BackHausdance Theatre Review – A “Dance” Troupe that Gives a Perfect Curtain Call to Shakespeare Orange County

"A Little Duet(s)" at South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, CA. Photo credit: Backhausdance. Photos © Tim Agler

(Garden Grove, CA) September 25, 2014 – Ever since theatre/film/TV veteran John Walcutt took over as artistic director at Shakespeare Orange County (SOC) last year, the 2014 summer season has provided a phenomenal production lineup that has lived up to its anthem “One Big Family Under the Stars,” especially when it comes to serving as a cultural bridge to the Asian communities of Garden Grove and the multifaceted ethnic makeup that composes Orange County as a whole. First, there was the Pacific Rim extravaganza of Shakespeare’sA Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which was co-produced by SOC and the award-winning Hitia O Te Ra Polynesian Dance Group. Next was the Troubadour Theater Company’s “A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream,” which shows SOC’s versatility to bridge out to other critically acclaimed theater companies in Southern California. Following those productions was “The Tavern,” which magnificently enhanced the theatre company’s presence as a full purpose space for BOTH classical and contemporary plays. SOC then made a brilliant move in producing two one-person shows: Trieu Tran’s “Unplugged” and Michelle Krusiec’s “Made in Taiwan,” both of which not only shows the amphitheatre’s multipurpose ability to produce full productions and solo shows AND deliver the same emotional impact, they both also capture two sides of Asian culture in both dramatic and humorous ways.


SOC expands its creative horizons even more by ending its season with the Orange County-based BackHausdance Troupe. Founded by its artistic director Jennifer Backhaus, this eclectic, not-for-profit, contemporary dance company—who has been recently recognized by Joyce SoHo in New York as one of seven emerging dance companies in North America to watch, and has appeared in nationally well-renowned venues such as the Orange County Performing Arts Center, South Coast Repertory and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—will open many cultural and artistic doors for SOC in the upcoming years. By ending its 2014 season with the spectacular BackHausdance, Shakespeare Orange County fulfills its daring mission as it establishes itself as a multifaceted regional theatre in Southern California.


"The Margin" at McCallum Theatre, Palm Desert, CA, Photo credit: Backhausdance. Photos © Jack Hartin

The first piece of the artistic triptych is “The Margin” (2012),” where 7 of the 8 dancers—in workout dancing garb—walk silently throughout the stage, getting their bearings of the space around them: David Bagley, Jenn Bassage Bonfil, Tawney Chapman, Kathy Duran, Joshua King, Amanda Kay White, Chihiro Sano, and Kalynn Marin. Dead center on the stage is a square platform, about 1-2 feet high, 4-5 feet squared. All the dancers continue to walk in silence until music composed by Steve Reich (remixed by Coldcut and Howie B) starts to set the beat, and the performers—in their own individual styles—slowly dance to the rhythms and themes, which patiently increases in speed and power. The platform then catches their attention, and all want to test their choreographic abilities and limitations on the platform, positioning the prop in many different ways. Some of the dancers share the platform; others playfully push away. Finally, four of the dancers take up the space, deftly showing control and grace as the remaining dancers watch in envy. This work is a pleasant introduction to the trilogy BackHausdance presents on the SOC stage—whose space is pitch perfect for any visiting dance troupe—and all the dancers shine with their signature styles. The stand-out performances include the Japanese-born Chihiro Sano, whose skillful techniques illustrate a meticulous intensity, and the golden haired Kalynn Marin, whose graceful movements are the most carefree and lighthearted.


