Gowanus Arts guest room attracts dancers to Brooklyn

April 11, 2013 By Carl Blumenthal Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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During the dance performances this past Saturday night at Gowanus Arts, I realized that Andy Warhol based his “15 minutes of fame” notion on a viewer’s attention span between TV commercial breaks in the 1960s.

Now, in an age of tweets and podcasts, it’s hard for choreographers to know what is compelling, or, at the very least, appealing to an audience.

This was especially true for the soloists and groups who came from out of town for Spoke the Hub Dancing’s 8th Gowanus Guest Room, co-produced and curated by Erin Gottwald, who teaches ballet at Spoke the Hub’s school and performs with Sokolow Dance Theater. The dancers paid their own way for some exposure in Brooklyn’s slice of the Big Apple.

Elise Long, founder and artistic director of Spoke the Hub, explained the purpose of the Guest Room: “We’ve been producing showcases for 35 years, mostly of artists who lived in the neighborhood but felt they had to perform in Manhattan [to gain legitimacy].” When, in 2007, Gottwald proposed inviting former colleagues to demonstrate their passion for modern dance at 295 Douglass St., the idea seemed like a natural extension of the dance organization’s commitment to outreach.

The series has grown so much that 37 companies have found a home away from home at the Gowanus Guest Room. The irony was not lost on Long or Gottwald that, as the latter said, dancers from across the country (and beyond) now come to Brooklyn “to be inspired and validated.” Nor was it a coincidence that all this production’s participants were women, because dance these days is largely a female profession — when the dancer are lucky enough to get paid.

As for attracting attention on the downside of Park Slope, just a couple of blocks form the Gowanus Canal, everyone who performed on April 5 and 6 confronted the challenge head-on, though in different ways.

Motus Dance, of Indianapolis, seemed to be made of five interchangeable parts of a movement machine. Heidi Keller Phillips, Katelin Ryan, Debra Silveus, Stefanie Squint and Jenny Thomas exchanged roles as choreographers, dancers, disc jockeys and costume designers with dexterity and inventiveness.

In “Red Tape,” they looked like synchronized swimmers in a sea of kelp rather than the bureaucrats suggested by the title.  “Pretty Pretty Pretty” was not only a play on their red-and-white dresses but also on the smooth moves of a classic dance piece, with the requisite floor exercises, partnering and down-stage flourishes.

Dressed in tutus, bikini tops and Rockettes-style hats, Heidi Keller Phillips and Debra Silveus demonstrated via “Twins” that ballet and burlesque have a lot in common. The music, “Who’s Got the Mayo,” by Little White Rabbits Still Bleed Red, added to the merriment. “Untitled,” a solo by Keller Phillips with choreography by Squint, made the most of the dancer’s sweeping black ruffled skirt. Pink Martini’s “Song of the Black Swan” left a little to the imagination.

Finally, “Popcorn and Chardonnay” offered the pizzazz of its title to the upbeat of electric violins. The ensemble’s red dresses and black panties also wowed this critic.

Thus, Motus Dance’s work was choreographically crisp and visually stunning. Only problem: the most each piece lasted was a few minutes. In other words, they “tweeted” their comings and goings rather than developing them over a longer term.

The other dancers struggled with the conventional lengths of modern dance pieces, 10 to 20 minutes, and erred by usually not ending them soon enough. However, they can be forgiven because they tackled time itself as the subject matter of their pieces.

In “You Can Be Anything, Forgotten or Lost,” Natalie Chadbourne of Jessica Kondrath/the movement, from Long Beach, California, performed the choreography of Kondrath to a piano and violin score, “Spiegel im Spiegel,” (Mirror in Mirror) by the Estonian composer Arvo Part, according to David Troy Francis’ interpretation. There was nothing quixotic about Chadbourne’s quest as she explored the space around her meticulously.

Originally from Boston, Alicia Christofi-Walshe now lives in Wicklow, Ireland. Her solo, “Shift(h)er,” was framed by the double meaning of the word “shift” in Ireland; to move/replace something and to kiss passionately. This apparently autobiographical work was the boldest of the evening, as Christofi-Walshe took on and shook off various selves, including one that seemed to involve a (former?) lover. To a sound tape of her design–a montage of pop song morsels and aphorisms, such as “I carry all moments with me forever”–Christofi-Walshe writhed and thrashed her way through her life. In the beginning, she literally knocks the (paper) stuffing out of herself. In the end, like a beast of burden, she loops around her neck framed photographic memories on strings. Finally comes the absurdity of a possible makeover simply by standing in the spotlight and spraying her hair and face with gushes of water.

The AGA Collaborative consists of Gretchen Alterowitz (Charlotte, N.C.); Alison Bory (Davidson, N.C.); and Amanda Hamp (Decorah, IA). Their “Like a Turtle Without a Shell, or Crow’s Feet,” explored the vulnerability of aging to a medley of J.S. Bach’s “The Goldberg Variations,” The Boat Club’s “Almost There,” and “No One’s More Happy Than You,” by Clem Snide. In a variation on musical chairs, the trio dragged a bench across the stage, on which, from moment to moment, one, two or all three of them sat, while watching the other(s) dance. As if Alterowitz, Bory and Hamp were testing their memories, they counted the years back to 1975–which might be when they were born–while performing calisthenic-like movements. Meanwhile, they shouted exhortations such as “40 is the new F word” and “Don’t worry, old is too late.”

From Pittsburgh, Beth Ratas rounded out the long program of the Gowanus Guest Room. Gordon Kirkwood accompanied Ratas with his live cello composition for her “Walk Barefoot and the Thorns Will HurtYyou.” In the dark, Ratas configured a sort of primordial circle of sand, from which she arose like a cobra once the lighting came up. In a white shirt and black leggings, the tall Ratas cut a rather masculine figure. As she moved away from the circle, her gestures expanded, radiating power while the cello picked up the pace. But suddenly she came to a halt and engaged in hand motions that might have been a priestly blessing or just a series of tics.

In spite of the above caveats, all the artists who participated in the Gowanus Arts Guest Room deserve kudos for their passion. As Elise Long, head of Spoke the Hub, declared, “They’re junkies. None of them makes a living from their dancing. The hook is so deep, they often do this at the expense of everything else.”

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