On ‘ROSEWOOD’: Fragility, Beauty, and Thorns

By Lara Wilson and Belle Jessen

Known as a venue for plays, The Odyssey Theatre on Sepulveda first introduced a dance season in 2017; they commissioned the work of three Los Angeles dancemakers/companies for this year’s second annual event. { Dd } contributors Belle Jessen and Lara Wilson attended the premiere of ROSEWOOD by The TL Collective, the company that was founded by Micaela Taylor in 2015 after she’d left coveted contract positions with Ate9 Dance Company and BODYTRAFFIC. Jessen and Wilson caught up after the show, trading emails which appear below. But first, imagine for a moment The Odyssey’s black box theater. Thanks to black form-fitting turtlenecks and athletic pants, lighting designer Katelan Braymer made hands and faces stand out. Her work illuminated Taylor’s cast of four, not least of which was Taylor herself. She doesn’t fade into the background of her own work, but leads with a free-flowing force of presence. And for the ensuing 75 minutes, we all were witness to the signature blend of contemporary dance and hip-hop she calls “contemporary pop.”

Lara Wilson: I’d love to talk about Taylor’s use of unison. Current trends in the contemporary dance world — due to our collective veneration of the improvisation languages of Forsythe and Gaga, and the ease of posting a quick improv video — seem to be moving against too much unison, even against very directed, specific choreography. It was really refreshing to see Taylor’s movement, though, which constantly drove on the beat or syncopated against it. The first time I saw unison was when she and Sam McReynolds, the only male dancer, moved from partnering into a phrase that traveled upstage on the diagonal, and were absolutely synchronized. For the most part, whenever there was unison, the dancers moved as one despite differences in body type and the movement’s complexity and nuance. There were frequent shifts in direction, and it seemed to switch leading body parts from step to step. Some sections demanded facility, like sliding backwards into the splits and other more technical challenges. During one phrase, they all (momentarily) sat on the floor, frenetically thumbing an invisible handheld device I’m guessing was a phone; in another, they faced the audience, crouched low, and performed a fast, space-eating waltz step in three against a 4/4 tempo in the music. Sometimes unison can feel contrived, or as if done without reason — not to mention, true unison isn’t easy to pull off as it requires extreme attention to detail, an outside eye, and the resources for enough rehearsal time — but the pleasingness of it seemed justification enough. It also got me thinking about the idea of a unit, a unified congregation, maybe, or perhaps a current, a trend. Unison as a backdrop against which to move, to contradict.

Belle Jessen: Speaking of trends, they have the ability to become powerful and distracting parts of our lives. Facebook, Instagram, blogs — everything to which our fingertips have access, these trends help us keep up with further trends that distract us for the empty hours of our days. I connected these applications to Taylor’s use of unison and the strength it projected to its audience. Every quick, popped movement was crisply in sync with the cast, enticing me to continue watching and be “distracted” by the trend.

LW: Interesting! I guess I tend to think of live art as the “anti-screen,” although certainly they have in common the fact that they both survive to degrees on the attention of masses.

Photos by Becca Green

BJ: Going off of your invisible handheld device comment, I found myself recognizing motifs as they would appear and reappear throughout the evening. In addition to the texting motif, there was a quick, almost b-boy style kicking movement with short, abrupt pauses. It showed the backside of the body even while the dancer continued looking at the audience. Although it was repeated about a dozen times, I noticed it was rarely performed as a solo. This brought me back to unison and its strength in numbers, but ultimately to the idea that humans are in constant communication with someone else, a device, or a character on a television series.  

The music had me on a ride that I very much enjoyed through the evening. The variety was something I truly appreciated, as opposed to sitting through a concert of all very mellow instrumental music or upbeat electronic, etc…

LW: Yes, the soundscape was another unifying aspect, borrowing from spoken word — a church sermon, a keynote about the plight of millennials — glitchy electronica, R&B, and even old jazz standards. Rather than just present each section in turn, it often repeated sound bytes, seeming to get stuck in a loop. This was interesting and appropriate to the work — it mirrored repetitions in the movement and in the filmed projections by Nadav. The sound felt artistically manipulated rather than just stuck together, but it lost me at points; the repetition became annoying or the edits weren’t seamless enough. Another sound aspect, which I thought was done successfully, was that the dance sparingly incorporated human sounds like coughing and the intake of breath, or the natural sound the choreography produced in the space: stomps, quick little flat-footed bourrées, self-manipulating slaps. Meanwhile, the phrase work and choreography itself was expertly musical, adding beats between the silence of a ticking clock. And during moments of counterpoint, individual dancers seemed to embody the various dynamics of the different layers of the music.

