Though the evening’s weather created an air of melancholy as rain poured outside on Northeast Killingsworth Street, the energy inside Shaun Keylock’s SKC Studio was buzzing. Up the long set of entryway stairs was an aura of excitement as audience members gathered for what was for many their first in-person indoor dance performance since the pandemic halted live theater and dance in early 2020.
Pairs of white folding chairs set in a semicircle dictated the area that would become the performers’ stage: a warm wooden parquet floor backed by white walls and partially curtained rectangular windows. I found my seat, removed my coat, and exchanged warm greetings with other audience members— many of whom were dancers and dance community members. After a short and gracious introduction, in which presenting musician Patrick Foit and choreographer Taylor Pasquale addressed the audience to thank their collaborators and express exhilaration for the realization of this show, the studio lights dimmed and the October 20 performance of Even When It’s Dark began.
The performance was presented as a split bill between longtime partners Pasquale and Foit, and its inspiration stemmed from the artists’ ideas about survival upon receiving the Alumni Artist Support Initiative Grant for New Work from their alma mater, George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia. “[The show is] about resilience and clinging to what makes us survive during dark moments, and about the arts coming back to life following a dark time,” Pasquale said via email. “Even When It’s Dark is a celebration.”
Created gradually and in three distinct pieces, Pasquale’s portion of the event consisted of a skittering trio developed at George Mason in 2017, featuring dancers Sophia Tweed Ahmad, Darienne Gilmore, and Casey Holzman; a dynamic solo created in 2019; and a new duet choreographed this year. The evening, which Pasquale called “a catalog of my most recent research work,” displayed a calming through-line of dips and lulls that featured both intermediate and professional level dancers. “[It was important that] I could rely on and trust [my dancers] during vulnerable research,” Pasquale said of her cast. “All of the artists have this rawness that I am inspired by.”
With satisfying use of space, Pasquale’s unclouded choreography sent dancers traveling toward the audience in frequent bursts, often inhabiting downstage marks feet away from their masked audience. Dancer Lauren Smith, who performed a solo costumed in a beige 1950s-era dress, made quick work of traversing the stage while maintaining a groundedness reminiscent of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane’s Blauvelt Mountain (A Fiction), a duet originally choreographed and performed by Jones and Zane in 1980. Consistently wrapping and unwrapping herself in the dress’s malleable skirts, she seemed in her the solo to make reference to two of her major choreographic influences: Bill T. Jones and Martha Graham, the latter of whose groundbreaking Lamentation, set to Zoltán Kodály’s 1910 piano piece Op. 3, No. 2., set the art world ablaze in 1930.
With direct pathways and a strong sense of urgency, Smith delivered a climax for the arch of Pasquale’s 30-minute long work, breaking up the softhearted and ingénue-like qualities of her group pieces, whose particularly tender moments featured dancers Beth Whelan and duet partner Anna Ticknor in a series of embraces and chainlinks of weight-sharing tableaux reminiscent of the exercises developed by Steve Paxton.
Considered “the father of contact improvisation” and referred to as “a Buddha of American dance” by The New York Times, Steve Paxton is an American dancer and choreographer credited for founding the contact improvisation techniques still practiced today. Paxton was not only a pioneer of a movement methodology that would forever change the execution of dance partnering and its mechanics, but also a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, where he performed the works of Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown. He later became a founding member of The Grand Union alongside Brown, Rainer, Nancy Lewis, David Gordon, and others with whom he performed experimental works from 1970 to 1976. In 2018, Paxton wrote a book titled Gravity, in which he recounts his “research on the fiction of cultured dance” and life experiences as an artist.
Though the stage was small, the quaint and casual atmosphere of the venue set the tone for a pleasant evening, and the mood shifted from contemplative to lively after intermission with the emergence of a four-piece jazz band.
Comprised of Justin Copeland on trumpet, Chris Ramirez on bass, Jack Radsliff on guitar, and Patrick Foit on drums, Even When It’s Dark marked the first time this unnamed yet cohesive band played together as a cohort. As they started to play, Foit’s mustard-yellow drum kit paired with Ramirez’s causal beanie offered an unmistakable Portland aesthetic, while Copeland’s black leather jacket and turtleneck attire harkened to the 1960s, when French cafe jazz club aesthetics infiltrated the American jazz music scene. Composed predominantly of improvisation structured around three separate pieces, Foit’s musical performance blended separate sections together seamlessly, with open scores featuring solos and moments of call-and-response between instruments. A particularly unruly exchange between drums and stand-up bass garnered applause and praise from the enlivened listeners as Radsliff’s guitar offered support for the duration.
Though varied, Foit’s musical influences could be heard ebbing and flowing within the quartet’s sound throughout the night. “My musical influences change all the time within the umbrella of jazz and other genres. But primary [jazz influences] include John Coltrane, Robert Glasper, and Miles Davis, to name just a few,” explained Foit.
When asked about their impetus for creating work together, Pasquale told me, “We met six years ago in college. [Patrick] played the drums for my dance classes and I knew when I first saw him that I loved him … I was so drawn to the artistry that flowed out [of him]. Since then, we’ve dreamed of bringing our dance and music together. Next time, we want [the performance] to be more integrated … dance and music happening all at once. This feels like just the beginning.”
After the performance, audience members were encouraged to stay, mingle, and partake in a slice of pumpkin pie in honor of the autumn season. Though the musicians began to pack up their instruments and the dancers emerged in their street clothes and boots, the energy remained high and buzzing while attendees began to trickle away. As I made my way back down the stairs and into the rain, the murmur of conversation continue to trail after, becoming fainter with every step.