Born and bred in McKeesport where her family ran a long-time community landmark, Feig’s Bakery, Rebecca Taksel left to study French literature at the University of Pittsburgh with a detour to Sarah Lawrence College, where she majored in dance. She has maintained her passion for both art forms throughout an extensive teaching career. Rebecca is currently at Point Park University, where she teaches English and French courses, with an occasional sojourn into dance criticism. An animal rights advocate, Rebecca regularly contributes creative nonfiction and cultural criticism to the Redwood Coast Review.
This year, for the second time, I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of the Fire Island Dance Festival, a weekend of benefit dance concerts by Dancers Responding to AIDS. At this celebration of dance held every July in the beautiful garden of a private home in the Pines, I was the guest of dear friend Fred Hecker, whom I met in first grade at White Oak school in the McKeesport school district; Fred has a lovely house steps from the beach.
This year’s four performances, held on Saturday and Sunday, July 18 and 19, raised over $260,000 for AIDS service organizations, bringing the 15-year total to 1.9 million dollars.
Saturday afternoon’s performance was, above all, fun, in keeping with the party-like setting. More than 150 of us were treated to twelve pieces by ten companies, most of them contemporary. The Keigwin+Company opened with the first of three light-hearted dances they had prepared on the singularly appropriate theme of water. In these charming pieces, water was poured, drunk, splashed, and once, with hilarious effect, spat, by the teasingly towel-clad dancers. In comedy, timing is all, and this ensemble never missed.
Just as appropriate, in an entirely different way, was a solo by Jodi Melnick, a former Twyla Tharp dancer, performed to cello music of Bach. In a flowing white dress, silhouetted against the blue water and sky, Melnick was in constant fluid motion, never posing, her slight form moving through the shapes with the casual, occasionally pedestrian movements associated with Tharp. In the watery setting, she was a very contemporary, unsentimental sprite.
A duet by Jon Bond and Matthew Rich from the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet was at the other end of the movement spectrum: unabashedly powerful, openly sensual, very dramatic. These two were well-served by the wide-open-spaces feeling of the stage. It was pure pleasure to watch two perfectly-matched male dancers give as good as they got in a dance called “Show Me” that was clearly about the challenges of initial attraction and connection. This dance used the entire stage with choreography that created beautiful lines of tension between the dancers.
A duet of a very different kind was the Black Swan Pas De Deux. I was a little taken aback by the choice: the black swan in this blue-and-white afternoon? I needn’t have worried. From a front-row seat I watched Mary Carmen Catoya and Rolando Sarabia, principals of the Miami City Ballet, give a performance that was a miracle of balance and precision. Ms. Catoya, supported so beautifully by Mr. Sarabia that her feet and hands never gave even the slightest tremor through all the lifts, turns, and balances, was piquant and proud in her characterization, as she should be as the evil swan. This wasn’t just pretty ballet for an uncritical afternoon crowd. The ovation they received was terrific, and deserved.
Another crowd pleaser was “Workin’ for Peanuts” by the Feliciano Dance Company, to music by the company’s director, Angel Feliciano. A group of seven male dancers created with gestures and an empty box an initial scene of a subway car, with six dancers strap-hanging while the last shyly and furtively spoke to them, peddling his peanut candy. Suddenly, all seven were facing us in a phalanx of pure menace. The music was hip-hop, as was the inspiration for the dance style. But this was grown-up dancing, not cute acrobatics for kids, full of power and energy, gorgeous ever-changing configurations and perfection in the unison work.
Equally beautiful virtuoso ensemble work was offered by the Christopher Huggins company, in which a sextet of dancers managed to dance in wonderful unison while remaining entirely individual. This is one of the great ongoing challenges for modern and contemporary dance companies that want to avoid the cookie-cutter look of a corps. This company did it beautifully, to a beautiful Steve Reich piece called “Music for 18 Musicians.”
The other companies represented were Armitage Gone! Dance, Zvi Dance, and ComplexionsContemporary Ballet. All of them danced at the high, high level you would expect on a program that drew from the talent pool of New York. And Danny Tidwell, who was first runner-up in the third season of “So You Think You Can Dance,” performed a solo choreographed for him by Lauren Adams, who is currently a choreographer on the show.
Finally, mention must be made of the host, Bruce Villanch, the remarkable comic writer who is nominated for an Emmy for this year’s Oscar show. Villanch, known for his lightning fast ad-libbing ability, was very, very funny indeed, delighting the sophisticated New York audience with plenty of spicy jokes and show-biz “dish.”
Thanks to Fred Hecker for this wonderful array of photos. For more go to: Fire Island Dance Festival.