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It is always great when a local theater lends its support to a local dance company. The El Camino College Center for the Arts presented not one but two local choreographers, Jessica Kondrath and Amy Allen, in Sharing the Spotlight.  The Marsee Auditorium is a large theater with a spacious stage that is truly wonderful for dancers who love to move unconfined or for a choreographer whose work needs the space in-between dancers to be seen properly. It seats approximately two thousand, which is too large for any small dance company, but the management handled the situation wonderfully by putting up partitions and seating the few hundred people closer together, giving it the feel of a full house.

Amy Michele Allen comes from a varied dance background. The majority of her training is in Jazz and Broadway style dance. She studied and/or worked with such famed choreographers as Bob Fosse, Gower Champion, Michael Bennett and Susan Stroman.  She has also studied ballet and modern dance and received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine. The work that Allen presented on this concert reflected this variety of experience.

Jessica Kondrath is the Artistic Director JESSICA KONDRATH/THE MOVEMENT and her training is mainly ballet and modern dance, with techniques ranging from Ruth St. Denis to Martha Graham.  Her company was founded in New York City in 2005 before Kondrath moved to the west coast to obtain her MFA in Dance at California State University, Long Beach.  Looking at her work, one can see the influence of her ballet training, but her choreographic style is heavily influenced by her modern background.

Allen’s In (the) Light Of is an interesting work.  The set and the lighting design join forces with lamps of different shapes and heights placed around three sides of the stage.  All but one of these lamps, with glaring exposed lightbulbs, were turned on and off by dancers in the piece.  Having performed in Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch (1964), I am no stranger to unconventional lighting, and in fact I rather enjoyed it.  I wonder, however, if the more average audience member might have been bothered by the glare produced by these lamps and the fact that often one could only see the dancers in a very minimal light.  The choreography wasn’t great, but I did enjoy the concept.

I had the pleasure of seeing one solo excerpt of Kondrath’s Fleeting when Kenneth Walker presented her as a guest choreographer at his recent concert at the Martha B. Knoeble Theater in Long Beach.  I was reminded a flock of birds taking off, circling the sky in amazing unison formations, only to land and become individuals once more.  There is a lot of beautiful movement in this work and the dancers all perform it wonderfully.  It was a treat to see Taylor Worden’s solo again.  She has an onstage presence that cannot be taught and her technique is powerful and articulate. My eye was always drawn to her throughout the other Kondrath works on this program.

What weakens Fleeting is not the choreography but the lack of transitional skills and poor musical editing.  Kondrath needs to learn not to depend on blackouts to transition from one section to another.  She knows full well that there are more ways to get dancers on and off the stage then simply walking in the dark. This made a lengthy work appear to be too long.  Fleeting is not too long, but the many blackouts make it appear so.  Also, the blackouts confused the audience, causing them to believe that the dance was over several times; weakening that which was the true ending.  I don’t know if it was poor editing of the music or the fault of the sound person missing cues, but Kondrath’s wonderful choice of music by Max Richter was greatly harmed by what sounded like the last notes of several movements had been chopped off.  A dance that should have been really wonderful ended up coming across as less so.  I’m confident that Kondrath is capable of rectifying this problem.

For this reviewer, the most interesting part of Allen’s N.Y.E. is the snow that falls throughout the work.  Three lovely ladies, Manon Goodrich, Michelle Maasz and Jessica Perez, enter the space one at a time smiling from what the program notes describe as having just fallen in love.  They never look at each other while dancing to music by Badly Drawn Boy and then they exit the space as it begins to stop snowing.  N.Y.E. was thankfully short, but it was far too short and weak to merit all the work that was required to produce the effect of snow and the cleanup that followed.

Allen presented Intermission, a sometimes witty solo for Jessica Perez pushing a backstage broom to remove the “snow”.  As Perez swept certain areas of the stage, it began to produce sound effects that included creaking floor boards, whistles, horns and screams.  All this eventually developed into a fully produced Broadway number that takes place totally in the performer’s imagination.  Intermission was a nice closer to Act I, but not a strong piece of choreography.

From what we saw on this program, most of Amy Allen’s strength appears to be in making dance films.  We saw two films, The Walker featuring Zantino Bustos and Kattye Soares, and The Lot with Tina Hidai and Rebecca Levy. The more successful of the two was The Lot.  It is beautifully filmed, wonderfully edited and the performance by Rebecca Levy was stunning. Supported with music by Yann Tiersen, Allen proved herself to be a very skilled Director and Editor.  One moment that remains in my mind’s eye is when the camera is moving down a series of openings in a concrete column while the dancer is performing on the other side.  The effect is that of the vintage film technology where one could see the reel frames fluttering by on the screen, or when picture sequences are drawn a series of pages and then the pages are flipped causing the drawings to come to life and move.

One of my favorite works by Allen was her piece titled A Lo The Season of Our Discontent; the Sheltering Silence Blooms Anew (the Young Mind’s Verse in Three Parts).  With text written by three young authors and spoken by the performers as they dance, this work is both humorous and moving.  Dancers Nathan Oritz in “Expression of my gratitude” written by Flint, age 11; Sonia Bawa in “Memoirs of grade 8” written by Julie Martin, age 13 and Marco A. Carreon in “The Mom Mummy” written by Andrew Allen, age 9 each give a commanding performance. Each solo is performed separately and then all three are repeated simultaneously. We are caused to laugh, cringe and yes, almost cry at the meaning behind each child’s story of what is occurring in their young lives.

I Still Haven’t Learned How to Dream Wide Awake was the strongest of Kondrath’s three works presented on Sharing the Spotlight. Shelby LaRosa, Kayla Montgomery and Taylor Worden each gave a wonderful performance, enhanced by Brian Wood’s powerful music score, which he performed live onstage.  Again, Taylor Worden stood out in this dance.

Kondrath’s choreography is strong, varied and it gives us a peek into the voices of the three dancers who collaborated with her on this work. I was with them all the way during this short, but dynamic dance until the very last moment.  The final seconds are confusing.  Was it a lighting cue error or the choreographer not knowing how to end the dance?  I was left with the impression that there was more dancing to come when in fact there wasn’t.

In the program notes, Wade is described as a contemporary ballet/modern work.  It was.  The music score by Max Richter enhanced this work which included the sounds of birds and/or a rainforest. The costumes by Liz Carpenter are simple but beautiful, allowing us to see Kondrath’s movement fully.  Simple yes, but the costumes have a delicate, bodice-like quality that reads all the way into the audience.  Kondrath’s Lighting Designers Allen Clark and Elisha Lynne Griego deserve mention here as well for giving Wade its lush and somewhat mysterious atmosphere.  The other works on the program do not have lighting design credits, but I suspect that Allen Clark’s hand was present in all of Kondrath’s work.

Wade is a well-crafted piece, but, for this reviewer’s taste, it relies too heavily on unison work that is not strongly executed by her dancers. One begins to miss the meaning behind the work when dancers mistakenly get out of step with the others onstage, which sadly occurred repeatedly.  Wade needs some structural editing and rigorous rehearsal coaching by Kondrath. Her dancers are strong enough to take it.

Jessica Kondrath has a lot to say and a voice to say it with.  Her company now needs to present an evening of just her work.  Knowing the costs of venues in this area, that is a hard thing to ask of any emerging dance company.  This leads me to reiterate my call for presenters in this area to step up and support the local talent in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas.  Thanks to El Camino College Center for the Arts and the Marsee Auditorium for your leadership in this regard.

Header Photo by Denise Leitner

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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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