Booking Dance Festival / Split Bill @ EICC

Review by Lorna Irvine | 20 Aug 2012

Founded and produced by effervescent American dance expert Jodi Kaplan, this is the fourth year of  the mini-festival, showcasing the myriad styles and flavours that dance has to offer. What an eclectic mix it is, too... From high-octane hybrid styles, to stripped-back minimalism, Kaplan's programme offers entertaining and esoteric movement which is always forward-thinking. Seven performances from the USA make up this year's bill, with an extension from two of the companies in the following Split Bill.

Claire Porter's (Portables) Happen Chance is a delightful oddity – an eccentric yet graceful lady doing a monologue, in humorous conversational mode, of her evolution in dance. She sways her arms, points to her shoes or bends a little to the side to illustrate each of her own friends and neighbours' foibles, or simply goes into pratfalls. There are shades of performance art, à la Laurie Anderson in her work, but it is much more accessible and cheeky. When I grow up, I want to be just like her!

Hammerstep are a new company from New York, combining the energy of urban/hip hop street dance with Irish folk dancing; indeed, their roots are in Irish dance – Garrett Coleman is a World Champion Irish step dancer and Jason Oremus is a former lead of Riverdance. Performing four world premieres in collaboration with cellist and composer Dave Eggar and musicians Dereo, as well as incredible beatboxer Lucas Brooks (who can do anything from drum 'n' bass to sound effects), their kinetic energy and sass almost lifts them off the floor and they have attitude to spare. The blue and white lights routine alone is astonishing; watch them soar.

Daniel Gwirtzman is quite a character. Indeed, that is the title of his piece. With his expressive face not unlike a silent movie star, he seems to belong in 1930s vaudeville. He is elegant, resplendent in stripes, yet playful, swirling like a helicopter, milking the crowd, then just as soon recoiling at the applause. His intention is to tease, then to pull out wonderful shapes simply by the kicking of his long slender legs. At one stage you swear he could be pulled by an invisible rope, such is his dexterity. A compelling and mischievous performer perfectedly backed by the music of Louis Armstrong and Spencer Williams.

Performing celebrated choreographer Alvin Ailey's1983 piece Escapades with wonderful music from Max Roach, re-staged by Christopher L Huggins, Dallas Black Dance Theater are pure class – versatile at changing styles from jazz to tap to modern shapes. They weave through Ailey's characteristic narrative structures effortlessly, veering from a tale of isolation, with haughty Southern Belles turning against the soloist – even arguing and fighting until she triumphs and is accepted, in Dixieland jazz-inflected moves, mating ritual pas de deux, to celebratory 'itchin',' spinning kicks and swing moves, in an uptempo finale.

Kim Gibilisco Dances Gibilisco, along with the wonderfully named Tigger Benford, who provides minimalist music on glockenspiel, and video imagery by Eric Dunlap, performs two pieces which shimmer with irridescence and kaleidoscopic gorgeousness. The first, Mothis a jarring, experimental piece with fragmented thought processes of the dancer's discipline in pushing her body to extremes, and heavy breathing throughout. Aspirational slogans appear on the screen behind Gibilisco rippling on her flexing body and you hear her mantra, "Stop working so hard''. The second piece Falling to Grace is more stripped back, with Gibilisco dancing in silver, more fragile than athletic, with shooting stars projected behind her. Totally immersive and lovely.

Rebecca Stenn is a thrilling, hypnotic contemporary dancer and choreographer. Half-lit and shrouded in black, she moves tentatively like a shadow, governed by instinct, seemingly alert and cat-like as though ready to pounce. Her gestures are so subtle she is barely there at times, arms moving as though separate from the rest of her. Occasionally, she aggressively lurches back as though protecting herself from violent impulses. There is often a melting of dance into physical theatre structures, as with the moment when she manipulates her own hands as though they are puppets. Fluid and ethereal, Stenn's movement echoes the half-world between sleep and consciousness.

Christopher L Huggins' choreography goes from mournful, to celebratory, dealing with oppression, hard times, societal struggle but ultimately triumph. The wonderful ensemble sway together as one, downcast, but as the acoustic music by Rene Aubry swells they run towards each other, lifting each other up in balletic grace and raise a single fist, evoking the Black Panthers and the civil rights movement. It is at once political gesture and acknowlegement of sporting  and choreographic brilliance by African Americans. A powerful fitting finale in the year of Olympian excellence.

The Split Billwhich is an extension of the first show, again sees Hammerstep, dressed more preppily this time, charm the audience with their kicks, lights and charisma. Lucas showcases his skills, culminating in a kind of house/dubstep remix of Salt 'n' Pepa's classic Push It. This time, there is a flamenco feel to their dance, as well as their Irish step dancing. A massive crowd-pleaser: this time next year they will undoubtedly helm their own shows.

An excerpt from the ballet Songs From the Disinherited features a stunning solo performance by beautiful dancer Nycole Ray, with choreography by Donald McKayle. It sees Ray proud and defiant in a white dress with red trim, Spanish influenced, with lots of upper body work and shimmying. Her dress becomes a prop, a fan and she acts out the twin roles of señorita and matador, culminating in a whirling finale of fire and passion.

Their second piece The Nina Simone Project, devised by choreographer Dianne McIntyre, is a world premiere. With narration from Melissa M Young, it overlooks more controversial aspects of Simone's life, instead focusing on her youth and later political activism and role as mouthpiece of the civil rights movement. There are children's dances in a circle, six dancers pulsing together like chain gang workers and fluttery courtship dances. It even parodies rock 'n' roll hip swinging.

Indeed, there is a circular, cyclical theme to the piece, ending with the ensemble in white robes in a circle, returning to the source of gospel music.

Even the score is an inspired choice – Simone's music is ubuiquitous these days, but McIntyre plumps for her lesser-known jazz covers of Kumbaya and Cotton Eye Joe. A life-affirming, heartfelt tribute to an inspiring woman.