Silly and Holy—Dance Artist Jesse Zaritt at youTurn

Jesse Zaritt in “send off” (not the San Diego performance). Photo: Grant Halverson

Thanks to La Jolla Music Society and UCSD ArtPower (and, not far up the freeway, the Orange County Performing Arts Center), dance lovers in San Diego get regular opportunities to see major touring companies like Alvin Ailey and American Ballet Theatre. What comes our way more rarely, though, are the kinds of people Sushi Arts used to present—emerging and mid-career dance artists who are generating buzz in New York and beyond.

Tiny youTurn Arts, which puts on just one show a year, can hardly fill the gap left when Sushi went bust in 2011. Still, youTurn producers Erica Buechner and Anne Gehman have made terrifically savvy curatorial choices, and the tastes of the New York dance world they’re provided here have been delicious.

Two years ago, youTurn brought Mark Haim to set his stunning “This Land is Your Land” on local dancers. This year’s youTurn, which ran last weekend at the White Box Theater, featured another powerhouse guest artist, Jesse Zaritt.

Acclaimed as a performer and a choreographer, Zaritt has danced with two top companies that have been seen here—Shen Wei Dance Arts Company (New York) and Inbal Pinto, an Israeli troupe that did an electrifying dance-theatre piece at UCSD. For his own work, Zaritt has received New York Innovative Theater Awards.

He brought both skills to youTurn, performing a gripping solo, “send off,” and debuting “Service,” a piece he created for six San Diego dancers.

Jesse Zaritt in “send off” (not the San Diego performance). Photo: Jessica Medenbach

Darkly comic, “send off” opens with Zaritt—his face masked by tight, stretchy red fabric and body festooned with flowers—striking poses to a riveting spoken-word score. It’s the Biblical story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, and in this version by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin, Abraham whinges about not wanting to do it, and Isaac tries to buck him up so he can get on with it … all of this (in English translation) delivered by actor Neil Harris with spot-on timing, in a Cockney accent that keeps turning the word “slaughter” into “slaugh’er.”

It’s hilarious but horrifying, ironic yet heartbreaking, a play of contradictions that also happens in Zaritt’s dance. He careens like a bumper car between explosions of movement that whip through his body and sustained control. There are moments that feel silly—as he passes out flowers to the audience—and moments that feel holy … for instance, when the score shifts to Rufus Wainwright’s sublime “Agnus Dei,” and he goes into contorted poses, nearly wrapping one leg around his neck. When “send off” ended, I felt as if I—and everyone around me—had been holding my breath.

Erica Buechner and Desiree Cuizon Fejeran in “Service.” Photo: Raymond Elstad

Zaritt set “Service” to two songs about losing love, Cher’s “Believe” and “Turning Tables” by Adele. And he gave each dancer a solitary dance of grief, with big, heart-exposing reaches, plus phrases tailored to the individual members of a superb cast (Buechner, Gehman, Desiree Cuizon Fejeran, Ian Isles, Gina Bolles Sorensen, and Chelsea Zeffiro). Buechner seems to measure space with her limbs. Gehman and Sorensen erupt into frantic motion. Zeffiro, after long stillness, flings herself across the stage.

Fortunately, there are also images of mutual consolation—a hand-holding circle, the dancers belting out the songs together and piling on top of one another on the floor. And, ultimately, the other five sing to Zeffiro as if to comfort her. Phew.

Anne Gehman and Gina Bolles Sorensen in “Service.” Photo: Raymond Elstad

By the way, I have no idea why this piece is called “Service,” would love to hear readers’ thoughts.

As always, youTurn had a multi-arts focus. This year, Michelle Josey contributed both visual arts and music. Her vibrant abstract paintings hung from the White Box ceiling, and we heard her original songs, performed live and in a piece composed of sounds she’d recorded in natural settings.

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