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McCallum Theatre at the College of the Desert

Eighth Annual Dance Under the Stars Choreography Festival

by Rachel Levin
November 12, 2005
McCallum Theatre at the College of the Desert
details coming soon

Eighth Annual Dance Under the Stars Choreography Festival

Palm Desert, CA

Rachel Levin
November 12, 2005

A pas de deux with a skateboard, a pair of dancing mannequins, and an electric boogaloo set to "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy": these were just a few of the unusual highlights from the professional division performance at the Dance Under the Stars Choreography Festival this Saturday, which showcased diverse and entertaining juxtapositions of movement in jazz, modern, ballet, African, and hip hop dance.

The festival, now celebrating its eighth year, has outgrown the outdoor venue from which it took its name. No longer literally "under the stars," the professional and amateur division performances were held at the impressive McCallum Theatre at the College of the Desert. The line-up included 12 professional finalists and 22 amateur finalists selected from the 100 choreographers from all over the country who sent videotapes of their work to be evaluated by a panel of judges.

The results were, for the most part, stunning and crowd-pleasing. The $5,000 grand prize was awarded to "Duet" by Viktor Kabaniaev. This was a modern piece that featured a pair of exceptionally strong dancers locked in varying acrobatic embraces. Their control and equilibrium was reminiscent of Cirque de Soleil as the male dancer balanced the female dancer across his back and his bent knees. The second place prize of $3,000 went to Jennifer Backhaus' "Stepping Back Towards Tomorrow," a lyrical ensemble dance reminiscent of a Sunday frolic in the park, with dancers dressed in flowing white culottes and crop tops.

No one in the audience was surprised that the prestigious Engagement Award, which promises a paid engagement, went to "Éclair" choreographed by Kathy Wood of Fly Dance Company. It began as a high-energy hip-hop piece set to "Take California" by the Propellerheads, but gained an element of humor and nuance when the music shifted to the classical piece "Claire de Lune" by Debussy. A quartet of male dancers in street wear B-boyed and boogalooed to the classical tune, an inspired juxtaposition. Every so often one of the dancers would glide across the stage on a skateboard in varying poses - arabesque, seated meditation - and the crowd would cheer. At one point, he picked up the skateboard and cradled and twirled it as if it were a ballerina.

Other pieces that did not win top prizes were equally inventive and engaging. Particularly notable was "6pm…" by Mike Esperanza, which featured two "mannequins": a female dancer with a porcelain-like face and red dress and a male dancer in a vest and newsboy cap. Four dancers in all black frolicked around them, playing with their limbs as if they were puppets. The mannequins did not make a movement until touched and froze in the new position. Maneuvering the mannequins into an embrace, the mischievous group made them dance together and then pulled them apart. The empty looks on the mannequins' faces - no smiles, no moving eyes - somehow conveyed longing, and Esperanza managed to create a sense of pity and empathy for "objects" that supposedly have no agency.

Themes of love gone sour were repeated in "The Two Year Itch" by Drea Sobke and "Healing in Her Heartcry" by Ashley Redmann. "Itch" featured two couples that mirrored each other. In one couple, the woman was clingy, while in the other couple, the man was clearly the clingy one, wrapping his full body around his partner as if he were climbing a tree. Sobke expressed through movement the idea that one person in a couple always loves more and the other always loves less. "Heartcry" portrayed a happy couple that drifts apart while raising five children, with closeness and distance represented in sweeping shifts of movement.

"St. John's Wort," by Janice Lancaster, was like whipped cream and a cherry atop the evening. Set to the wild jazz-klezmer song "New Orleans" by the Klezmer Allstars, the piece featured six dancers in blue and white striped knickers and retro screen tees that said things like "Atari" and "Twister." The group alternated between gyrating manically and walking haltingly as shifts in the music called for, finally succumbing to exhaustion on the floor by the end of the piece.

While showcasing the cutting edge of choreography, the festival didn't forget to pay respect to the past. This year, the Lifetime Achievement Award was given to dancer and choreographer Donald McKayle, a five time Tony Award winner who pioneered interracial dance companies in the 1950s and 1960s and choreographed and directed for stage ("Sophisticated Ladies") and screen ("The Jazz Singer"). To the festival's credit, there are few venues today in which choreographers like McKayle can be recognized and remembered.

The festival's strength undoubtedly lies in its celebration of choreography and choreographers above all. Mainstream consumers of dance often do not think about the people who create the steps as they delight in the execution of the steps themselves. While the superb dancers shone brightly, the true stars Saturday evening were the masterminds of movement.

A member of Fly Dance Company
Photo courtesy of Jack Hartin

"St. John's Wort," Choreographer Janice Lancaster
Photo courtesy of Jack Hartin

"Stepping Back Towards Tomorrow," Choreographer Jennifer Backhaus
Photo courtesy of Jack Hartin

"Eclair," Choreographer Kathy Wood
Photo courtesy of Jack Hartin

"6pm…," Choreographer Mike Esperanza
Photo courtesy of Jack Hartin

"Duet," Choreographer Viktor Kabaniaev
Photo courtesy of Jack Hartin

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