There’s never a question of the arts being alive in Southwest Michigan, but every now and then there’s an event that goes above and beyond our relatively high expectations.
Dance, particularly modern dance, is often perceived as an acquired taste. Often without clear narrative structure, or even a distinct lexicon of movement, it may not be as easily accessible to your average theater goer. However, to have an opportunity to see a vast variety of modern, post-modern, and contemporary works from dancers and choreographers from all over the country, is an undeniable treat — for both well-seasoned dance lovers and newbies alike.
This is exactly what RADfest, hosted by Wellspring/Cori Terry & Dancers, has been offering since 2010. RADfest, the Midwest Regional Alternative Dance Festival, is an annual juried event in which a terrific variety of dancers and choreographers have an opportunity to present their work and hone their skills. The call for submissions goes out in September, and the event itself unfolds over the course of three days in downtown Kalamazoo, with five live performances (four professional, featuring seven different companies each, and one dedicated to youth), seven master classes, a film series, and a gala — all of which is open to the public.
The opening performance Friday night more than fulfilled the promise of the festival’s intent. Seven different dances, each ranging from five to 10 minutes long, from different companies and performers, gave a taste of what’s possible within the realm of modern dance, and ran the gamut from lyrical to edgy to humorous to deeply emotional and set to electronica, single instrument, spoken word, and more.
Wellspring’s Flux, from 2017, kicked off the evening, with all its lilting lyrical loveliness. Full of yearning and swaying hips, the dance comes to life in sections with five dancers dressed in gorgeous gauzy orange flowing pants and tops by Elaine Kauffman.
Two pieces favored spoken word over music. In “I am a pretty girl,” Theresa Bautista danced to the rhythm of a feminist poem by Shayla Lawson defying destructive gender and beauty norms and reclaiming women’s right of refusal. “Paw Creek” began as what looked like Butoh and Tai-Chi inspired movements performed by a barefoot and often open-mouthed Eric Mullis but soon gave way to a kind of spastic demonic possession as echoing electronica yielded to a sample from a preaching evangelical. This was one of the more challenging pieces to watch, with perhaps less classical technique than many of the other pieces, but RADfest makes room for such boundary-pushing work, and that is to be commended.
Also boundary defying was “Interference,” another dance featuring a single male dancer/choreographer. This closing piece required the audience to literally get up and move from one theater to another across the hall where they stood around a rectangular patch of black in an overhead spotlight until Ainesh Madan emerged to glide, slide, roll and break dance with agility, drama, and intensity if not terrific skill, before he directed audience members to lay white roses on a chalk outline of a body he’d drawn. Then he hastily removed the bandana from his face and erased it.
In stark contrast to these pieces were elegantly moving, emotionally-rich collaborative dances. In “Until Lambs Become Lions” four women in black jersey dresses effectively communicated a depth of emotional pain from love that can only be matched by the Nina Simone to which the movement was set. An excerpt from Dugal Dance Projects was painful to watch as it was an unpleasantly violent pas de deus in which the male dancer dominated the female dancer; however, Isaac Lerner and Louisa Pancoast’s skill and expressivity were tremendous.
Outstanding among them all was “You Are My Lobster,” a joyfully buoyant series of short pas de deux from Aaron McGloin and Kathryn “Nusa” Logan. Set to folksy pop love songs by Magnetic Fields and at turns funny, frustrating, tender, and silly, their connection was palpable as they moved through and embodied the many variations of a love relationship.
Under technical direction from Jon Reeves, the lighting was as varied as the choreography, transitions between dances were extraordinarily quick and seamless with nary a dull pause to endure, and sound levels were ideal. So many moving parts worked so beautifully, no one noticed anything but the magnificent bodies in motion moving through space.
Curator Rachel Harris is to be commended. This year’s RADfest certainly lives up to its name in just one performance out of many. Radical in its offerings and format yet still so clearly committed to excellence, it’s an exciting opportunity to experience a wild and wonderful range of new dance.