Keith Johnson/Dancers & Nugent Dance. At Center Stage Theater, Saturday, February 10.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer
With rain pummeling the tiled patio outside Center Stage Theater, those who showed up early for Stephanie Nugent and Keith Johnson’s show were allowed to duck straight inside the black box while the dancers were still warming up onstage. While new arrivals rustled their umbrellas and adjusted their coats on the backs of their seats, Nugent Dance performers Jeremy Hale and Shel Wagner Rasch began a contact improv session. The two performed their impromptu duet only slightly self-consciously to the pre-show Phil Collins soundtrack, and their casual yet focused play drew attention all the more because it was off-the-cuff, a performance unframed by the usual formalities.
The first three pieces in the evening’s program were Johnson’s work, but with greater variation in tone than usual for the Long Beach-based choreographer. In the trio “Outside Looking Up (Still)/Blueprint for a Goodbye,” there was plenty of Johnson’s signature style: aggressive attack, an emphasis on action/reaction, strong geometries, and architectural structures. There was also something tender and raw, most notably in the passage where Billie Holiday’s warbling voice emanated from a transistor radio strapped across Rogelio Lopez Garcia’s chest.
“I Dream a Highway” was Johnson’s poignant exploration of stoicism and longing. Sepia light and a twangy Midwestern lullaby set the tone; Stephanie Nugent and Lopez Garcia began in completely isolated spaces, approached one another tentatively, and then dropped quick and deep into the comfort of human tenderness. Nugent appeared again in Johnson’s haunting solo, “The Last Sliver of Sunlight,” where she thrashed and writhed, erupted and cowered, and darkness seemed to engulf her. Coming at the end of the evening, Nugent’s quintet, “Frame/Reframe,” took its own title as a directive. Their backs to the audience, the dancers shifted formation again and again in a literal framing and reframing of the space. Then things got a little more abstract. Louie Cornejo entered with a bullhorn and began to speak, but soon the horn was taken from his hands and held so high that he had to jump repeatedly in order to continue. Wagner Rasch delivered a diatribe about the color pink while being swung between two men like a rag doll.
Like much of Nugent’s work, “Frame/Reframe” was at once impressionistic and postmodern. In the process of exposing the artifice of theater and indeed the fragility of all our frames, she somehow achieved true lyricism.