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The Martha B. Knoebel Dance Theater is a lovely and intimate theater located in the California State University, Long Beach Dance Center. Perfect for dance, it has a spacious stage that comes close to equaling that of the Carpenter Performance Center located at the other end of the Dance Center. The house size is what gives the Martha B. Knoebel that feeling of intimacy; there are only 232 seats and not a bad seat in the house.

The Kenneth Walker Dance Project was founded in 2004 and it has performed annually in the Martha B. Knoebel Dance Theater for several years and Walker has managed to build up a small, but loyal following for his company; almost filling the house. Billed as a Contemporary Ballet Company, the biggest weakness that occurs to me is that Mr. Walker cannot make up his mind which genre he wants to use in any one dance. The mixing of so many dance styles into one dance simply produces stew.

A lil’ Mozart (2011) is a lighthearted piece and perhaps perfect as an opening dance to help settle the audience into their seats. Christina Abeyta, Gia Calhoun, Evyn Davis, Tess Goodrich, Tracy Jones, Baia Lasky, Laura Mauldin and Dominika Pietrzyk wore beautifully designed and constructed costumes by Michael Pacciorini. In 1940s style dresses and wearing white gloves, these eight women frolicked around always wearing mask-like smiles. It was not clear whether or not this was a gathering of friends, a picnic or a meeting of the Stepford Wives Club, but what was clear is that the dance went nowhere but in circles.

The Folly of Staring at the Sea (Premiere) features Evyn Davis, Tess Goodrich, Baia Lasky, Sara Killion, Melanie Kushida and Nathan Ortiz. The costumes, designed by Mr. Ortiz were more contemporary; including shorts, baggy tops, leather pants and black kilts. Again, it is unclear what world we are visiting in this dance; an Irish bar, a country ho down or a ballet world filled with cliché pirouettes and attitude turns. Walker did a very nice job with the dance’s first movement by visualizing the music. He seemed to have lost the way, however, by mashing together movements and gestures from the aforementioned genres.

Hum (2012) opened with a beautiful Lighting Design by Steve Ellis. The movement, the costumes and the lighting suggested life in a rainforest. It was greatly enhanced by the music, Meditations by Sebastian Escofet on themes by Debussy, Tan Dun, Stravinsky and Sounds of the Rainforest as remixed by Candice L. Davis. For a few minutes I was captured and involved in this dance. Then Walker let this beautiful moment vaporize and reverted back into his non-connecting vocabulary. The dancers were doing their best, but even they never recaptured the strength of that opening section.

The Things we Left Behind (2013) opens with a dramatic calm. Dressed in lovely white costumes by Catherine Baumgardner, four dancers make a simple, but elegant diagonal crossing from upstage left to downstage right that hinted at a ritual event or solemn rite of passage. As the dancers exited, so did the vision that Walker had placed in my imagination. He re-visited this moment periodically, but never carried it through from beginning to end or developed the idea. The four dancers, Tess Goodrich, Tracy Jones, Sara Killion and Elijah Pressman seemed as distracted as I felt.

You Can Be Anything, Forgotten or Lost (excerpt from Fleeting) was a work by guest choreographer Jessica Kondrath whose work I look forward to seeing more of in the near future. Wonderfully performed Kondrath’s company member Tracy Jones to the music of Max Richter, I was reminded again why I love dancing. Ms. Jones’ performance was dramatic without being overly emoted. More importantly, the Kondrath supplied her dancer with movement that was kinetic, connected and which let the dancer’s artistry shine through. It was an excerpt of a longer work, and I’m hoping that the rest is just as beautiful. This work received a very generous, well deserved response from the audience.

The final work on the program, Rito Transcendente seemed to wake up the dancers and it certainly woke me up. This was partly due to the music by Silvestre Revueltas (remixed by Candice Davis). It was rhythmic, powerful and driving and the dance included the entire 11 member ensemble of Kenneth Walker Dance Project. The costumes by Catherine Baumgardner along with the facial make-up suggested that Walker had placed us in a tribal setting. I even wondered whether one section was a sacrificial offering; with one woman being carried overhead by a precession of dancers. The movement vocabulary was the most consistent of all the works on this program and from the audience’s response, this was their favorite dance by Walker.

After attending several of Walker’s concerts, I’m left with the notion that pattern-wise he knows how to put a dance together, and he certainly knows how to string movement phrases together. What I do not see in his choreography is that he understands how to movement together kinetically or musically. The dancers in his company rarely appear to be committed or “lost” in the movement, but I think that it is perhaps not at all their fault. I suggest that Walker go back to the time when his company gave its “first performance in Central California to standing ovations.” Perhaps he should ask himself why he isn’t receiving that kind of audience response now. Is Walker really choreographing movement that he would love to dance and perform, or is he giving us what he thinks we want to see? Is he working too hard at “presenting a range of repertoire not usually seen in single choreographer companies” as stated in his concert program? I long for the latter not to be true.

August 16, 2015 at the Martha B. Knoebel Dance Theater in Long Beach

 

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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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