At the Big Dance-Off, Humor and Nerves | Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture

At the Big Dance-Off, Humor and Nerves

A coming-out bash for San Diego’s next generation of choreographers showcased the passion and influences of young dancers who rose to the challenge to invent new work.

The gray concrete labyrinthine halls of the Neurosciences Institute auditorium in La Jolla popped with color yesterday as 10 teams of dancers prepared to perform in last night’s Young Choreographers Showcase.

The day we’d been anticipating was here. In a matter of hours, it’d be their chance to introduce themselves to the larger dance community and to put the product of their imagination on stage in front of a sold-out audience. And if they won, they could receive a $3,000 prize.

Sunday’s competition was like the debutante ball for San Diego’s younger generation of dance choreographers. A lot of dance happens here — modern and ballet and cultural and hip-hop and others. Dancers and schools and university departments exist all over the county, led by such local forces as Jean Isaacs and John Malashock. But Isaacs, whose company sponsored this showcase, wants to encourage the younger generation to make their own dance works — and have a place to show them off.

The night opened a window to infuse some fresh air into the work of local choreography, into the work of telling stories through movement and dance. What music might a younger choreographer choose? What risqué costume? What styles might mix to invent a new dance? The night would reveal the answers. Some would be excellent, crowd-pleasing work. Some would be boring and flat. But the audience and the judges would reward the ones they liked best.

We’ve been covering the work behind the scenes as the showcase neared, paying close attention to the rehearsals and back-stories for three choreographers: Trystan Loucado, Zaquia Mahler Salinas and Melissa Adao.

In yesterday’s technical rehearsals, the teams got used to doing their movements on the stage, which proved to be tighter quarters than their rehearsal rooms. Each choreographer got a 30-minute window to see their dance on stage for the first time and to decide which spotlights should go where, when. The dancers ran through their pieces under the lights for the first time, doing a second run-through if they had a few minutes left.

Adao’s technical run-through was early in the afternoon, so she and her dancers decamped for a California Pizza Kitchen nearby. As they ate, her dancers said they weren’t nervous and didn’t think of the night as a contest, rather a chance to demonstrate what they’ve been learning.

Adao said their easy-going nature wasn’t an accident. “I’d rather cast a dancer with potential than a diva that will wig,” said Adao, who’d traded the ponytail and sweatpants from rehearsals for a purple dress and heeled ankle boots.

She was eager to introduce herself to the rest of the dance community, beyond the hip-hop circles she usually travels in and the classes of students she teaches at Mesa and Grossmont colleges. And she’d chosen dancers whose adaptability she was also excited to show off: Some of them, ages 19 to 24, had never integrated movements that weren’t strictly hip-hop into a performance before now.

Back at the auditorium, Salinas, who was wandering the halls barefoot before the show, scurried off to find her shoes. Backstage was littered with dancers sitting anywhere they could fit, applying makeup and eating snacks. There was a sense of camaraderie among them — a real excitement to see each other’s work. Salinas had baked treats for all of the dancers.

“What better way to pass the time than to eat cupcakes before you dance, right?” she said.

As the 6:30 start time neared, more than 300 audience members blew in to the auditorium from the blustery downpour outside. (Photographer Sam Hodgson joined us to see how the night would unfold; all photographs here are his unless otherwise noted.)

The judges — dance writer Pat Launer, choreographer John Malashock and classical Indian dancer Shoba Sharma — took their seats and picked up clipboards. Their favorite dances would be just one factor in the winner, though. The audience could vote, too.

Jean Isaacs’ company, San Diego Dance Theater, sponsored the showcase. Isaacs, who’d been at the venue since 8 a.m. for all of the run-throughs, took the mic.

“Does this fill a void in our community, or what?” she cried. “Dancers really dig other dancers.”

The first act took the stage: Gina Bolles Sorensen, another runner-up from the last showcase, and her husband, Kyle Sorensen. Their dance, “left Field,” involved a violinist layering musical lines using electronic looping pedals. The dancers took turns reading instructions from an envelope while the other acted them out — phrases like “bounce balls in the joints,” “screw in a lightbulb” and “puppy anxious to go out.”

At points, the two danced together to a repeating phrase: “Make a duet with me that is not about love.”

A few numbers later was Adao’s piece, “In the Wild.” The dancers blasted the hip-hop/African/modern piece with gusto. Though familiar from the rehearsals we’d watched, their movements carried a new animalistic, tribal feeling as the dancers moved in their costumes, on the stage, under the lights.

Soon it was time for an intense piece for seven dancers clad in gray and black spandex, “blind transition.” The piece was choreographed by Dina Smirnova to a song by indie bedroom producer Balam Acab.

Photo by Allie Daugherty

Photo by Allie Daugherty

Photo by Allie Daugherty

Next was Loucado’s piece, the one inspired by his sharing a bathroom with three sisters. He’d stepped in fairly last minute to dance in the piece himself when a couple of his dancers’ schedules got too busy. When he and the other three dancers stripped out of black clothes to reveal scant nude-colored body-wear, the audience’s eyes popped.

Next was Salinas, the trio piece inspired by questions of what happens to the body and soul when humans die.

One of the other dances’ titles, “The Big OH!” explains why seven women shimmied and lurched ecstatically in cutaway red satin skirts to a flamenco soundtrack. Anne Gehman was the choreographer.

And other dances ranged from duets to a multi-part dramatic magic show to a conceptual piece about the end-times where dancers wielded buckets declaring, “END IS NEAR.”

Finally, it was time to vote. The audience could vote for two dances. They dropped their ballots in top hats on their way outside to a reception. The judges divvied up their allotted points and turned them in.

While the votes were tallied, we tried to squeeze the judges for their picks. They were tight-lipped. Malashock, the choreographer judge, said he enjoyed the diversity of the types of dances performed.

“The dance world tends to be segmented in a way and yet each community has a little bit of its own characteristic,” he said. “I would certainly call San Diego more of a modern dance community, although there were a few pieces that were of the ballet vocabulary.”

Isaacs came out after a few minutes and took the microphone. She first announced the runners up.

The first runner-up, winning a $1,000 prize: 32-year-old Adao, who grinned as she took the mic.

“I was really nervous about this,” she said, “and I just want to say thank you to the dancers for making this piece come alive.”

The other runner-up, also winning $1,000: Dina Smirnova.

And the winners of the top prize, $3,000, were Gina Bolles Sorensen and Kyle Sorensen, the first performers of the night.

Kyle Sorensen took the mic and said it was appropriate to be at a science institute for the competition. He and Gina heard recently about research suggesting that storytelling is a basic human need alongside food, shelter and love.

“Storytelling is a basic human need,” Kyle Sorensen told the crowd. “And we really appreciate you guys all coming out and supporting this basic human need that we all have, us and every single choreographer and performer tonight, to be able to tell stories through dance.”

Catnip for this crowd. They whooped.

Catch up on our previous embedded posts about the showcase.

Kelly Bennett and Allie Daugherty write about arts for VOSD. You can reach them directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or allie.daugherty@voiceofsandiego.org , or by calling 619.325.0531.

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