The Laguna Beach Dance Festival last week kicked things off with performances by UC Irvine dance students during the First Thursdays Art Walk in Laguna Beach.
There were several people strolling down Coast Highway and exploring the row of art galleries, with some stumbling upon the Laguna Art Museum. Once inside, a majority of onlookers moseyed their way into the museum’s largest room, the Steele Gallery, where the student dancers were to perform.
It was all part of an effort to promote this weekend’s upcoming events, which include performances from renowned companies like the New York City Ballet and Colorado Ballet. Such dancers are in a league of their own, but Orange County dance students demonstrated their potential.
At first glance, the Steele Gallery space appeared strikingly atypical of characteristic dance performances. This left the audience scattered about the room confused, as the spectators tried to make out where the performance would take place.
Statues positioned at the room’s center obstructed the view for some in the standing-room-only crowd. Excessive neck twisting and leaning can make people uncomfortable and irritable, yet the audience eventually warmed up to the space and learned to look at the dances from a new angle.
Following Artistic Director Jodie Gates’ suggestion, audience members attempted to look at the performance through gaps in the statues before them. The altered perspective gave the dance a new dimension.
In effect, the statues framed the dance to match the collection of impressionist paintings hanging from the gallery’s four walls. However, the insufficient frontal lighting in the gallery could not be ignored, as it caused the performance’s overall quality to suffer.
Luckily, the three-dance lineup was brief and to the point with little standing, which preserved smiles on the audience’s faces.
Jodie Gates’ “Mein Zimmer,” German for “my room,” opened the showcase and will be part of the “Stars of Dance” shows Saturday and Sunday. However, the four-minute teaser of the full-length piece, which is set to music by Bach, was less than appetizing, leaving onlookers hungry for the entrée.
The segment’s ethereal blend of contemporary ballet left the artistic message undefined and an audience puzzled. In this case, fault could be attributed to the stone-faced duo, whose pasted-on expression added an artificial sheen to the performance. Granted, a dance should always be left up to audience interpretation, but an audience still needs nonverbal clues from which they can draw meaning.
For UCI senior student Andrea Yorita, technique and agility is no question. Her lines were near impeccable, but something was missing.
Even the most technically sound dancers can fall short in performance when flow and spontaneity fall victim to years of training, which all too often traps dance students inside their heads.
But, when the chips are down, great dancers don’t think about steps; they just let the music move their bodies. After all, dance should speak to the soul — that is the very reason for art itself.
Yorita’s partner, junior undergraduate Jeremy Zapanta, impressed audiences with his strong execution of lifts that made for a breathtaking vision amid the mystic gallery. However, Zapanta fell short in comparison to his partner’s technique, grace and poise. As is typical of dance students, a consistency in performance was lacking, but fragmented glimmers of hope during sporadic moments suggest a bright future for this duo, but all in due time.
In contrast, the next contemporary ballet duet, choreographed by first-year graduate student Jennifer Lott, featured a pair of more seasoned dancers, whose age and experience were assets to their level of comfort in performance.
As first-year graduate student Vincent Hardy entered from the audience, clearing a path with his formidable presence, he burst on to the scene exhibiting his limitless extensions and command over the space. It was no surprise, given his professional background dancing for Complexions Contemporary Ballet. Hardy towered over his partner, an enchanting Jessie Ryan, also a first-year graduate student at UCI.
The duo got off to a rough start, but after the pair took a short time to relax into the space, they soon warmed up to each other and unleashed a captivating performance that had the whole audience on edge. Together, their intricate partnering told the story of ever-changing love won and lost.
Lott’s choreography brought the story together. Her depictions of lovers waltzing around each other in a game of cat and mouse got everyone wondering if Ryan would actually run off with her supposed stage lover.
By the end of the evening, it was obvious that junior undergraduate Karen Wing stole the show with her solo, “I’ve Known Rivers,” choreographed by dance icon Donald McKayle. It was more contemporary than ballet-based.
Without contest, the two are an inseparable match. Not only did Wing enhance McKayle’s organic choreographic style with her own personal flavor, but she also became married to the space and musical composition from start until the music faded into pure, chilling silence. When the music burst from a sensitive moment to a brisk, soulful ragtime, she was in tune to every accompanying note and lyric.
The thunderous applause following her performance was a mere confirmation of her translation of human suffering to every onlooker. Physically possessed, her body made sharp, choking movements seamlessly flowed into undulating motion as she tumbled to floor only to rise again triumphantly from life’s lowest points.
Honestly, it was amazing to see a young dancer evoke this level of suffering with such motivated sincerity. After witnessing her immobilizing attack and control of movement paired with a formidable stage presence far beyond her years, it was obvious that Wing is just beginning to make her mark on the dance world.
Shortly after the Laguna Art Museum performance, Bare Bones Dance Theatre performed two pieces at [seven-degrees], which included Brittany Brewer and Jeremy Zapanta’s duet “This Familiar Place,” and Shaina Seidenberg’s quartet dancing to “Infatuated in New Orleans.”
The Laguna Dance Festival will continue Friday, Saturday and Sunday as New York City Ballet headliners Tiler Peck and Joaquin DeLuz join companies from across the country in performances at the Laguna Playhouse.
For showtimes and ticket information, visit lagunadancefestival.org.