Because of Portland’s surprise snowstorm last month, I was not able to make it in person to see the world premiere of push/FOLD Dance Company‘s “Illum” on Feb. 24, the company’s first appearance at the new Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton. But the company made it to the theater, and I watched the performance via a multi-camera live stream on a 65-inch flatscreen TV, which was a great experience.
push/FOLD, founded in 2016, is the vision of choreographer-composer Samuel Hobbs, whose work fuses their background in athletics, various dance styles, music, and Visceral Movement Theory,™ a somatic theory rooted in the anatomy and kinesiology of the organs. Their abstract choreography, supported by their compositional scores, plays with momentum and partnering – creating moody, immersive landscapes. Hobbs is also the founder of Union PDX-Festival of Contemporary Dance, a multi-day festival of dance performances, master classes, workshops, and post-show artist talks, which they created to address the issues of visibility and accessibility in the Portland dance community.
Two additional dances, also choreographed by Hobbs, preceded the premiere of “Illum.”
The evening opened with “Wolf,” a 16-minute duet described as “a visceral expression of loneliness and perseverance,” which was performed beautifully and expertly by veteran push/FOLD dancers Briley Jozwiak and Holly Shaw. The two dancers, one standing slightly behind the other for most of the dance, wore modestly cut black underwear paired with form-fitting, long sleeve white mock turtleneck shirts. The simplicity of the costume and the three separate tones – bare skin, black, and white – stood out starkly against the black background, drawing our attention to the sculptural aspects of the human body and the choreography.
The choreography, accompanied by various Zen-like sustained electronic chords, looked like a reduction of classical ballet. The dancers, who moved in unison, following the natural ebbing and flowing of the musical phrasing, began in familiar, simple ballet positions with their arms and legs. They then meandered into more abstract pathways and shapes, carving out the space around them. The dance felt quiet and contained, reminding me of the snow falling outside. The performers’ energy remained constant, never rising above a simmer to reach a boiling point or the ecstatic climax we are used to in contemporary dance.
As beautiful as it was to watch, I felt slightly unsatisfied with the dance. I saw the loneliness but not the perseverance in the choreography. The dancers, incredibly talented and capable of much more, were sometimes out of sync, felt restricted, and held back in their movement. I’m unsure if that was intentional, but it felt like a dance with tremendous possibilities that were still evolving.
The second dance in the program was “Dark Wings,” a 22-minute ode to love and grief in “the comedic noir film style,” and, per the program, “was centered on concepts of rebirth and the absurdity of life.” It was performed by dancers Maile Crowder, Briley Jozwiak, Bryaunna Kostelnik, and Molly Rea, with musical composition, script, and lighting design by Hobbs.
Costumed in a yellow a-line skirt and a black and white striped shirt reminiscent of a mime’s costume, Jozwiak entered the stage through a bank of fog and ominous music. Slowly, she waltzed in a soft-pedaled, comedic way, holding a big red heart pillow in her outstretched arms, eventually falling into a heap of sadness on the floor. Three new dancers arrived. Taking the heart, they danced as they passed it to one another to the sounds of rhythmic music or a heartbeat, as I interpreted it.
As Jozwiak rejoined them, the group split into duets. Eventually, the music supporting the dancing was joined by recordings of laughter and a series of inaudible words. [Note: Hobbs created a language “with a full grammatical structure and phonemes to unseat the audience from all languages as a way of reclaiming their language-heritage of Spanish and resolving generational trauma.”] Then the group broke into a trio and a solo, and the heart was discarded and abandoned on the floor.
As the dance ended, the dancers reunited and took each other’s hands to make a circle. This moment reminded me of the painting The Dance by Henri Matisse, where five nude women clasp hands, twist, turn, and kick up their heels while dancing in a circle on a green hill in front of a blue sky. The music at this moment became soothing, like a lullaby, with the simple plucking of guitar strings. The dance ended with soft, flowing, continuous movements as the dancers tested the strength of the closed circle by pulling at it and rescuing any dancers that fall out. Once on the floor, they connected and slowly rolled across the stage while Jozwiak periodically stepped out. She reached for the abandoned heart, but the group stopped her, pulling her away and into them, squirming and slithering their way off stage as the lights faded.
“Dark Wings” was too literal for me: While I understood the storyline and message, I could not connect with it emotionally.
The last two dances in the program were “Moon” and “Illum,” the first and second parts of a larger dance trilogy. “Moon” premiered as part of Union PDX – Festival of Contemporary Dance in November 2022. The third and final piece of the trilogy, “Part II,” will premiere in June 2023 as a commissioned work by Oregon Ballet Theatre in the company’s “Made in Portland” program. Each segment was intentionally developed separately, using music as a cohesive element. The dancers in “Moon” and “Illum” were Maile Crowder, Samuel Hobbs, Briley Jozwiak, Bryaunna Kostelnik, Ashley Morton, Molly Rea, and Holly Shaw, with musical composition and lighting design by Hobbs.
