nytheatre.com review by David Vining
August 25, 2009
"Maybe I shouldn't have read the press release," I thought as I watched the first few moments of Testify, a modern dance piece presented at FringeNYC by the Pennsylvania-based ETCH Dance Co.
The release mentions Darfur, loss, trauma, despair—intense, political, emotional subjects. But the opening piece (one of five short works which make up Testify) doesn't seem to be about Darfur, and strikingly, doesn't seem very intense or emotional either. It seems pretty bland.
What is the problem here? The costume design is a bit random, but that isn't it. Lighting and sound are actually quite sophisticated considering the limitations of a festival presentation. It is something more basic, but early on it is difficult to determine whether it has to do with the choreography or the execution.
You can't fault the dancers' technical ability or commitment, but something is missing from the performance. The steps are muddy at times and a bit too literal for my taste at others. Gestures of aggression and oppression seem obvious and disconnected while other moments just seem like rhythmic place holders. And there is a lack of ensemble.
As the piece goes on there is a familiar feeling about it. It feels like student work. It contains all the elements of compelling top-shelf modern dance, but it just isn't coming together.
Each dancer is so focused on doing the work, so wrapped up in their own exertions, they go through the motions without letting us into their emotional world. They tumble and twirl betwixt one another seemingly unaware of anything outside themselves, even the context of the dance they are performing. Presence and connectivity are the missing ingredients.
It's not hard to imagine the serious and well-intentioned discussions about what it all means, but all that we see on stage are three dancers in paisley halter dresses trying to keep in time to the music. What do paisley halter dresses have to do with Darfur? I must admit I do not know.
Then come the four solo pieces that make up the other half (roughly) of the piece. Set to jazz, both modern and vintage, four different dancers portray a jilted lover in various states.
In the second of the four Lauren Steinke, despite a bit of a costume malfunction on her yellow '40s-inspired dress, finally showed some spirit and winning energy. Her easy smile and fluid turns finally allowed the work to cross the proscenium and make contact with the audience.
But the real revelation came when choreographer and Artistic Director Elisha Clark Halpin took the stage for the final piece of the evening, "All I Could Do." From the moment she took the stage Halpin's stark intensity, presence (yes!) and ability to use the steps to tell an emotional story wowed me. The jilted lover came to life in all her wondrous complexity.
Her too brief performance made the entire evening (a mere half hour) more than worthwhile. The choreography, still quite literal at times, made sense. Heck, even the press release started to make sense. The difference between Halpin and her acolytes is night and day.
This energetic physical style, this unique presence, is what Halpin and ETCH Dance Co. have to offer, but the other members of the company don't have it yet. If they do get it, watch out. Until then, it's back to class after what is best seen as a great learning experience.