How to tell the untold with CARLON

Words by Lara Wilson | Images by Jonathan Potter and Matthew Johns

The chemical incense of dry ice, undulating curls of smoke, and sharp beams of light hit me all at once when I entered the studio at L.A. Dance Project on Sunday, February 10th, for the final culminating performance of their first-ever MAKING:LA residency. Choreographer Jay Carlon was the resident, and FLEX, a dance about the Filipino-American stories not told elsewhere (neither in history books nor through the medium of dance), was his highly-polished product.

Throughout the evening, including within the performance, FLEX was referred to as a “play—or dance” or dance-play, though “dance theater” would seem sufficient. Accordant with that term, the work beautifully wove together narration by The Industry baritone/actor David Castillo, a musical score that was for the most part performed live onstage by collaborator Alex Wand, projected video, a minimal set of two wooden benches, and costumes sourced from Carlon’s father’s closet, to whom the work was dedicated and upon whose story it was based. The production quality was envy-inducing and signature of LADP, Benjamin Millepied’s brainchild. It also gave Carlon’s work a never-before-seen something, since up to this point the choreographer has been exclusively focused on site-specific, and largely outdoor (read: low-tech), works.

The introductory text felt belabored, like a familiar school-play device, when Castillo identified us, the audience, as characters in his presentation. But some other context he gave was helpful, like his description of the Filipino characters, as represented by a diverse cast, as both “the oppressors and the oppressed, the defeated and the defiant” — and he invited us to relate the material to our “own immigrant, American, recolonized, religious, or indigenous experiences, or systemic injustices.” Through movement, spoken word, and song, Carlon’s creation continually conjured historical moments and cultural traditions I hadn’t known. Gestural phrases told of agricultural work and some kind of military training, and there was a section that was devoted to a labor movement, as well as other details that, because of their newness to me, were difficult to grasp and hang onto. Even now, rereading my last clumsy sentence, I’m wishing I had some accompanying printed or digital text to help me appreciate the work’s nuance better. (If this production goes on tour, I’d recommend that presenters collaborate with Carlon to offer some kind of contextual, educational pairing for the audience.)

Fortunately, the human interactions and emotions were impossible to miss or forget within the danced sections. The seven movers, along with occasional physical participation by both Castillo and Wand, imbued the choreography with stamina, stylistic and kinetic range, and clear trust both in each other and in Carlon himself. In one section, the words “She was a visitor” repeated ad nauseum while dancers filled the room with slippery, space-eating moves. Meanwhile cast member Orlando Agawin led a stumbling Joan Padeo through the space by her elbow, eyes closed, other people’s limbs flying dangerously around her. She remained safe.

Ching Ching Wong was like a magnet for my eyes. In a section near the end, a bench transformed itself in my imagination into a casket, and she danced a tender but still gravity-defying duet with its occupant, Spencer Jensen, presumably her lost partner who began by laying prone beneath. They moved over and under the bench in a number of surprising ways due in part to their extremely different proportions. In one unforgettable moment, she tucked her head under his arm and simply lifted him up until his feet dangled there. This section was followed by a requiem of a solo, in which her small frame arranged itself over and over in impossible ways, she found quick and complete stops in many beautiful contortions. She (and I) believed everything she did.

I sincerely hope these performers have the chance to perform this work again, both for their sakes — because I could see how committed they were to it — and for its future audiences’. Stories about the immigrant experience and untold cultural histories are desperately needed throughout our canon, and in the particularly emotional language of dance that Carlon crafted in FLEX, they can carry a uniquely human resonance.

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