A man sinks to his knees, one hand rising from his chest as if he’s pulling his heart out. It’s a beautifully evocative gesture in a dance filled with such images—“Crossroads,” a premiere by Terry Wilson that opened last weekend’s performance by Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater. The program at the Saville Theatre, titled “Janus IV,” also included two works by Isaacs and one by Liv Isaacs-Nollet, and it was one of Isaacs’ best-ever.
In “Crossroads,” twelve dancers—migrants?—ebb and flow over the stage. They reach, fall, start in one direction but drop back, in a lyrical choreography of breath and release. In twos or threes, they briefly connect, then move on. At times, some stand still, as if witnessing the others, but then swirl back into the eddy of motion. There are moments of comfort, for instance, when Mario Jaimes carries Cecily Holcombe on his back; but they don’t last.
The garb is “ethnic,” though what ethnicity? The women’s delicate leaf-printed aprons and sarong tops suggest Southeast Asian or Bali, while the men’s peasant shirts made me think of central Asia. But the lack of a clear identity felt right, given the migrations happening everywhere. And it fit the multi-ethnic score from the film “Babel,” which wove together stories from around the globe.
Wilson, who danced with Isaacs earlier in her career, is now the company’s associate artistic director, and I’m eager to see more from her.
“Prickle,” a 2019 piece by Isaacs-Nollet, shows her comic flair. She hams up a reading of diseases of the skin while Holcombe and Minaqua McPherson face off, doing a chest bump and forcing each other to the floor. But, in this one disappointment on the program, I didn’t find that the elements—the reading, dance, and lots of blown-up latex gloves—cohered.
Isaacs’ idea, in her annual “Janus” show, is—like the Roman god—to look simultaneously backward and ahead. For her own work, she presented a favorite from 2003 and a dance she created last year, both of them with genius music choices—Jeff Buckley and Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary composer Caroline Shaw.
It was a pleasure to revisit the juicy “Suite Jeff” (2003), especially the closing duet to Buckley’s recording of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Holcombe and Isaacs-Nollet (in the Friday evening cast) stagger as if exhausted—by the struggle of their relationship? by life? Yet they stay exquisitely attuned, propping each other up. At times, Isaacs plays against the pace of the music, her choreography urgent despite the song’s slowness. Hallelujah.
For “Partita for 8 Voices and 7 Dancers” (2019), Isaacs used Shaw’s thrilling “Partita for 8 Voices,” recorded by the celebrated vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. To weird, hauntingly beautiful vocals, spoken text, panting, even throat-singing, the dancers scramble across a hard-edged landscape—the stage with its back wall uncovered and all the working bits exposed.
Moving in a pack, the dancers advance with giant strides and flung-back arms, leading with their hearts. As in “Crossroads,” they seem to be heading toward a destination that, as they approach, recedes into the distance. At times, one person breaks out of the group—Nicholas Gilbertson with an undulating spine, Lauren Christie with stay-the-hell-out-of-my-way fierceness. Yet, ultimately, they’re all in this together. We’re all in this together, as Isaacs shows in this transcendent work.