UPROOTED DANCE: The Ascension Project

Dogtown Presenter’s Series 2022

A dance review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th Street, RVA 23223

Performances: May 20-21, 2022

Ticket Prices: $20 General Admission; $15 Students & Military

Info: (804) 230-8780 or https://www.dogtowndancetheatre.com

THE PROGRAM

The Ascension Project: An Indie-Rock Dance Opera

Choreography: Kiera Hart-Mendoza & Uproot Dance Cast Members

Music: Sufjan Stevens, Ascension Album

Director: Keira Hart-Mendoza

Assistant Director: Carrie Monger

UpRooted Dance Cast Members: Rachael Appoid, Ashayla Byrd, Raeanna Grey, Brittney Leasure, Carrie Monger, and Julianna Raimondo

Community Member Dancers in Act II: Lexie Hays, David Monger, Lea Monger, Maria Carmina Parong, Honey Lyn Savage, Dhol Tuason, Belle Villanueva

Original Projection Art and Design: Nitsan Scharf

Celestial Headpiece Design: Margie Jervis

Lighting Design: Kaylin Corbin

Scenic Design: Ken Hays

This may seem like a strange start, but stick with me. I promise it will make sense. I have memories of people skipping church when they knew the senior pastor was away. They apparently attended church for a personality, rather than to worship God. Some people just don’t like the unknown and unless the guest speaker was a well-known personality, many showed no interest. This is the thought that ran through my mind when I attended The Ascension Project by Uprooted Dance at the Dogtown Presenter’s Series on Friday, April 20. My partner and I seemed to be the only attendees in the approximately 150-seat theater who were not staff members or family or friends of the performers. There were fewer than 20 people in the seats.

Now, I was not familiar with Uprooted Dance, a Metro D.C. – area based company that is committed to presenting interdisciplinary collaborative work that tells thought-provoking stories and community engagement. That is exactly why I wanted to see them. What a great opportunity to see a new-to-me company without having to travel several hours and spend money on gas. Well, that’s my take on the situation, but I know that’s not going to fill empty seats, so without further ado – or diversion – here’s my take on The Ascension Project.

The Ascension Project was inspired by the events of the past two years: the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest, social justice, the flattening of personal space as represented on a Zoom screen. Arranged – remember, this is a dance opera – into a prelude and three short acts, The Ascension Project is a journey through time and space that begins with isolation in small spaces, explores identity, trauma, and loss, and concludes with a transcendent journey. So, what does this look like?

The “Prelude,” described in the Director’s notes as “a bright, bold, big dance number” has the company of six dancers performing warm up movements in brightly colored casual clothes against a wall of brightly colored projections that include videos of the dancers performing the “Prelude.” For all the clever moments, including the dancers passing and sharing up close with the audience signs bearing messages such as “I missed you,” “Can you see me,” “Sit back and relax,” and “Enjoy the show,” and an attempt to create a satirical replica of a Zoom dance class experience, the sum total of all the components of the “Prelude” was remarkably subdued.

The dancers spend most of Act 1, the “Dream Sequence” on the floor in uncomfortable positions, rolling and restless as the background of colorful mandalas spins and regenerates at a sometimes dizzying pace. In one mesmerizing section the dancers log roll upstage, walk back downstage, and repeat the sequence, each time at a faster pace until finally they are running. Black and white projections and earth-toned costumes segue into colorful blooming flowers for the ”Circle of Life” section where the dancers move in a clockwise rotation, briefly holding hands and wrapping their arms around one another, ending the nightmare of illness, death, war, and famine.

The focus – and tone – shifts again in Act 2, “America,” when the company members are joined by members of the Sayaw! Philippine cultural dance group and community dancers, including a lone man and two little girls.  The focus of “America” is culture and identity and features a power fist pump, a cultural dance, taking a knee, and saluting the flag (background) with a hand over the heart.

Finally, Act 3, “Blast Off,” contemplates what the future holds. The dancers start off as astronauts, in silver suits and a cleverly designed spaceship – a blend of physical and video components – that takes them to future new worlds where race and politics and nationality no longer exist, no longer separate and segregate. After experiencing weightlessness – and planting their flag – the dancers become transformed into celestial beings with lighted constellations headdresses. The lighting and dark costumes obscure their individuality, such as race, hair, skin color, creating a minimalist effect that harkens ack to the beginning.

Make no mistake, like most operas, this one needs a synopsis to help an unfamiliar audience navigate the strange  new terrain. Extensive program notes were provided in the printed program but before each new section, Artistic Director Kiera Hart-Mendoza provided a verbal map to guide the uninitiated.

Honestly, The Ascension Project has the look and feel of a work-in-progress. Sometimes, it’s good to get in on an emerging work and follow its development. I suspect this is very much the case with The Ascension Project,” as its name implies. The Ascension Project is an interesting and evolving work that did not quite reach its full potential, but hopefully will continue to evolve and reach an appropriate and appreciative audience.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.                                                                                                                                                                                                              

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Author: jdldances

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and transplanted to Richmond, VA. A retiree from both the New York City and Richmond City Public School systems, she is currently an Adjunct Instructor for the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, and holds the degrees of BS and MA in Dance and Dance Education (New York University), MSEd in Early Childhood Education (Brooklyn College, CUNY), and EdD in Educational Leadership (Regent University). Julinda is the Richmond Site Leader for TEN/The Eagles Network and was formerly the East Region Coordinator for the International Dance Commission and has worked in dance ministry all over the US and abroad (Bahamas, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Puerto Rico). She is licensed in dance ministry by the Eagles International Training Institute (2012), and was ordained in dance ministry through Calvary Bible Institute and Seminary, Martinez, GA (2009).

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