Stages on Stages

Kosoko Peformance Group Winter Party
Artists Helping Artists Tour (AHAT)
Saturday, January 23, 2010
7:00pm – 10:00pm
Studio 34
4522 Baltimore
Philadelphia, PA

Despite the fact that I despise the countryside and I really can’t deal with Hippies, I ventured off to West Philly to catch some movement art (it’s not just dance anymore, make a note of it) that was held at where else but a New Age-ish Wellness Center. I don’t mean to talk shit on any part of my favorite town in the world, it’s just that we got issues. I know UC does a lot of good for people and they make really cool albeit useless crafts there. I don’t know, every time I go there I feel like I’m at an awkward family dinner. The things we do for art.

Anywho, I brought my notebook along because I was properly tipsy beforehand, brandishing the Jack filled flask a co-worker gave me for Christmas (it reads “Hot Mess” on the front in purple cursive letters). It was kind of brisk out, but bearable, even still, with so many trees and less buildings, the wind is more apparent on the other side of the river. Where was I?

The notebook. I used to bring my notebook to every performance whether it was to take notes (read: steal choreography, kidding!), or to jot down some for a reflection later. During a dance writing class we were given an assignment where we had to go and just experience the experience. I was delighted to hear that many of my peers were aghast by this idea of recording things not with your head or pen & paper, but with emotions.

At the risk of sounding cliché (which sounds like a cliché), it was a humbling moment for us all. I remember how nervous I was to see the show but it is indelibly etched into my memory of being one of the greatest performances I ever experienced. It could have gone either way, at the time I was forcing myself to see some pretty crappy stuff in order to fulfill my coursework. This performance, no doubt was a good one.

This time, I was a little short of depth perception, and needed something to help me focus.

Studio 34 is a really cool, dare I say “hip” spot. When you open the door (after finally realizing the building is on the other side of the street), there is an onslaught of flyers hand and professionally crafted by the newest face of starving art. The steps are steep and wooden, and there is almost a sense of an oncoming sensory overload as you enter the space, the smokers smoke wafting in from the almost completely closed front door.

There are splashes of color throughout, and as you make it up to the top step, beyond the plethora of gatherers, there is a wonderful labyrinth of work and play space.

The place reads like a studio loft with a gallery and café. There is of course art scattered about here in there, in various fashions, on the wall and in the selection of chatski. There was a lot of black wrought iron railings and big windows at the front of the space that were adjacent to a riser that could have doubled as a stage. The lighting was dim, and naturally, here were colored light bulbs (they burn less electricity).

Tonight’s dance event was part of Studio 34‘s Studio Series. Jaamil Kosoko was invited to be a curator for the series, and along with Karama Butler, presented and hosted a motley conglomeration of movement artists. The Founder and Executive Director of The Kosoko Performance Group, Kosoko successfully managed to pull together a compelling show of diverse and talented artists’ works in progress.

I unfortunately missed the hour long artist’s chat (damn you Facebook), but was glad to see that there was some genuine mingling going on when I got there 5 minutes past curtain time.

Jaamil was center stage, calm and smooth and dapper as ever, rounding up the masses into the gallery area where the performance was going to take place. I grimaced in spite of myself; I don’t think I’ve ever been to a performance in West Philly where you weren’t encouraged to sit or lay on the floor. I was shocked that everyone still had their shoes on. What is that?!

After I said my one hello (there’s always one, for fear of talking to the other rock stars in the room), I leaned up against the wall next to a pair who had no problem with personal space. Eventually, they got out of my way and chose to lay down and sit “Indian Style” (are we still allowed to say that?) on the pillows and Sante Fe inspired carpet rug blanket things that were scattered about.

I was tickled by the hostess of the evening who I presume was playing opposite of the guise of Kosoko (Winston Hemm) to her, Deboreau Hemm (Karama Butler). She was witty and irreverent, and kept the show going at a nice pace. Plus, she was such a lady. She looked like one, she acted like one, she dressed like one. Wait, that was a little misogynistic, wasn’t it? Oh, labels!

