I attended my first (for modern dance) masterclass in conjunction with a performance last weekend. I’ve been busy going to class and rehearsal every night this week (yay me!), which is why I didn’t have time to finish this post until today.

For the uninitiated, a masterclass is a special class taught by a visiting company or choreographer. The idea is that you will get exposed to different styles and technique than are generally available locally.

LEVYdance is a San Francisco-based company headed up by artistic director Benjamin Levy. The company taught and performed at Dance Place January 5-7.

The Class

I have never been to a modern masterclass before because it always sounds so intimidating. One of the last few I looked at required an advanced level of training. Another had an audition immediately following the class, and I didn’t really care for the sort of cutthroat environment that might result in. Happily, Benjamin Levy offered a beginning level class. My personal opinion is that no matter what your level is, when you’re taking with an instructor you’ve never had before, it’s best to start slow and basic until you pick up on their style. That’s what I believe because I’m interested in a dancer’s technique. If you’re just interested in choreography then a more advanced level is appropriate; however, I tend not to get much out of just learning choreography.

I really enjoyed this class because it contained a lot of elements that are familiar with me, but also incorporated some things that in the past I have not been comfortable with, i.e., floorwork. In my experience with floorwork so far, I’ve not been such a big fan. It just seems to interrupt the flow of the class for me. I also think that the floor and I have an uneasy relationship that we’re still working out. I feel like an idiot writhing around on the floor sometimes and certainly don’t get out of it whatever you’re supposed to be getting out of it. However, I did like Levy’s floorwork because it was dynamic and worked a lot with gravity and defying gravity to a much greater extent than I’ve ever had in a class. The across the floor stuff felt largely familiar to me, except that Levy kept exhorting us to let our upper bodies go while our feet did the work. I’m used to keeping a more shaped upper body, so letting go on one half while keeping the other half moving and aligned was a challenge.

I should also mention that we did some work with breath and coordinating breathing with body movement. After seeing the performance, I realized that breath is an important element of Levy’s work.

The Performance

I was not previously familiar with LEVYdance and did not do a great deal of reading prior to the performance, so my reflections are untainted (or uninformed, depending on how you see things) by much background knowledge. The masterclass was a wonderful prequel to the performance, particularly in retrospect as I thought about the things we’d focused on in the class that showed up in Levy’s work.

My overall thought is the LEVYdance is characterized by the centrality of breath, both in its physical use, its sound, and its relationship to movement. It is also intensely physical, uninhibited in dancers’ contact with each other. The movement is dynamic and intricate. The sense of much of the work is quite emotional at times, but also reveals a sense of humor.

The program presented four works. I tip my hat to dancer Scott Marlowe, who appeared in all four pieces– each quite physically demanding. Marlowe started the lineup with if this small space, a solo that played with the idea of spacial constraints, be they the dancer’s own body, the small (approx. 3’x5′) square of light he almost exclusively stayed inside, the space above the dancer, or small points on the floor.

Falling After Too, a highly physical duet between Marlowe and Christopher Hojin Lee, was very moving. It seemed to revolve around reverberations from a small touch. Each small contact resulted in a kinetic chain reaction between the two dancers. It was at times violent, tender, and many emotions in between. To me it seemed perhaps the study of a tempestuous or co-dependent relationship. Seeing two men perform it made me wonder how it might play out differently if it were between a man and a woman or two women.

LEVYdance’s cheeky side came out on Nu Nu, which involved the most ridiculous costuming I have every seen. Think blinged-out ’80s aerobics video attired dancers dancing in a modern style (not hip hop) to the music of Fabolous: Spandex leggings, mesh shirts cut past the midriff, hot pants (which I have to say that Lee completely rocked), neon colors, and a full, sequined, rainbow zebra stripe unitard. This was Benjamin Levy’s first appearance in the performance, and he did a spot-on Mango impression. This is not to play down his impressive dancing abilities, but it and the rest of this piece did have me laughing out loud. The one thing I felt could have been better about this piece was the energy level of the company’s female dancer (to protect the innocent from google and the like, I won’t name names). She should have really vamped it up for this piece, but instead was just going through the motions with a look of concentration on her face. To her credit, she did make the rainbow sequined zebra stripe unitard somehow look good.

The final, and most anticipated piece was Bone Lines, which is Levy’s newest and perhaps most ambitious piece. The choreographer’s statement on the piece provided some background:

And though I did not experience their pain, my ancestor’s experiences have been stored in my cells. This project is birthed from a desire to investigate their history within my own body. I wish to begin from my personal experiences, sparking an exploration of how past, specifically traumatic and life-altering experiences, can be encoded in our bodies and passed down through generations.”

As a result of funding Bone Lines had a more intricate production than the other three pieces which had relied on lighting for atmosphere and simple costuming. The set for this piece was designed by a famous furniture designer (a very large, chandelier-like mobile that reflected light everywhere) and costumes designed by a well-known coutouriere. They also employed the use of harnesses at the beginning of the piece. I’m not sure what to say about this piece except that the dancing could have spoken for itself. It almost seemed like all the bells and whistles were there because there was funding for it, but I’m not sure how well they were integrated into the overall work. Yes, the chandelier thing did create some interesting lighting effects, but that could have been done with a light filter. Its shape did suggest a vast family tree, which made sense given the artist’s statement, but the same image could have been presented far less lavishly.

As for the costuming, having read in the program that so-and-so who designed the costumes has dressed certain D-list celebrities for the red carpet, some of my focus was taken away from the dancing while my fashion-conscious part of the brain examined what the dancers are wearing.

I wish I would have seen Bone Lines without those distractions. I almost even wish I’d seen it without reading the artist’s statement. It was emotional, the dancing was beautiful and physical just as with the other pieces, and the motifs clearly held deeper meaning, but my mind was in overdrive trying to make connections with all those other things, and failed to form a comprehensive picture.

[UPDATE: George Jackson wrote a much more insightful review than mine of the same show on Dance View Times. I really appreciate his better informed point of view. He is a professional critic after all, and I most definitely am not. Read it here.]

[UPDATE #2: Lisa Traiger just posted a review of the Saturday performance (George Jackson and I both saw Sunday’s). It seems both the critics “got” Bone Lines more than I did, but Traiger’s interpretation of Nu Nu was much more in line with my own than Jackson’s.  Chalk it up to perhaps a generational difference. At any rate, it’s so cool to read about others’ differing experience of the same pieces. It’s very gratifying to have the immediate comparison. I must get to more shows and write more reviews this year!]