The second work—“A Little Duet(s) (2013)”—is more serious in its themes. Dressed in traditional 1950s wardrobe, which include full dresses, casual pants and dress shirts—courtesy of Costume Designer Rhonda Earick, six performers delve into a journey of romance, infidelity, and sexual exploration. King and Chapman play a young couple, whose Honeymoon-like dance duet brims expectedly with love, but their passion quickly burns out into boredom, resulting in them dancing with different partners: Bagley, Duran, and White. Each duet offers much sensuality, but lacks the love both King and Chapman crave for. They finally return to each other for their last dance, filled at first with awkward frustration and confusion. But it then ends with them determined to make their relationship, or duet, work...through better or worse. The flow of each duet demonstrates a nuanced, fluidic beauty that never lags during the telling of this story. The on-stage chemistry between Chapman and King illusrates their fresh passionate energies that resonates and elevates the work to many different levels. And the piece as a whole had the overall cinematic feeling of combining the complex themes from Todd Haynes’Far From Heaven” and the off-beat tone of many Wes Anderson films, especially the expert use of the music composed by Inara George and Van Dyke Parks, whose melodies and lyrics wonderfully symbolize all the duets that occur on the stage.

"The Margin" at McCallum Theatre, Palm Desert, CA, Photo credit: Backhausdance. Photos © Jack Hartin

The last post-intermission piece—“Untitled (2014)”—is an experimental work that Artistic Director Backhaus personally encourages for any feedback through social network channels such as Twitter or Instagram. The work begins with all female members of the cast—this time including Kaitlin Regan—doing a soft, slow jog on the stage, all dressed in flowing, ethereal outfits containing earth tone colors: soft beige, grey and maroon. Each member seems to be in a trance. When the music composed by Fol Chen starts to reverberate throughout the stage, the group breaks out from their emotional stasis and comes alive. Each of the performers awakens, with each part of their bodies jerking and twisting with vitality. Eventually, as the music increases in tone and speed and transforms from retro to jazz to steam punk, all the dancers evolve and move together with incredible grace, as though there were dormant individual cells that are brought to life and combined together into a single entity.


Of all the dancers, Sano was on fire and took the stage by storm with her dynamic grace and mercurial power, especially during the middle of the work where Fol Chen’s music become a powerful, growing pulse; it was similar to the piece “See you in Hell” on Christopher Drake’s music soundtrack to the animated film, “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” specifically the final battle between the aging Batman and Joker. She first appears alone, doing mini hops along with the beat. Her dance grows from the hop to a animated flow with the music. Then another dancer joins her in the hop, and then both break out into the flowling choreography. This occurs for the rest of the performers, climaxing into a gothic-like pose that could almost be mistaken for a portrait. And Sano does a phenomenal job in providing the solid foundation to this segment, making this the best section of the overall work. And although the ending was somewhat anticlimactic—the music ended too soon; it should have continued until Sano (the last mobile performer) stopped dancing and faded along the black out—the untitled work was an excellent ending to the show. And as far as a suggested title? How about “Synapse/Pulse”?

One Big Family Under the Stars

The presence of BackHausdance perfectly ends this year and segues to a promising 2015 season. Opening the season will be an epic contemporary production of "Romeo and Juliet," with Walcutt directing. It will involve the entire stage, swordfights, culturally symbolic costume dances, and an esteemed cast including TV/film/stage veterans Trieu Tran as Tybalt, Michelle Krusiec as Lady Capulet and SOC veteran Michael Nehring as Fr. Lawrence. The season opener will be a collaboration between SOC and the OCSA (Orange County School for the Arts). The Troubadour Theatre Company will also return and perform their comedic epic, “Romeo Hall and Juliet Oats.” SOC will then scale down their seats to 100, where the audience will sit on the actual stage in a 3/4 proscenium for two one-man shows: Trieu Tran’sUnplugged” and a new work by playwright Bill Hofmann. Lastly, SOC will end its season with a bang with a traditional, classical production of Shakespeare’s "As You Like It," including period dress and sets, as though the audience were at the Swan Theatre during the Elizabethan times.


This season, John Walcutt and his new team at SOC have hit a "home run" with a dynamically diverse production lineup, a season that was a well-needed adrenaline shot in order for the venue and company to grow, especially with its cultural and artistic outreach in Garden Grove. And with the community support and the exciting next year’s lineup, the company will perform a "grand slam," resulting in Shakespeare Orange County becoming a significant theatre presence in Southern California.  



Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.


BackHausdanceruns September 25-27, all shows begin at 7:30 PM

Shakespeare Orange County
The Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main Street, Garden Grove, CA


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