“Moon” opened to the sound of someone plucking on a stringed instrument while Hobbs, dressed in an oversized fuzzy brown teddy bear-like coat, faced the audience and sat upon two female dancers lying on the floor. When there are six females and one male presenting dancer in a piece, it’s challenging to look at the different relationships abstractly. I saw a man, made to look even larger with their costume coat, walking around like an emperor stepping over passive female figures lying on the floor, rolling them with their feet, and sitting on top of them like furniture.
When Morton bends over to kiss Hobbs’s outstretched hand, the music changes, becoming angry, grating, razor-like, and awful to listen to.
After a series of different groupings and respites among the dancers, Hobbs emerged in a birdlike gestural solo that ended with the dancers gathering around their feet on the floor. Then begins a beautiful chorus with dancers moving their heads and spines side to side, snakelike in all directions, to what sounded like slow synthesized organ music.
The dance ended with Hobbs posturing theatrically just before they put their hand on Morton’s head, spinning her around, reaching through her legs to lift her up, and finally winding her up like a toy, letting her go and watching her repeat a frenetic pattern as he retreated backward into darkness.
The women in the piece were all dressed in baggy paper bag-styled pants and heavy sweaters, all in neutral autumnal tones, which I felt muted and obscured their movement. Their dance vocabulary and how they moved even looked the same, making it hard to differentiate between them. Hobbs was always unique, being the only man and wearing a coat.
I didn’t get a clear sense of what this piece was about, but I felt disturbed by the patriarchal imagery and the sometimes painful and disturbing music. Sometimes the dancers looked like animals posing haughtily like fancy birds or bent over, with their arms fluttering behind them like wings. Sometimes Hobbs looked like a predator and the dancers like prey. Other times they seemed human, and the relationships were about manipulation and power.
[Note: This review is based on a livestream viewing, which may impact sound and emotional connection.]
The final piece in the evening’s performance was the world premiere of “Illum,” described in the program as something that “grows from the natural processes of life and the experiences of transition.”
Between the ending of “Moon” and before the lights came up on “Illum,” the soothing sounds of rain and birds chirping wafted pleasingly through the darkness.
When the lights did rise on “Illum,” what we saw was striking. The cast of six dancers, four in the back and Hobbs and Jozwiak in the front, stood behind Morton, where she had fallen to the floor in “Moon,” holding black umbrellas. The minimal lighting that lit just the top of the umbrellas created the effect of standing under a streetlamp on a dark, stormy night.
Separating from the group, Jozwiak, the only one without an umbrella, walked toward Morton and began to dance behind her, drawing an arch over her with one arm resurrecting her and conjuring something in the dark.
Hobbs broke the verticle-ness of the umbrella watchers and began curving and carving their way through them like an emperor with their entourage of servants holding umbrellas around them.
The umbrella watchers spread across the stage, creating a backdrop for a fluid duet between Hobbs and Jozwiak that began with Hobbs picking Jozwiak up from a frozen, twisted position on the floor.
The umbrella watchers, in unison, created beautiful imagery using the umbrellas to draw in the space around them against the colorfully lit backdrop.
Jozwiak exited the duet and the stage and took a lone umbrella with her, leaving Hobbs frozen in a position that seemed to show her absence in their body, like she made an imprint on them, which only becomes visible when she goes. The chorus of umbrella watchers poignantly closed their umbrellas, looked at Hobbs, and exited the stage. Regaining their composure, they shifted forward on their feet, turned, and walked off.
The following section begins with dancers falling and tumbling onto the stage from the wings one at a time, accumulating, creating a rippling effect that moved them across the stage against a background of yellow and brown. This dance for six women changes in form many times and grew in intensity and speed, ending with the group assisting Crowder in a series of falls and recoveries on the floor to soothing monastic choral sounds, chimes, and frogs trilling in the distance.
The lights came up again, but only a single moon-shaped undulating light attached to a headpiece that I could not quite see. It was worn and manipulated by Hobbs, who followed and lit a solo dancer as she moved alone throughout the stage, dancing to the sound of someone whistling an unknown tune. The piece is weird and fantastic, and the lighting reminded me of an angler fish at the bottom of the ocean following its oblivious prey. The dancer, Crowder, was a gorgeous mover and was backlit, highlighting different parts throughout, giving it a mysterious effect.
The added sculptural element of the black umbrellas silhouetted against a full spectrum of brilliantly colored lights designed by Hobbs made my heart explode. The imagery was gorgeous and powerful; it didn’t give too much away and let me respond to what I saw in my own way instead of being told what to feel. Watching the dancers expertly move around the stage in groupings or solos, falling or rolling while holding umbrellas against the color-saturated backdrops, was simply poetic. Framed by the edges of my TV, the scenes looked like paintings.