Dance Review: WAYWARDLAND by Jil Stifel and Ben Sota

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Each season, the New Hazlett Theater chooses a handful of local artists in multiple genres to perform as part of their CSA (Community Supported Art) series. Last Thursday, Jil Stifel and Ben Sota presented WaywardLand, an hour-long quartet also featuring Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight.

The piece was a collaboration of styles; Stifel’s background is mostly in modern dance, while Sota’s expertise is in contemporary circus. I couldn’t help but think about their work in light of the 2015 Grammy Awards which aired four days earlier. Kristen Wiig and local dancer and reality TV star, Maddie Ziegler, performed a duet to Sia’s “Chandelier.” The audience loved it, and more people were talking about modern dance than ever before.

Like ballet, tap or jazz, modern has its own set of prescribed movements, but is also open to the creation of the artist. The choreography often has no specific storyline and instead offers imagery the audience can interpret however they wish.

Stifel’s work normally falls into this non-narrative category. She does it well, with off-beat innovation. On the other hand, the Wiig/Ziegler performance used movements once considered interesting but now overplayed. Yet, that Grammy performance received accolades other local artists with more innovation might never earn.

Stifel and Sota’s WaywardLand could have easily gone the way of overdone. When people think of the circus, they might envision death-defying stunts like tight-rope walking and trapeze flying. Both were involved in the piece, but not in any dramatic way. Although Sota possesses those sensational skills, he and the performers opted for unpredictability instead.

For example, midway through the dance, the back curtain parted and out rolled a 150-pound German wheel (imagine a human-size hamster wheel with only a few spokes). Rather than using the apparatus in an expected way, the performers highlighted its varied uses. They lay the wheel flat and moved inside it, swaying left and right as if on a boat drifting at sea. Sota and Stifel eventually used the prop in a more traditional way, but they flipped and cartwheeled with playfulness rather than spectacle.

All four dancers utilized stilts. While the device might sometimes be used as a gimmick, the gear enhanced the main image prevalent throughout the piece—the Greek mythological figure of a minotaur, half-human and half-bull. The dancers bucked and growled, stomping their elevated feet like animals poised for a fight.

Even without the stilts, the choreography included creature-like gestures interspersed throughout phrases of larger movement. Their leaps and turns and floor-work, both on and off center, bore no resemblance to the usual ordering of steps we often see in contemporary dance.

The piece cannot be reviewed without mentioning the scenic and music design that contributed greatly to the fantastical feel of the work. Blaine Siegel created the set, which included repurposed doors, minotaur masks, and ropes dressed in various fabrics hanging on the rafters and arranged on the stage. David Bernabo generated the sound, a mix of percussion, accordion, bass, violin, piano, looped wind and more, all of which added to the dreamy atmosphere.

WaywardLand had the quality of a Dali painting, whimsical yet somehow completely sensical. The journey was circuitous, with unusual stops along the way. Unlike the melodrama of a televised dance production, this piece had thought-provoking bells and whistles, stimulating images without the frills.

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