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“Surfacing”
April 27 and 28th, 2007
David and Dorothea Garfield Theatre
Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center

*THIS REVIEW FIRST PUBLISHED ON SANDIEGO.COM

The San Diego dance world is a familiar one in that it often feels relatively small and intimate. On most weekends, there is sure to be a performance by one of the handful of recognizable companies around the city, attended by many of the same recognizable people. The list of choreographers reads like a faculty guide, or recent alum catalog, of the area’s universities. So when a new company premieres its work, curiosity is piqued.

On Friday night, Fusion Dance premiered its first full-evening concert in San Diego since its co-directors, Katie McIver and Kevin Hermann, set up shop here over a year ago. While the two have built a following as teachers, their only previous presentation of work was a piece shown at the 2006 Emerge Dance Festival. Fusion Dance is so called because of its combination of various dance styles, mainly modern and jazz with a hint of ballet and on Friday night, the company’s eight talented dancers gave a nice demonstration of that range.

“Surfacing” as the performance was called, burst forth with Da-Ke-Te, a work in four parts choreographed by McIver and Hermann that featured sharp, quick movements that meshed well with the abrupt, syncopated rhythms of the music. The fast, complex phrases were executed perfectly in unison by the dancers and showed off the strong technical skills of the performers, several of whom are based in Los Angeles and make the trek multiple times a week to rehearse with the ensemble.

To a reviewer who is used to a San Diego modern dance aesthetic, and by that I refer to the stylistic and choreographic preferences of the area’s teachers that get passed on and replicated by the younger choreographers, Fusion’s first piece was a breath of fresh air. A lot of their departure from the modern dance style that is often seen around town derives from their embrace of jazz dance, which has its limitations as well.

For example, the choreography of Da-Ke-Te, and that of many of the other dances over the course of the evening, relied sometimes too heavily on the unison sections and insisted on being primarily forward facing to the audience, thus sacrificing a stronger sense of dimension. Unlike modern dance which often likes to pretend it’s in its own world on stage, jazz dance generally acknowledges that it’s merely entertaining the audience and so chooses to face the audience and reach out to them.

The result is some very entertaining moments but also some cheesy ones, too. In Da-Ke-Te, several of the dancers smiled at each other throughout the piece, breaking a cardinal rule of modern dance. But in this work, it came across as genuine. The dancers truly seemed to be having a good time. On the flip side, though, the smiles that graced the closing work, Sabor a Mi, felt forced and contrived and fell back into the jazz dance clichés that modern so fervently tries to avoid.

Another tool that McIver and Hermann draw from jazz that serves to distinguish this company strongly from others in San Diego (not including the ballet companies), is the clear demonstration of the dancers’ training and technique. There are fantastically trained dancers in San Diego that can turn and leap with the best of them, but the modern dance that is presented doesn’t often demand it. Fusion Dance, however, takes pride in the abilities of its dancers and pushes them to the forefront of the choreography. The results in the first piece were fantastically timed turns, unexpectedly complicated lifts, and some beautiful extensions.

Raft, a simple duet for two women – Meghan Martinez and Orialis Serrano – came next. The work was built around the use of thin turning wheels laid out on the stage that, when one or both of the women stood on them, rotated around and displayed the women from all angles, like mannequins in a showroom. The effect was nicely cinematic, when one didn’t focus on the effort needed to manually spin the thing, yet the novelty of the device took full focus of the piece, detracting from the development of the women’s relationship. The choreography, by University of Arizona professor Amy Ernst, had some nice honest moments that were unfortunately broken with unnecessarily ornamental arm gestures.

Co-director Hermann choreographed the third work, Ryziko, a high-energy jazz piece that started with dancers Ashley Ho and Martinez shaking in spotlights downstage. A dramatic light shift brought Serrano into the mix. The work felt similar to the first piece and the fact that it again featured fast, forward-facing unison sections didn’t help distinguish it. Nevertheless, it was a nice vehicle for the talents of the dancers and was engaging and exciting to watch. Serrano’s extensions were gorgeous, and male dancers such as Justin Viernes, Cecil Pratt, and Raymon Ashley added some strong athleticism and physicality to the work.

Following intermission was Empty, a quartet also by Hermann to the music of Damien Rice that featured Hermann’s signature tool of fast quick, spastic gestures that suddenly freeze into stillness. Ho was alone on stage, walking forward and backward, before being joined by the other dancers (Pratt, Viernes, and Jacqueline Mougel) and being swept up in a series of group phrases and positions. Rice’s music is rich with emotion and sometimes the dancers internalized it a bit too much, allowing themselves to look “angry” or “sad”. In a modern dance world where a blank stare is the only acceptable look, the tendency of the dancers to emote here and act out the feelings of the lyrics seems to be another influence of the jazz or lyrical style. To my eye, this doesn’t serve the dance well and takes away from the movement, which could convey the emotion on its own.

McIver’s work, Figures of Four, which was previously shown at the Emerge Festival, was a quieter and gentler piece that featured stunning mandolin music by Chris Thiele. The adagio nature of the work highlighted the discrepancies of the dancers’ styles and abilities and featured some awkward balances. The ensemble in general seemed much more comfortable with the break-neck speed sections of the evening than the slow, sustained parts. The movement interacted well with the score, but didn’t quite build in the same way that the music did, and instead kept the pacing relatively even throughout.

The evening ended with Sabor a Mi, a Latin-influenced work by another University of Arizona dance professor, Susan Quinn Williams. After beginning the evening with a strong work that was an impressive fusion of jazz technique and modern movement, the performance closed with one that was more traditionally jazz and was also unfortunately less innovative and less satisfying. The Latin flavored elements, from the costumes to the arm gestures, were a bit clichéd and formulaic. As mentioned earlier, the sexy looks and smiles from the dancers felt insincere and immediately brought a Broadway and Vegas showmanship to the work, which quickly slipped into familiar and expected territory, despite some nice moments, especially in the men’s section.

Overall, the strongest works in the show were those choreographed by McIver and Hermann themselves, perhaps because they were more informed by modern dance elements and thus felt more honest, more sincere, and more kinesthetically interesting to watch. This bodes well for the future of the company.

Clearly, Fusion Dance has a strong core of dancers who can handle a wide range of styles and skills. Beyond that, though, it’s a well-rehearsed ensemble where the time put in is clearly visible and the effort pays off in impressive cohesion. The work of Fusion Dance is the antithesis of the exploratory concerts that are often seen in the San Diego modern dance world. Fusion isn’t interested in process – it’s interested in product. It’s not about how movement feels to the dancer, but about how it looks to the audience. The challenge with that style of dance is to maintain honesty and not fall into artificial displays of emotion.

Nevertheless, Fusion Dance is offering a different look and a different type of dance in San Diego, one that will likely find favor with a more mainstream audience. “Surfacing” is indeed what Fusion Dance did on Friday night, and more than a few people will be watching closely to see what comes next.

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