Mills MFA dance students presented nine graduate theses April 16 to 18, showcasing a broad range of styles and technical abilities. The program at Lisser Hall opened in an unconventional way, with a voice on the PA announcing that the first piece would take place on Toyon Meadow.
In and Of was an excellent site-specific piece. Choreographer Liz Sexe made great use of the entire space from the fountain in front of Mills Hall to the rotating Disco sculpture to the platform behind the M shrubbery.
The music was an interesting blend of natural and industrial sounds. Mundane movements mixed with vibrant technique.
Katy Becker’s ‘be careful.you might fall in love with me’ was a fascinating multimedia piece that took place almost entirely on video. According to the program notes, “Each dancer was shown the same movement phrases.They followed their own heart from there, choosing or not choosing to incorporate the movement shown.”
The product of this approach, while it lacked some polish in terms of movement and technique, was very charming and sentimental, enhanced by sweet, simple phrases like, “You are my eucalyptus heart” and interspersed with scenes of mother and child Brenna and Elliot Smith dancing and playing together.
The close of the piece was a dramatic, silent departure from the video, as the choreographer herself danced in silhouette behind the projector screen before coming forward to dance on the empty stage.
People Watching Study I was a solo piece relying entirely on simple ordinary movements and “gestures observed on the streets of Oakland and Berkeley,” according to the program. Performing her second piece in the program, soloist and choreographer Liz Sexe demonstrated a great sense of facial expression and a knack for pantomime that truly gave her piece a sense of place, which was further enhanced by the charming accompaniment of Joe Dassin’s “Les Champs-Élysées” (a song about the most famous street in the world).
In Lapse, Stephanie Ballas’ use of a bright hand lamp, enhanced by beautiful lighting design by Ya-Ting Hu, gave this piece a sense of serenity and a dreamlike quality. Her stillness offered a sharp contrast to the intricate, complex movements of her dancers. It ended with the profound image of a single point of light lingering onstage before it faded into darkness.
Glamour Scuffs was a heavily embellished piece featuring a complicated onstage structure covered with scarves as well as elaborate costumes and makeup on the dancers. The piece employed dissonance in its music, as well as in some of its contrasting movements.
Seemingly a statement about vanity and consumerism, Glamour Scuffs featured a scene where dancer Heather Nicole Hicks was immobilized by scarves thrown at her until she was freed by the other dancers. The piece ended with the dancers singing “I Feel Pretty,” as they trailed into darkness on the line, “that I hardly can believe I’m real.”
Work-In-Progress featured very natural, often primal movement and a powerful motif of dancers leaning against each other, supporting themselves with their hands on their partners’ foreheads, shoulders and abdomens.
Everyday is Different felt almost like two pieces. The split between the solo and the quartet was clearly made where Steve Reich’s lyrical, borderline operatic “Proverb” was remixed by Nobukazu Takemura (which at first almost sounded like a technical malfunction). The effect in conjunction with the music was something surreal and beautiful with dancers frequently running in and out of the wings.
Study #1 (Learning How To) seemed to be a collection of stories about school life and growing up. It blended everyday movements with technical, polished corps work. There were familiar scenes like the Pledge of Allegiance and recess, and humorous scenes like students tossing papers at each other during lunch.
There were also startling, poignant moments, such as students ripping pages out of their books, or crying alone on the playground. The most powerful moment came at the piece’s natural climax, where soloist Maria Teresa Houar had several desks suddenly thrown at her from the wings.
Yes was a series of short solos, including El Camino, which was almost too sympathetic and sweet to the point where the audience could have had a collective diabetic fit, and And falling is part of it, too, where Sheena Johnson offered a deceptively simple, organic movement style.
Everything is Something Here featured a series of short dances, and was the only piece in the program to feature male artists. The piece opened with the whole corps performing.
The second portion was a duet that seemed to tell the story of a couple. The third piece featured three dancers, and seemed to have heavy hip hop influence with the dancers making use of high-energy, virtuosic leaps and head stands.
The final portion was a powerful piece about exclusion and community. A soloist attempted desperately to join a softly swaying cluster of corps members only to be blocked out or pushed out to the other side each time. The scene ended in silhouette, with the dancer finally joining the group, crawling over them into the center.
A new generation of choreographers, the students of Mills’ MFA program demonstrated a high level of skill, as well as strong abilities to experiment and adapt.