Last spring, Los Angeles choreographer Terri Best was grappling with a creative dry spell. A dance faculty member at EDGE Performing Arts Center in L.A. for the last 17 years, Best worried that she was running low on dance ideas. Turning to the writings of 16th century Spanish priest and poet Saint John of the Cross, she found solace in the perspective that this fallow period "was a necessary passage," she says. "How else do you get to the promised land but to go through the desert?" When she embraced that possibility, the ideas started to flow, and the result was "Through the Desert," a dance about the need for faith and supportive relationships in navigating the unknown.
It's fitting that the piece has been selected for this weekend's annual Dance Under the Stars Choreography Festival held at Palm Desert's McCallum Theatre — a kind of "oasis" for dance in the Coachella Valley. Now in its 13th year, the festival has evolved from a free, local showcase in an outdoor amphitheatre (hence the "Under the Stars" in the title) to a high-profile forum for contemporary choreographers both local and national (and sometimes international) to present their work in a formal theater. The mission, says festival founder and artistic director Shea New, has been to offer choreographers "recognition they could hang their hat on."
Since its inception, the festival has distinguished itself from other contemporary dance showcases with its competitive structure ("And that was before the reality shows," notes New). Choreographers submit DVDs of their work for evaluation by a committee of dance professionals assembled by New, whose guiding principle for selection is, "This is important to see," she says. "The pieces that transcend into art are always recognized."
The chosen finalists then perform in either the Division I (professional) or Division II (pre-professional) concert, which doubles as an on-the-spot competition complete with a panel of judges who dole out prize money to the top performers.
This year's 27 finalists were selected from a pool of 107 submissions. In addition to Best's company (Terri Best Dance), other Division I contenders include a clutch of emerging and established choreographers from Southern California — Mike Esperanza (BARE Dance Company), Joshua Romero (Fuse Modern Dance Company) and Eboni Adams (The Yellow Cup Project) — along with a sampling of out-of-state talent including Jamel Gaines (Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn) and Melissa Thodos (Thodos Dance Chicago). Pieces run the gamut from pas de deux to large ensembles, but all fall under the umbrella of contemporary dance, with smatterings of ballet, modern and even hip-hop influences.
New points out that, though varied, many of this year's pieces "reflect today's emotional climate and what we're all going through" during the nationwide recession. The central theme of Adams' piece "Mind the Gap," for example, is homelessness, an issue that confronts her daily near her home in downtown Los Angeles. Set in a subway station, the dance elucidates the precarious gap between the haves and have-nots in our current economic climate. Adams says she wants to remind audiences of how easy it is to "slip through that gap of either having or not having in a moment's time."
Like Best's journey through the desert, Esperanza's entry "Close(r)" explores the importance of intimate relationships, more specifically the complex choices we make about whom to bring closest to us. This is the fourth appearance at the festival for his Costa Mesa-based BARE Dance Company, which was a fledgling venture when it made its festival premiere in 2005.
"It was a great launching point for us," says Esperanza. "It put BARE into a different kind of realm."
While Dance Under the Stars increases the visibility of its participating choreographers, the festival offers audiences what New calls a high-quality "buffet of dance" and the chance to see a variety of regional companies all on the same ticket.
"If you paint a picture, you can hang it in a gallery until somebody really recognizes it. But dance has to be in the moment, so then the audience becomes almost a part of the creative process," says New. "Hopefully you'll catch it while it's there in that blink of an eye and then gone."