The Austin Chronicle

Arts Review

Reviewed by Jonelle Seitz, April 10, 2009, Arts

Circumstantial Playground

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center

April 2

The first ticketed show produced by ReleaseMotion Dance Project was ambitious in scope. The aim of directors/dancers/choreographers Randi Turkin and Amanda Oakley (who did put on one other show together, for donations, in a friend's back yard) seemed to be to present a miscellany of artistic disciplines at work on a common theme. A poet and a visual artist shared the stage with four dancers and the Nearly Normal, a seven-member band. While it was encouraging to see a dance group make live music a priority, the poet, "Oily" Jack Safarick, an aging biker with Willie braids and a penchant for trite, rhymed verse, and the painter, Brittany Dennett, were peripheral. The music and dance were the clear focus of the show, interrupted periodically by Safarick's readings. Dennett's psychedelic designs were incorporated into the scenery and costumes, but the painting she created during the performance stayed confined not only to its canvas but to the extreme downstage left corner of the space.

Another conceptual issue was the playground theme, which was taken quite literally in much of the 12-section work. The set included swings and a wooden climbing structure with some underused ropes dangling from it, and the choreography dictated lots of sandbox time and childlike spats. Obviously, the playground was a metaphor for diverse art experiences, but the clunky theme seemed a barrier to a more complex artistic motive. At times, the mood was contemplative, and when singer Maggie Pageau climbed atop the structure and teetered in near-suicidal positions, it had the eeriness that sometimes occurs when you look back on childhood and marvel that you survived. But generally, the theme seemed manhandled, driven too forcefully. The use of the playground idea as a springboard, not the end-all, might have allowed for some much-needed freshness and more intellectual development.

Conceptual flaws aside, the focus was on the dancing and the Nearly Normal's eclectic funk/New Agey rock. I was disappointed in the unexceptional choreography that resulted in an often mechanical, prescriptive response to the music. Two sections, however, stood out and suggested that this young troupe has more to offer. "Sandbox Sigh," choreographed by Turkin, began with Turkin, Oakley, and Whitney Boomer suddenly clapping their hands closed, as if they were catching maddening fireflies. Stillness and tension resulted in a more dynamic response to the music, and a tactile quality emerged: In the end, the dancers coiled around one another to form a single, slightly rocking lump of flesh.

The other section of note, "Elevation," created by guest choreographer Ellen Bartel, also added much-needed dynamic and dimension as the dancers became oddly birdlike, first running in a circle and looking back at odd angles, then fluttering atop a platform until they crookedly collapsed. (As Bartel seems to know, the famous "Dying Swan" is a lie: Bird death is not graceful.) These two sections made me hopeful about the direction in which Turkin and Oakley are going – that is, leaving the playground behind.

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