Review: Breaking Ground Dance and Film Festival 2016 at Tempe Center for the Arts | Phoenix New Times


Visual Arts, Improvisation Starred in Breaking Ground 2016 in Tempe

Phoenix sound artist Tony Obr sat behind a table topped by a silver Apple laptop computer Friday night, amplifying the sounds created as visual artist Heather Couch pounded a large clump of clay on the stage at Tempe Center for the Arts. Fumihiro Kikuchi, the choreographer and dancer whose Amalgamations opened...
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Phoenix sound artist Tony Obr sat behind a table topped by a silver Apple laptop computer Friday night, amplifying the sounds created as visual artist Heather Couch pounded a large clump of clay on the stage at Tempe Center for the Arts.

Fumihiro Kikuchi, the choreographer and dancer whose Amalgamations opened this year’s Breaking Ground dance and film festival, soon joined them. Before Kikuchi rose to dance with two rough-hewn, baton-shaped ceramic objects in his hands, Obr punctured the performance with the sound of breaking porcelain.

Their performance reflected several seismic shifts taking place in the world of contemporary dance, including collaborations across disciplines and the growing role of improvisation, incorporated by many of the choreographers whose works comprised the two-night lineup.

Breaking Ground 2016, presented January 29 and 30 by Tempe-based dance company CONDER/dance, channeled the changing world of dance, in which artists are creating works for non-theater settings, incorporating distinct dance forms with deep cultural roots, integrating digital technologies, and addressing issues of identity. 

Map of Broken Glass, created by Carley Conder and dancers in collaboration with Phoenix filmmaker Perry Allen during an artist residency with the new works development program [nueBOX], explored the shifting, evolving nature of identity – highlighting the role of digital culture in shaping identity by incorporating live footage from an iPhone operated by two dancers.

Images captured while pointing the device at themselves, fellow dancers, and the audience were projected onto the screen during the latter portion of the piece. Highly conceptual, it’s basically the dance equivalent of a Rorschach test in which movements serve as inkblots completely open to interpretation by viewers. And though it was intriguing, it certainly wasn’t this year’s standout.

The clear stars of this year’s festival, which included 12 works culled by four adjudicators (including Conder) from 77 submissions, were visual arts and improvisation.

Amalgamations choreographer Fumihiro Kikuchi, one of three Arizonans with works selected for Breaking Ground 2016, actually submitted a piece created for two male dancers, according to Carley Conder, artistic director for CONDER/dance. But his dance partner was injured in a car accident, necessitating the change of plans that resulted in this year’s best piece – distinguished by its strong, unified aesthetic fully integrating movement, music, and visual arts.

The interplay of visual with performance art was also quite compelling in Manufactured, a piece choreographed by Rebecca Bryant, which opened Saturday night’s program. In Bryant’s work, six dancers manipulated dozens of cardboard forms shaped like bricks – building individual structures, creating a border eventually destroyed using a domino effect, and more – while exploring America’s cultural superiority complex. It premièred in 2015 at California State University, Long Beach, where Bryant teaches dance.

Each evening also included a strong improvisational piece.

On Friday, it was Daniel Burkholder’s Solo #14. "I add a number every time I perform it," says Burkholder, artistic director for The PlayGround and dance faculty member at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Each time, spoken text and movement are completely improvised within a framework he’s created for it. He starts by asking a random audience member to name a place they love, and share a bit about why it's so meaningful. Each time, he concludes his dance with joyous iterations of the word “Yes!” Some of us struggle to walk and chew gum at the same time, making his facility for co-creating engaging language and movement especially impressive.

Saturday it was Convers(at)ions, choreographed and danced by Bliss Kohlmyer and Kara Davis, who launched their project agora collaborative in San Francisco in 2006. About half of the  piece was improvised, they say, using techniques they call “games.” In one, they alternate offering and responding to spoken prompts such as “25 cents,” “center of the universe,” “love,” and “true or false.” In another, each creates movements meant to frame the other dancer. It’s engaging stuff, because their interactions create a delicate vulnerability that seems it might be fractured at any moment – although it's perfectly balanced until the last few moments they’re on stage.

In addition to 12 main stage works, Breaking Ground included 12 “tiny dance” pieces chosen from 23 submissions performed on 4-foot by 4-foot stages outside the theater before each evening’s formal program began. Only Arizona artists were eligible to submit tiny dance works, and people didn’t need tickets to watch them. It’s the second year for these tiny dances, which reflect the trend towards making dance more accessible to general audiences.

This year’s best offerings tiny dance offerings included (M)used, choreographed and performed by Nicole L. Olson, and Unleash the Storm and the Night, choreographed by Liliana Gomez and performed by Joseph Mack Hall. Both were previously performed during the opening for the “Tiny Works & Tiny Dances” exhibition at {9} The Gallery in the Grand Avenue arts district.

Works of film were a mixed bag this year. Both dance films were exceptional, but most films created to accompany live performance served to distract from rather than enhance them.

Friday’s lineup included a 2012 film titled Martiality, Not Fighting, directed by Marianne M. Kim, an interdisciplinary arts and performance faculty member at ASU’s New College. Featuring choreography by Cheng-Chieh Yu, and performance by members of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company in China, the film addresses artists and others as conscientious objectors within their own cultures.

Saturday’s program included the 2015 film Lay Me Low, with direction by Marlene Millar and choreography by Sandy Silva, in which 10 dancers, musicians, and singers perform a traditional Shaker mourning song while walking amid rustling trees along a wide river.

Both films incorporate movement vocabularies rarely seen in contemporary dance world. Yu’s choreography is infused with elements of a Chinese martial arts form developed by Daoist monks. Silva’s choreography features her unique take on body percussive dance, in which the feet and other elements of the body create sound as well as movement.

But here’s the bad news. Original animation by Jacob Streilein, which accompanied performance by the Los Angeles-based dance duo Whyteberg (Gracie Whyte and Laura Berg), would barely cut it as a screen saver. Comprising mostly starry night images in various shades of purple and blue, it did nothing to heighten the experience of watching the pair’s delightfully quirky movement – and distracted from the bold black-and-white graphics of their costumes.

The same was true for Bret Kalmbach’s video of New York dancers Julie Miller and Gina Ricker performing on a Brooklyn street lined with mural art. It’s a cool enough video, but it distracted from their live performance rather than amplifying its impact.

Despite the mix of hits and misses, Breaking Ground 2016 reinforced the festival’s important role in the metro Phoenix art scene. By creating and curating dance works incorporating diverse movement, subject matter, and multidisciplinary practice, CONDER/dance continues to open a window onto the wider world of contemporary dance. The view keeps changing, and we love that. 
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