There are those who think of San Francisco’s four week, eight program West Wave Dance Festival as a marathon, but I prefer to consider it an investment in the future. It’s true that with works by 48 different choreographers — and not all of it good — it can seem like a bit of a slog. And I must confess that amongst the 24 that I saw at the Project Artaud Theatre, the dances ranged from seriously absorbing, to “Are you kidding me?” Still, West Wave’s summer festival represents a bargain of a chance to sample a broad variety. If you tried to see all these dance-makers in their individual shows during the year you’d have — well, you’d have a fulltime job as a dance critic.

In this year’s lineup, many of the choreographers were new-ish to the San Francisco scene — many of them look fresh out of college, and so do their dances. (I hope they still teach form and structure of choreography in school — it wasn’t always apparent.) But the festival also intersperses works — often in progress — from more experienced hands, and hopefully the opportunity to cross-pollinate and watch other work will be an education in and of itself.

On one of the hottest days in recent memory, Program 6 opened with one of the stronger pieces of the festival, Brittany Brown Ceres’s intriguing Simultaneous Solos. Although the title implied abstraction, the dance for five women performing movement phrases seen from different angles — called to mind a forward motion, like mechanized cogs in the machine or train wheels on the start of a journey. The carefully considered arrangements were highly organic, and just unbalanced enough to give the piece a drive that kept me on the edge of my seat.

The rest of the program was, unfortunately, hit and miss. Alma Esperanza Cunningham’s absurd Parade found a be-tutued Ashley Taylor swanning about to the music of John Philip Sousa. There was obviously some humor meant to be implied, but it missed the mark. Striking funny poses on the count isn’t in itself inherently funny. And in Cunningham’s More, which followed, the pair of dancers moving vaguely about on a non-specific wide-eyed quest, reminded me of nothing so much as the two aliens in the recent dairy TV ad looking for a magic wonder tonic.

Kerry Mehling, whose hilarious Just a Little One was one of the more impressive entries early in the festival, made a strong soloist in Deborah Slater’s Without Time, Without Place. Mehling, who danced with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, has a beautiful way of elongating her movement, and her dancing lent an exacting tension to a prop-heavy exercise. Unfortunately Without Time, Without Place, like many of the festival entries, was a little overlong, only emphasizing that it took a lot of time, in a very hot place.

SHIFT>>>Physical Theater’s Manuelito Biag and Michelle Price performed an excerpt from The Shape of Poison. SHIFT usually delivers brainy theater with their dance, and this piece, I presume still in its formative stage, has some promise. Nevertheless, Jess Rowland’s raucous sawing on a mandolin was thoroughly distracting. Rowland took forever to set up in the corner of the stage, and get her mandolin hooked up to a little black stomp box, designed to distort and echo the sounds made by her instrument. Stomp boxes, or effects pedals as they are sometimes called, are a fascinating thing. They have names like “Fuzzbox,” “Big Muff,” “Tube Screamer,” and “Truly Beautiful Disaster,” which, coincidentally, sums up my reaction to Poison.

So it was with narrowed eyes that I watched trumpet player and composer Darren Johnston drag out that danged stomp box again for Amy Seiwert’s Tonic. Ordinarily I’m a big fan of Smuin Ballet’s Seiwert. Her specialty is soundly constructed dances that include complex composition of steps and partnering work in the vein of the contemporary European choreographers. But this time around, I found her Tonic somewhat disappointing. The structure was there, for the three couples — made up of Seiwert, Phaedra Jarrett, Tricia Sundbeck, with Joseph Copley, Carlos Ventura and Ben Wardell in attractively peek-a-boo black mesh unitards — but this time, I found the twisting contortions, the reaching in and out of balance points more like just a movement investigation, rather than a fully formed piece. It’s time, I think, for Seiwert’s next stage of growth as a choreographer to begin.

The next week’s programs boasted works from AXIS Dance Company, Heidi Schweiker, LEVYDance, Alex Ketley, Kate Weare and Janice Garrett, as well as pleasing pieces from Viktor Kabaniaev and Lisa Townsend. But I think what I’ll remember most is the adverse reaction I had to the music, or lack thereof. Really, I blame John Cage for all of this. Not for the plinks and plonks of contemporary sound design, but for making me hyper-sensitive to my surroundings in the theater—creaky chairs, the guy cracking his knuckles behind me, the people leaving, and not quietly.

There’s a category of dance that in my mind is called “heavy-deep-and-real” and if it’s not accompanied by Joni Mitchell, it’s sure to have a score composed largely of annoying sounds. Choreographers, I beg of you, think about the musical choices. Sure that score sounded cool when you first heard it, very edgy, very experimental, creepy, moody, screaming avant-garde, literally. But take note when you plan your piece, please, please, think of how irritated an audience member might be after two hours of edgy experimental creepy moody screaming music.

Benjamin Levy’s Violent Momentum — a theatrical slog danced by the fearless quartet of Brooke Gessay, Christopher Hojin Lee, Scott Marlowe and Lauren Slater, all fine dancers — was very heavy, deep and real. The dancers push and shove like they mean it, but I’m again distracted by the gallery of annoying sounds that framed this quite serious piece. A rasping door hinge, dog whistles, a prolonged belch, a loose bow being drawn over ill-tuned violin strings a la Jack Benny? But wait, something is happening onstage — is she spanking him?

By the time Janice Garrett’s polished Archimedes Revenge took the stage, even the repetitive minimalism of Michael Thomas’s score came as an utter relief. Garrett has gathered an exuberant group of dancers and their buoyant bacchanal was like a balm to my overtaxed forebrain.

Ah, music. Thank you, Janice Garrett.

West Wave Dance Festival ran July 11 – July 24, 2006.

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