Given the current circumstances surrounding water and drought in California, Water Stories, the most recent evening length offering by Szalt at the MorYork Gallery in Eagle Rock might have been a work invested with political and environmental concerns. Mercifully it was not that, but more of a glancing blow at the idea of water itself and personal narratives realized by a group of artists in a collaboration that brought together, textile sculpture, original poetry, and sound scores. The dance and theatrical direction were by Szalt founder/choreographer Stephanie Zaletel.
Water Stories, billed as a performance-installation, which was workshopped into being under the guidance of the MorYork Gallery and guiding light Clare Graham, gives the appearance of a work embraced for the journey not the end result. What was apparent was the sense balance created by the collaborators, not dance with added elements, but a kind of high concept work where all the elements glow with unified effect. The fifty minute work runs on four consecutive weekends largely to accommodate limited seating and to provide an intimate physical experience.
Many companies have used galleries or museums as performance spaces, but often without a purposeful integration. But Water Stories with its decided narrative tilt is uniquely suited to MorYork, which is, itself, not only a modern remake of the Victorian cabinet of curiosities, but a place where cast off technologies and the artifacts themselves are charged with histories and narratives. Luis Lopez in his subtle sound score weaves together, music, ambient sounds, and spoken memories brought to life by workshop participants. Amabelle Aguiluz has created textile sculptures and knit, wearable costuming, which drape the dancers with her designs. Her pierced sheaths layer the dancers with a second skin that invests them with a kind of tribal anonymity. And the headgear and face masks do more to highlight the intensity of the faces and bodies close up than they do to disguise or obscure them. Clare Graham’s massive torn fabric “waterfall” serves as the work’s main piece of scenic design. Lastly, Julia Nowak’s five poems served as an oblique accompaniment, not exactly a storyboard, but a point of reference if you were inclined to go looking for it. Her work came elegantly packaged in a hand-sized folding book.
The enlarged performance space was a vast improvement over the most recent Szalt concert at MorYork. The large open floor and lighting designs (Pablo Santiago-Brandwein) set off the dancers who looked terrific, especially in Zaletel’s weighted unison sections. The Szalt dancers, Lindsey Lollie, Jordan Saenz, Julia Planine-Troiani, and Zalatel know how to dance together, and they do it with a fierce sense of commitment which gains additional power from seeing them up close. The work opens with choreography for four women together, and then as it closes, is pared down to two, and finally, one. In the process, the knit costumes eventually come off, stripping the dancers down to skin-tone leotards. Some of the movement is vested with yoga-like positions but they are never static or drained of movement. The rest avoids any identifiable contemporary branding, it belongs to the Szalt women who are well on their way to creating a detailed theatrical and choreographic identity for their collective work.
(Performances continue on weekends at MorYork Galley through May 16. Tickets are available online)