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Clairobscur Dance Company is a true product of Los Angeles and Sefton is one of this city’s leading choreographers who is not afraid to take on social or global issues. The program presented at the Nate Holden Theater investigated the effects of climate change, women’s sexuality, and the consequences of oppressive behaviors. Her work is intelligent, taut with restrained emotion and filled with intricate physical challenges for the dancers. Her company members are strong technicians who are also required to be expressive, daring and trusting of Sefton and each other. One definition of chiaroscuro, a 17th century painterly term, is “an effect of contrasted light and shadow created by light falling unevenly or from a direction on something”. Sefton’s work is exactly that; she shines a light on the subjects being examined, but leaves enough mystery for the audience to come to their own conclusions. Even if one does not fully enjoy Sefton’s work, she/he cannot view it without being intellectually stimulated.

Sadly, for those of us who have followed her career, one of the dancers who best executes Sefton’s work is retiring from professional performing. Megan Pulfer makes Sefton’s very difficult movement phrases flow like water over rocks, and with a sensual and straight forward persona, always takes full command of the stage. For this reviewer, Megan Pulfer is one of the best dancers in Los Angeles. In a perhaps wise decision, she is leaving at the peak of her physical talents to pursue a different career. I wish her much happiness.

Clairobscur Dance Company in “desiccated earth/California” – Photo by Denise Leitner

Pulfer stands out in Sefton’s work titled desiccated earth/California; a demanding piece about the effects of climate change on our state, and the planet. The set is a single strip of turf placed on stage left, that slowly turns from bright green to almost brown as temperatures rise. The work, which premiered last year during the height of California’s six-year long drought, causes one to feel the heat, see people struggle to breathe and recognize their joy at the touch of a rain drop. Sefton exposes how humans go about their lives ignoring the devastating impact that mankind’s actions have had on the planet. A small group parties while one person, Pulfer, struggles with the effects this shift of weather patterns is having upon her life.

“dessiccated earth/California” – Photo by Denise Leitner

One dancer who also stands out in desiccated earth/California is Ellen Akashi. The movement she performs is complex, rapid and laced with intricate arm and hand gestures, but Akashi moves through it with directness and an ease that is deceptive. The entire cast is strong. Those not previously mentioned are Samantha-Jane Gray, Andy Lawson and Evan Swenson. The original score by Mark Hadley, with additional music by David Lynch is driving and brings an appropriate urgency to the work.

Bully, which considers both sides of oppressive and aggressive behavior, was choreographed in 2012. On this program, Sefton chose to present only three sections: Bully, Gang and Victim. Evan Swenson is brilliant as a young man so mistreated that he turns into the aggressor. In an incredible acting moment, Swenson sits near the edge of the stage and through his facial expressions alone, we see Dr. Jekyll turn into Mr. Hyde. Natalie McCall gives an admirable performance in Victim. She allows us to experience moments of sadness that drives her character to take her own life. With time, I am certain that McCall’s performance will mature, helping us to also feel her pain. Gang peeks into how groups have leaders and followers, but it doesn’t go far enough in expressing the intimidation caused by these groups. The repetitive sharp, challenging nods are good, but they eventually lose their power.

Ellen Akashi in “Girl, Get Off” – Photo by Denise Leitner

Girl, Get Off had its world premiere at the Nate Holden. Ellen Akashi is prominent in this work, opening with an amazing solo that expresses both her masculine and feminine traits. Her control in this solo is stunning. Here, Sefton examines a very current social question; what is gender? She has created both opposite and same-sex duets that border on becoming sexually explicit. They are sensual without ever being lewd. The one male, performed by Andy Lawson, becomes inconsequential. He is there simply as a “cover” for Ashlee Merritt’s dominant character dressed in leather. Girl, Get Off focuses on four women and their complex sexual relationships.

Clairobscur Dance Company in “Girl, Get Off” – Photo by Tracy Kumono

The music for Girl, Get Off is an original score by Bryan Curt Kostors, with additional music by Apparat, Nosja Thing, Massive Attack and UNKLE. At times the sound was startling due to the high volume. The genre is in the realm of Rock with a beat that is driving, harsh and sometimes erotic. The costumes by Leslie Karten, Ruth Fentroy and Sefton hit their desired mark, typifying a broad spectrum of sexualities.

Megan Pulfer, Ellen Akashi in “Girl, Get Off” – Photo by Tracy Kumono

A few times, I felt that Sefton overstated her intended message, as when two couples in the first dance stood almost kissing or in the last dance when a similar flirtation occurs. She did eventually add a touch or a simple head turn, but unless one is totally invested, these subtleties were lost. Her work is strong and powerful, but the new work Girl, Get Off flirts with becoming too long. Throughout the evening I felt a confinement in the movement; a building up of energy longing to be released.

Sefton has found a Lighting Designer who understands her vision. Lap Chi Chu has interpreted Sefton’s creative thoughts and made them a reality. Each dance has its own identity and environment, and Chu’s transitions between sections were seamless. Right now, Sefton is at her finest and her company is strong.

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Jeff Slayton
Jeff Slayton has had a long and influential career as a dancer, choreographer, and educator. Born in Virginia in 1945, Slayton began dancing as a child in order to correct his condition of hip dysplasia. He enjoyed a performance career in New York dancing for Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber and others. In 1978 he moved to Long Beach, CA. where began teaching at California State University, Long Beach as a part time faculty member. He became a full time faculty member in 1986 and continued to teach at CSULB until 1999. Jeff Slayton was one of the faculty members that helped design the Dance Center at CSULB as well as develop and implement the BFA, MFA and MA degree programs. While in Long Beach, he formed his own company, Jeff Slayton & Dancers, that operated from 1978 to 1983. He continues to stage works in the Southern California area. He is also the author of two books, "The Prickly Rose: A Biography of Viola Farber" and "Dancing Toward Sanity". For more information on Jeff Slayton please go to www.jeffslayton.org.

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