Beyond Ballet Arizona and Center Dance Ensemble, longtime mainstays of ballet and modern dance in metro Phoenix, there's a whole world of dance experimentation taking place.
For eight years, CONDER/dance has presented a contemporary dance and film festival called Breaking Ground, which features two distinct programs performed on two consecutive nights. This year's festival was held Friday and Saturday, March 20 and 21, at Tempe Center for the Arts.
Breaking Ground serves as one window into the wider world of dance, giving local audiences a glimpse of what lies beyond local stages and today's odd assortment of dance-themed TV shows. Unfortunately, the window was relatively small this year. Last year's festival featured works by 17 artists, including Carley Conder, artistic director for CONDER/dance. This year's line-up included just 12.
Although the call for work noted that one night would be exclusively devoted to premières, only three of this year's offerings fit the bill: Bloom Inscribed, This is my Hallelujah, and Red Belt. Others had debuted previously. Still, it was an enjoyable festival.
Choreographers demonstrated a rich vocabulary of movement. Dancers delivered strong technique. Technology was well-integrated instead of feeling like an appendage glued on merely for the sake of being trendy.
Conder's own piece, choreographed in collaboration with dancers Jordan Daniels, Danielle Feinberg, Shelby Keefe, Stephanie Lebedies, and Kassidy Rogers provided thought-provoking punctuation for the end of each night's program.
Enter reflects Conder's premise that technology has become "the architect of our intimacies." Like kernels of popcorn colliding inside a bag they can't escape, or pieces being pounded in vigorous game of whack-a-mole, they dart within their symbolic cyberspace making and breaking connections that only serve to accelerate their isolation and ennui.
Friday's program also included Subterrain choreographed by Eric Handman with Carley Conder, Gambaru choreographed by Shaun Boyle in collaboration with the dancers, Katherinette choreographed by Selene Carter, ME: story of a performance by filmmakers Jopsu and Timo Ramu, All Time Love choreographed by Aaron McGloin, and Rise (excerpt) choreographed by Suzanne Beahrs with members of her company.
Conder's Subterrain performance, danced on a stage unembellished save for large lighting structures flanking stage left and right, signaled the minimalist vibe for this this year's festival, something Conder described in a recent interview with Jackalope Ranch as a return to "a lot of physicality and a high level of production value that doesn't rely on props and visual ideas."
The piece, informed by both ballet and martial arts, was a beautiful blend of artistic and athletic sensibilities demonstrating the power one dancer can bring to wide open, empty spaces. With softer lines and presence, Aaron McGloin demonstrated similar power dancing through his own piece exploring the disconnect between modern-day expectations and the authentic quest for love. McGloin holds a BFA in choreography from ASU, but his company is based in New York City.
Ironically, the festival's strongest work -- Shaun Boyle's Gambaru performed by Nick Blaylock, Laura Brick, Daniel Do, Michelle Reay, and Chorong Yang -- was the one with the strongest visual presence. Dancers donned black, white and red costumes designed by Boyle, and danced on the stage sometimes saturated by lighting with a rich shade that looked like a mash-up of cherry blossoms with blood.
Program notes explain that "gambaru," a word commonly used in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, refers in Japanese culture to "perseverance and enduring difficult times." Performed to traditional Japanese music featuring Taiko drums, five vignettes signal challenges overcome through "physical aptitude, endurance, and tenacity." Even separate from its back story, it's a captivating piece, in part because of lighting design by Cole Adams and Isaac Taylor.
Saturday's program opened with "Bloom Inscribed" choreographed by Maria Gillespie and Nguyên Nguyên, who describe it as a meditation on "home." Text projected behind the stage offered simple queries: Is this a good place to begin? Are you thinking of someone now? Shadows and images of dancers Gillespie and Nguyên captured by on-stage video equipment accentuate their movements towards and away from one another.
At times, they share a rectangular patch of grass-like turf. Other times, they retreat to their own small patch, move between them, or seem enveloped by them. It succeeded as both meditation and multi-media dance work, and was among Saturday night's best.
Still, it's really Joshua L. Peugh's Critics of the Morning Song, performed by Peugh and Alex Karigan Farrior, that stole the show. Their movement, and theatricality, was perfectly nuanced - and their comedic timing spot-on.
Using three different takes on the song "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" (by Ray Conniff, Judy Garland (accompanied by then husband David Rose), and Perry Como, dancers conjure familiar moments in coupledom, from unbridled bliss to abject annoyance.
Additional dances on the Saturday program were This is My Hallejulah choreographed by Keith Johnson and Red Belt choreographed by Nadar Rosano. Both programs included a single film, and each was a strong piece of cinematography.
On Friday it was ME: a story of performance by filmmakers Jopsu and Timo Ramu. Directed by Jopsu Ramu, it featured performance by Johanna Nuutinen, who moves between underwater and seemingly snow-covered environments to represent the ways performance is viewed differently by audience and artist.
On Saturday, it was A Juice Box Afternoon by filmmaker Lily Baldwin, the solo performer in the piece. Rich is storytelling, her work explores the inner life of author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who married famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. Baldwin took us on a delightful journey through nostalgia and neurosis.
Like Friday's program, Saturday's offerings ran just over one hour -- and there was no intermission. We'd have left unsatiated were it not for each night's appetizers: short pieces performed at various TCA locations on four-feet square stages. Two stages each evening were placed indoors, and another on an outside plaza overlooking Tempe Town Lake.
They worked best when placed "in the round," rather than against a wall, so people could gather and watch from any angle. Ten dances were performed each night for whoever came to watch them. No tickets or admission fees were required. Between one and five dancers performed each piece.
Most were thoughtfully choreographed, and we found it fascinating to watch the different ways choreographers used spaces atop and around these spaces.
But more importantly, we love what they suggest about ways artists can be engaging contemporary audiences. Despite the rush by so many to build or secure their own massive venues, artistry can happen in the smallest, most unlikely spaces. More than sitting in theaters for hours at a time, busy patrons enjoy seeing art in smaller doses delivered in a typical spaces.
After watching both rounds of Ten Tiny Dances, we were left wondering how the format would translate to other sectors -- including literary arts, music, theater, and even live creation of visual art. Breaking Ground didn't break new ground in dance world, but we're hoping it inspires other artists to consider what might be possible by hosting a "Four by Four" festival of visual and performance art all created atop four-feet square stages in a fun variety of venues.
This year's Breaking Ground offerings were chosen by a panel of four adjudicators including Conder, Jessica Rajko, Mary Fitzgerald, and Ashleigh Leite. Rajko is co-director for Urban Stew, an arts collective focused on digital arts. Both Rajko and Fitzgerald are faculty members with ASU's School of Film, Dance and Theatre. Leite previously worked with Stephen Petronio Company and Palissimo in New York City.
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Moving forward, we hope festival organizers will attract additional high-caliber dance and film works, and inspire more local artists to create the quality of work for which Breaking Ground continues to be such a beautiful showcase. Although it's moved from being a showcase for local artists to an international festival through the years, we'd love to see more local artists creating quality work for the festival and making the cut.
Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original version.