RhetOracle Dance Company continues to explore big themes in complex and richly textured full length programs with the premiere of its most recent production, Fortune Telling. Company Artistic Director and choreographer, Nate Hodges, building on his successes from last year’s full length La Bayadère, which was set in Louisiana and told as a bluesy, juke joint saga, has a knack for high concept programming which delivers both detailed, theatrical dance as well as insightful treatments of offbeat themes and ideas.
Fortune Telling, which ran for three performances at the Martha K. Knoeble Dance Theater this past weekend, is an episodic collage that examines the world of Tarot cards and symbolic divination. Joining Mr. Hodges in choreographing for Fortune Telling were company members Bri Allard Blonigan, Jia Huang, Courtney Ozovek, Rochelle Mapes, Christopher Liu, and Jason Gorman. While the Tarot card idea offers a basic context, the real structure of Fortune Telling comes more from its unified vocabulary of theatricalized, contemporary dance, but also a savvy use of music. Each of the ten sections opens with a brief prelude of novelty or vaudeville music from original 78 recordings. In each case, those antique soundscapes act as portals into the main body of each section where the dancing finally takes a sharp turn into the world of the occult, examining human archetypes, layered meanings and emotional challenges.
The section Dancing Man (Hodges), which premiered as part of Celebrate Dance 2012, makes exceptional use of several sections of tradition Irish and Scottish pipe music to tell a story of an itinerant who enchants a group of dancers and ultimately dances them to death. It poses basic and unanswerable question about those who seek to control or dominate by virtue of personal charisma. Playing the dancing man with ultimate flair and abandon was Jason Gorman. Gorman is an exceptional dancer and earns his place here as a featured soloist. Also standing out in solo roles were Courtney Ozovek in Out of Nothing, and Bri Allard Blonigan in Vast.Empty.Plain.
Fortune Telling remains remarkably consistent in style given that it features six different choreographers. Sections of the full evening work were produced at a number of Los Angeles festivals and venues prior to being assembled as a full evening work. This company dances with urgency and a flair for edgy execution. Jason Gorman also offered the other truly outstanding choreography of the evening in Vast.Empty.Plain, which achieved remarkable impact with minimalist, understated choreography. The choreography deals with themes of abandonment and defeat (set to traditional roots themed music by The White Buffalo and Dirty Three) and effectively limned the interactions of a folk gathering. What was remarkable was the sense of isolation driving the central character. With its genuine pioneer veneer, Vast.Empty.Plain played as a vignette, elegantly dosed with a sense of deep psychological underpinning. Also well balanced and musically thoughtful in its flow and construction of climaxes was Out of Nothing, choreographed by Christopher Liu. Rochelle Mapes’ choreography for Lay the Past to Rest, which was set to a minimalist piano score, left an understated but philosophical tone as the closing episode in the program. It was danced by a quartet of male dancers. The program ran just over eighty minutes without the intermission.
The complexities of moving from section to section were not always managed seamlessly. For full effect, Fortune Telling should run without a break. Some of the work’s momentum was lost in allowing a brief intermission. Other details didn’t quite achieve their intended effects. The Tarot reader, as the onstage character introducing each tableau, didn’t always deliver memorable beginnings. That she was immobilized downstage, while seated at a provocatively lit red table, tended to isolate her rather than give her connection to the dance action. Projections of Tarot cards also proved too small to be seen or have much of an impact, even in a small venue. Lighting designs by Jason Uchita looked overly dark and perhaps missed opportunities to show off the dancers and color the stage with the vividness of the Tarot cards themselves.
Still, what shone consistently Saturday evening was Hodges’ commitment to creating large and well- made canvasses for his adventurous company. And that sense of adventure begins even before you enter the theater. The evening’s program arrives as a sealed invitation of ten, colorful, palm- sized Tarot cards. On the verso, each is inscribed with the cast and choreographer for the section and a brief reading or interpretation. It was just one of thoughtful touches on display as part of the inaugural presentation of Fortune Telling.
(All photography credits courtesy of Tim Agler. “Dancing Man” photo from Celebrate Dance 2012. “Fortune Telling” program reviewed in Long Beach August 25, 2012)