Limon Dance Company, is also the Associate Director of the White Mountains Summer Dance Festival and a professor at UMass. He has a long resume of performances.
The piece begins with a montage of horrific media reports describing disaster playing as Rodriguez packs some things into a suit case. She and Smith then engage in a duet. The music is provided by Cory Gabel who also provided a great music score to “The Odyssey.” Fresia also designed the costumes.
In describing her thoughts behind the dance Plumb said “simply, what a couple experiences and feels when they are displaced from their “home” through no fault of their own. In this dance it was due to climate change. It could be anything. This piece came from our 2012 “Water Wars” production, and Cory composed all of the music in for that production.”
As the dance moves forward Rodriguez often collapses and Smith helps her. At times he lifts her and lays her down. At another point he spins as she dances upstage. She eventually leaps up. By the end she grabs the suitcase and they come together. Rodriguez who in the other pieces has a more elegant role in this case is tasked with being more pained. Smith is given the task of being supportive in this duet, a different role than in the Fractured Light one earlier. This dance occurs in a more confined space in a sense. It is not a flitting ‘dance all over the place’ affair, but instead closed in on the struggle the couple is facing.
Rodriguez is the other company member other than Smith who performed in “The Odyssey” along with Plumb. She had distinguished herself in the several roles she was tasked with throughout so her solid performance here was true to form.
(Editor’s note: My notes on this piece were difficult to make out after being written in the darkness of the event. Thus the sparseness.)
“I was intrigued by this piece of music (The Frontier) by David Heath. When I found out what he was inspired by I just ran with it, literally. It was his first trip to New York City -that all made sense,” Plumb explains describing the fifth piece of the afternoon. She created a piece she describes as “Four dancers (Garcia, Harris, Lamagna & Mack) alternate between linear, sharp grid inspired shapes and patterns, to soft, fluidity swimming through the air until they create new spatial relationships.”
As the title would suggest there was certainly more randomness to what was going on than in other scenarios. “Bach in Space” featured the dancers moving not in unison but not necessarily randomly either especially in pairs. “Fractured Light” featured them more working in groups. “Random XY” was a departure into more volatile territory, and certainly if meant to tie into the hustle and bustle of New York it succeeded.
(Editor’s note: My notes on this piece were also difficult to make out after being written in the darkness of the event. Thus the sparseness.)
“The Sun Shines”
The final piece proved to be a dramatic departure from the five pieces that occurred before. Whereas the previous dances were typical of modern dance performances featuring costumes to match the theme and bare feet. Cruz, Garcia, Harris, Lamagna, Mack, Mangna, and Rodriguez took to the stage in street clothes and normal shoes in a scene that could play out at an actual dance party occurring down the street.
“I simultaneously discovered the music of Daniel Salazar, Jr. AND the rich variety of dance styles in my performers’ backgrounds and cultures,” Plumb wrote. “It had to be a celebration. On Saturday night, we had an audience call this piece “a neighborhood dance party,” which was a fun and appropriate description.”
As Salazar’s ensemble played Salazar’s own piece Ritmo Del Sol, Garcia takes to the stage first energetically as the group fills in. The various dancers pair off from time to time, but also engage in their own style of dance. Garcia eventually is given a solo in which he breakdances superbly. It provides the opportunity to blend dance as performance with dance as activity quite effectively. It also serves as a symbol for what was the overall theme of “Fire or Ice” combining the many styles and music together.
As a few additional notes, Harris, Garcia, Cruz, and Mack are apprentices to the company. Plumb’s website describes the program as training for high school grads ages 18-20 who cannot afford to attend a college program but want a career in dance. “Four Apprentices are chosen each year through an audition process before a panel of judges. Apprentices are paid to train, rehearse, shadow teach and perform with the Company. In addition, these young dancers learn the business side of the non-profit world including marketing, program development and business administration. Apprentices are contracted for one season.” The four performed very well and proved to be very deserving of the opportunity!
The Daniel Salazar Ensemble was very impressive and consists of Salazar on guitar, Lorena Garay on guitar, Gonzalo Cortes on flute, Mike Asetta on bass, Abraham Sanchez on keyboard, Eliezer Martinez on drums, Jocelyn Pleasants on percussion, Martha Kayer, Deborah Tyler, Annie Trepanier, and Eve Burtness on violins.
The Sonia Plumb Dance Company in addition to performances plays a role in the community and more can be found on their website.