In hindsight, the 2nd act was a little more engaging than the first, though Kosoko did dole out a riveting presentation of some of his poetry that left a pleasant stench of tension in the air. There is a dreamy languidness to his work that has a nostalgic undercurrent filled with bittersweet poise.

Studio showings are all the rage again, and this event was representing a new era of performance art where the community is brought in during the developmental stage in hopes of helping the artist test and craft their work as it is further pushed into the artistic process.

The first piece made me feel like I was back in dance class and there was some improvisational exercises taking place. Later I learned that the artist was very much interested in the improvisational style. If I am correct (and I hope I am, I made no reference to the performer’s names in my illegible notes), the choreographer was Justin Bryant. His work included text and was off the cuff so to speak, but was an interesting mix of movement motifs.

Another work was a duet that was a very intricate study of a technique the choreographer was developing. It was a picturesque exhibition of exercises that involved a balance of complicated but simple looking gestures evolved from classic ballet. The repetitiveness of the movement and music was cause for a dizzying, euphoric engagement in the performance. There was a balance of floor work that added to the depth of the study, but it didn’t take off in a big way like you would expect a duet to surmount, but in its subtlety, it managed to present something beautiful. Nora Gibson composed the performance.

If my memory serves me correctly (I hate not having a reference point) the next piece was a solo by a male topless dancer. I mention the topless thing because you had to be there, and if you were, you would have totally mentioned the topless thing if you wrote about it afterward. Moving right along, the topless male dancer guy, Luke Gutgsell, is a dancer turned choreographer who was experimenting with static phrases that concentrated on technique and body movement. The choreography wasn’t complex, but the vibrant structure of it spoke volumes about the creation of dance composition and it was a nice homage to the bridge between old and new styles.

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, “author, poet, choreographer, performance artists, curator, comedian, etc.” presented an excerpt from one of his newest works, “An Expectation of Violence” that is a multimedia, autobiographical piece presented by a company of dancers.

The piece was framed by Kosoko’s poetry, used as dialog by the dancers. His sweet yet haunting verses spoke of and conjured up images of dancing ancestors and being haunted by ghosts, in a good way and a bad way. In his words he invoked thoughts that engendered a dreamy eroticism and an attachment to memories. The way he was describing impossible and real situations, created a harmony of darkness and lightness in the work. There were moments of comic relief and abrupt distractions. The elements all melded well together and were jarring in a lighthearted way.

One of the most entertaining pieces was conceptualized by artist Sydney Skybetter who was working on a piece that was inspired by flight attendants. All and all it was a brilliant idea and because of the focused nature of the subject, the work was clear cut and really pulled the audience in. In all forms of art, the story of the “common man” and exploiting the blue collar world has always been of interest and has been successful in many realms. Here, the work is playful yet seriously deep. There is a great use of props (the two dancers in the piece end up inside of a rolling suitcase during the show) and the addition of voguing added a nice touch.

Another duet exceeded all the expectations of a duet. The (topless) male dancer and his partner (a fully clothed woman) really got the packed house revved up with their acrobatic style, doing a lot of floor work and really embracing the dynamics of the choreography. The work was conceived by Kathryn Tebordo?

The final piece was a presentation of new work by Philly Contact Collective who also presented work that was based on the improvisational style but delved more into the movement study realm. Again, the movements were simple yet complex in the combinations, and lots of twitching and contorting of the body was seen throughout. The piece had a nice sense of humor and mystery to it.

Overall, it was a great night of dance and the show was heavily attended. It is a great tool for the artists to be able to present their work in a casual environment in order to further their artistic development. Rehearsing in the studio does not create the same element that dancing in front of the audience allows. It is nice to have that middle ground where an artist can mold and present a live performance without having it be the end-all-be-all.

The only issue for me is that some of it is so raw and new and leaves a lot of questions. Art is subjective after all, and delving into a work in progress can be like eating a BLT with no “B”. It’s the best part. That being said, the works that presented themselves in a strong assertive way without being too weird are the ones that got the most attention and left their mark in the memories of the audience (or should we call them “participants”). Those are the works that have bred interest and a desire for understanding, if not entertainment.

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