"40 Love Letters" a Success for the Contemporary Dance Community
Thousands of people walked the infamous First Friday event on Roosevelt Row. Meanwhile, I was at the MonOrchid Gallery to see Grace Gallagher’s premiere of “40 Love Letters.” The 9pm performance also featured Tanner Boyer's tender work, "Ghosts We Knew," and Mikaylah Harp's emotionally loud work, "U S."
I searched for the best vantage point by navigating through the standing and sitting bodies that filled the MonOrchid warehouse space. I was impressed that so many people in Phoenix were gathering together to watch dance. The large attendance at this event is evidence that if talented dance creators in Phoenix are provided exciting performance venues during prestigious programming hours, audiences will be able to expose themselves to the quality of work that is brewing by emerging artists in the local dance community.
Gallagher’s work was a strong representation of what the Phoenix dance community has to offer outside of theaters and large arts organizations. In "40 Love Letters" Gallagher presented an intricate work set to subtle spoken word and ambient folk tracks. The performers were emotive, and the movements were isolated and musically driven. The piece was danced by five male dancers and one female dancer. The dancers at times expressed relief, trust and pleasure, but for the most part seemed emotionally exhausted by the narrative layered onto the piece.
Though I was not always clear how one emotional experience was different than any others in the piece, it was wonderful to witness dancers so committed to emulating a choreographers desires with their entire being. It was also refreshing to view a contemporary performance with an emphasis on intricate movement and dynamics instead of displays of athleticism and strength.
The cast of men were smooth, intricate, and sometimes coldly unaffected by the lead female character. Solo work by Tanner Boyer really highlighted the male sections. The solo utilized extremely difficult gestural isolations that meshed with the music, sometimes matching and sometimes layering the already syncopated folk percussion. The soothing and sometimes heart aching folk music emulated the dramatic intentions of the work by allowing movement and spatial images to be catapulted to a highly theatrical realm. The movement, emotions, and music complimented one another seamlessly. However, there was such a monotonous similarity between each section that it became difficult to hold onto moments after they happened.
“40 Love Letters” seemed to be so cohesive in its content over time, that surprising the crowd at moments would have benefited the body of work as a whole. Based on the similarities in much of the pieces, I found myself wondering if the work reflected 40 different perceptions of love, or maybe the 40 letters within a singular relationship.
The lack of lighting changes, my awareness of the large shifting crowd, and the quiet music made it challenging to remain immersed in the story. These elements forced me to wonder if I am too hyperactive to appreciate the subtleties presented by the obvious shaping of music and movement. But then I remember that the interesting movement vocabulary always brought my attention back to the performance.
In the NewTimes "State of the Arts" call to action, Becky Bartowski insisted on dance artists to, "engage a non-taditional space with a new work." I wonder if she was envisioning the possibilities for a dance artist to provide two free dance concerts, viewed by over 600 people in the crown jewel of gallery spaces on Roosevelt Row. I was so blown away by what I view as a huge success for the Phoenix dance community and more importantly, Grace Gallagher. A female choreographer creating work with so much viewership in a city where most modern and contemporary choreographers struggle for viewership. I hope the MonOrchid and First Fridays can find more partnerships with local dance artists. If this relationship is utilized just right, Phoenix has an opportunity to support its growing contemporary dance community.
Review Edited by Julie Akerly
Photography by Nick Woodward-Shaw