Janice Garrett and Dancers

"Hither and Thither," UnMarked Boxes," "Otherwise," and "Ostinato"

ODC Theater, San Francisco, CA

December 6, 2002
By Karen Hildebrand

Janice Garrett's choreography is like a perfectly solved mathematical equation. It adds up and balances out just right. Maybe this is because Garrett studied math before turning to dance. But it also reflects the classic modern dance influences of her training. She spent a decade in New York where she danced with Dan Wagoner, who performed with the companies of Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham. The sum total of this heritage is very much evident in Garrett's work.

Other reviewers have compared Garrett's musicality to that of Mark Morris and her gift is evident in Hither Thither, the premiere that opens the evening. The piece begins and ends with a line of seven dancers stretched across the front of the stage with their arms around each other. This symbol of the connectedness of community then extends into five exuberant folk dance-like sections. After a turn with some Eastern European chanting, the music (Varttina with YatKha) turns Irish and the dancers show some bouncy high stepping with arms held at their sides. There’s a Middle Eastern section with prominent hip undulations as the movement motif, an Ozark mountain-type hoe-down, and the final section brings to mind rosy-cheeked peasant women wearing babushkas. But Garrett saves us from viewing a vignette of actual step dancing or belly dancing, she merely makes the suggestion. This light touch is evident also in the costumes. The gold-toned tank tops, pants, and skirts are from the pages of contemporary fashion rather than ethnic in origin.

UnMarked Boxes, also a premiere, features four dancers (a man and three women), and four short step stools. The costumes are predominantly red and black, with the women in flouncy short skirts of loud flower patterns. The music is banjo and fiddle by Tin Hat Trio. Jenifer Golden evokes a frantic persona with ample flashing and flinging of splayed fingers near her face while the other three dancers adopt a posture of despair with hunched torsos and dangling arms. Dancers repeatedly swat at the air as if plagued by mosquitoes. Heather Tiesort and Golden become manic cartoon characters moving in double-time in a rear stage corner, contrasting nicely with a slow and luxurious duet performed by Bliss Kohlmyer and Nol Simonse diagonally downstage. In concert with abrupt starts and stops in the music, the dancers become wind-up toys that buzz about in haphazard paths, then drop in a heap on the floor, or draped over a stool, once their spring has sprung. Near the end, the stools become a path on which Kohlmyer journeys searchingly across the stage until she climbs up and out into the wings.

Throughout the evening, and particularly in Unmarked Boxes, Garrett uses gesture almost to the point of pantomime. But, just when you begin to think you’re seeing talk bubbles above the dancers' heads, Garrett pulls up short and departs to more abstract movement phrases of contracted torso, rounded sculptural arms, and solid leg extensions.

This is the debut of Garrett's new San Francisco-based company. Her dancers are among the hardest working in the area, performing with Margaret Jenkins, Kunst-Stoff, Robert Moses and others. Tiesort is a nine-year veteran of ODC. Garrett puts their skill and experience to good advantage. Though they may well be capable of it, we're not shown any breath-taking virtuosity or technique-transcendent moments of solo glory. Like Garrett's choreography, her dancers are strong on the fundamentals.

In fact, if you're in search of dance that raises goose bumps on your flesh or a lump in your throat, this show is not for you. That's not the point of Garrett's work. But there is a great pleasure in watching the work of a mature choreographer in which all the parts add up to a cohesive whole.

After intermission, Garrett shows two other recent works. Otherwise, a duet for Kara Davis and Tietsort, provides a welcome slowing down of pace to a piano composition by Arvo Pärt performed live by Richard Hawkins. The women begin in a rectangle of golden light, upstage right, wearing dramatic Graham-esque black dresses with short sleeves and slits that reveal their well-muscled limbs. They sway from side to side like the wand of a metronome, eventually working into deeper movement patterns until they are performing on opposite diagonals of the stage. As the piece continues, the two women reverse their positions as if figurines on the lid of a music box, moving in a circular track rather than under their own locomotion.

The finale is the work that has drawn critical applause earlier this year at Summerfest's West Wave Festival. Ostinato is danced by the full ensemble of two men and six women. The saffron and gold toned costumes, and the chanting and tamborine music suggest a band of Hare Krishna followers. There is much playful cuteness – the smiles on the dancers' faces are a bit relentless – but just when you’re ready to dismiss the work as "lite," Garrett slows the pace, drops the lights, and gives us some substance. The once hazy stage clears to reveal a blue and gold streaky sunset projected onto the rear scrim. With Kohlmyer performing downstage, the other members of the ensemble walk hand in hand behind the scrim, perhaps in a spiritual journey from one side of the stage to the other.


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Edited by Mary Ellen.

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