BJ: Although I found Nadav’s visuals striking, I felt a bit overwhelmed throughout the filmed projections that  separated each section — Section One: The Fall, Section Two: The Distraction and Section Three: The Brokenness. First was Taylor helplessly sitting alone in a bathtub, which conveyed isolation and anxiety. In the projection that introduced Section Two, the cast shared a booth at a restaurant, but each was fully consumed by their phone. I imagine if played consecutively, these clips would seamlessly transition into one another, but once the title was displayed and the stage lit to reveal dancers performing static and strategic movement that connected deeply to its music, I quickly forgot about what had had happened in the projections. I fully appreciated the amount of visuals, but at times it was overwhelming to connect them to the movement, soundscape, and overall message of ROSEWOOD.  

Photos by Becca Green

LW: The program notes also mentioned that they represented periods of her life. First, she entered college and “her desire to fit in” led to the “demise” of her Christian values. Second, she became distracted by a series of relationships that left her feeling rejected and broken. And third, brokenness giving way to depression, she ultimately found her way to God. I thought the titles and the projections effectively cleared the space and reset the stage for a new idea. The bathtub gave me the impression of baptism. When it was repeated in Section Three, there was a hand (I assumed McReynolds’) that pulled Taylor up out of the tub. Perhaps at first glance, she was alone and heartbroken, and when the clip was repeated we were meant to see it in a new way: as a fresh start. What came in between the projections were perhaps memories from those time periods, some expressed more literally than others. For example, there was a love-triangle trio set to Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.” Taylor and one of the women, Jessie Thorne, who was excellent, were both partnering and fighting over McReynolds. It’s sort of a cliché in dance (especially since male dancers are generally outnumbered), but her recurring tableaux of two standing and one kneeling, resting their hands on each others’ shoulders, made for a powerful moment. Other times I was surprised by something truly virtuosic, like when Thorne straddled McReynolds’ shoulder and he threw her off with it — she cleared about four feet, thrown from her crotch, before landing on her own two.

What about the bit about millennials? Did you think Taylor agreed with the stance reflected in the speech she repurposed — that millennials are unfocused because of our screens, and because of so much positive reinforcement during childhood, we are unprepared for life? Do you agree with it? Here were four obviously gifted, hardworking people who must all be part of that generation; I took it as tongue-in-cheek that she would reference it. Yet on the other hand, there was the projection showing the cast walking through LA’s Rosewood neighborhood, which did highlight everyone’s absorption into their phones. But screen addiction seems to be an everyone problem, not just a millennial one.

BJ: The speech was by Simon Sinek, Millenials in The Workplace, and it described how millennials are overstimulated with technology and praise at a young age. Being a millennial myself, I do agree with Sinek’s words. However, I found them to be a juxtaposition against other elements of ROSEWOOD. Taylor seemed to be categorizing herself as an outcast in her generation.

LW: Right — as with all stereotypes, while there may be some truth in them, there’s no way a characterization like that applies to every person in the category. Jumping ahead to the ending, there was a repeated loop of a voice asking, “do you believe in Jesus?” and, just before blackout, Taylor, arched backwards in a full expression of her facility, said “yes.” I want to talk about the yes. For some reason, I came to the piece expecting more joy, more exuberance surrounding the acceptance of God. But the yes was striking; it was an exhausted yes without feeling desperate—literally exhausted by the dance but also by the trials and life changes the dance represented. It was matter-of-fact, while all the movement preceding it seemed to cover the spectrum of human emotion described in her three sections. It felt like a giving-in after the repeated asking, and the fact that it ended the dance made it that much more final and powerful. What did you make of all that?

BJ: The “yes” Taylor spoke aloud with her last breath of the evening was quite striking. I found it to be a sigh of relief. The surrender-like gasp left the audience feeling like we just went on the ride with Taylor, which is exactly the kind of feeling an audience should be left with. It’s the feeling of being swept up in the performers’ journeys, as they display their vulnerabilities through movement.

(And, in this case, considerable strengths.)

Leave a Comment


Start typing and press Enter to search