‘Flex’ & ‘Gnarled’

Impressions of Jay Carlon’s “Flex,” performed at L.A. Dance Project’s 2245 space on Feb. 9, 2019, and Kevin Williamson’s “Gnarled,” performed at the Odyssey Theatre on Feb. 8, 2019 as part of Dance at the Odyssey.

It’s hard not to think of love during the month of Valentine’s Day — and not just romantic love, but the kinds that tie us to a place, a person or perhaps a way of life.

Kevin Williamson | Photo courtesy of the artist

Love in its myriad forms came to mind as I watched Kevin Williamson’s triad “Gnarled” at Odyssey Theatre and Jay Carlon’s “Flex” at L.A. Dance Project’s 2245 space earlier this February.

Williamson’s “Gnarled” (comprised of “Return,” “New Friday Night,” and “Gnarled”) focused on the more amorous aspects of love, or rather the search for it. In “Return,” couples hug without ever fully embracing, circle each other suspiciously, and search for meaning in each other’s faces. They press their heads into each other’s chests and necks as if trying to translate a thought from the head into the language of the heart. But the move begs the question: Do they ever really connect?

The language of the dance offers a negative answer. Though duos partner fluidly, the dancers in these duets are often at odds with each other — head meets hip, forehead meets palm, shoulder meets back. There’s a push and pull, a struggle between two dancers as they rotate against each other and repel. One couple attempts to settle into a spooning position on the floor, but as soon as one dancer rolls into the curvature of her partner’s belly, she immediately rolls away — only the thin line of their arms connecting them.

Intimacy, true intimacy, is a scary and vulnerable place to go and Williamson’s “Return” posits that it is an ever-elusive state — fragile and combustible even once achieved. When “Return’s” dancers clump together into a tight knot, their arms intertwined like pretzels, the formation soon falls apart. They shake loose of each other like petals trembling in the wind, or as my companion observed, like fragments of an exploding star.

Indeed, a cosmic quality abounds in “Return.” In one segment, the dancers pair off and circle each other like planets revolving around their own little suns. And though they never break eye contact — the central partner whips his or her head around to maintain a visual connection — ultimately these pairs seem star-crossed. These couples turn away from each other, even as they attempt to pull each other closer. Heads run into chests, palms push into foreheads, necks rest on shoulders but never for long. The pursuit for human connection continues, however disjointed.

‘Return’ | Photo courtesy of the artist

In the evening’s namesake piece, “Gnarled,” a quartet of dancers rest on their knees and slowly bend forward, pronouncing requests into a microphone. They voice their needs and desires of their presumed romantic partners, but the exercise seems futile. Throughout the piece, the foursome gets tangled in knots, like school children in a game of Red Rover gone awry.

The most arresting moment of “Gnarled” is probably it’s least romantic — when the dance’s foursome peels away from the stage’s back wall like a menacing centipede. With the lights low and dark, it’s hard to tell if there’s one or two dancers or maybe even a dozen or — if pressed so closely together against the wall before uncoiling — one dancer may be accosting another in this back alley world. But the quartet unfolds from this abyss to miraculous effect. Light and shadow, beautifully designed by Katelan Braymer, magnify their limbs into a multitude of appendages resembling a giant spider or lepidopterous Rorsarch test. Now that’s a bit kinky. (Connecting these varying pieces is the hypnotic duet “New Friday Night,” which Williamson and Jasmine Jawato perform topless and with remarkable self-possession.)

If “Gnarled” is a search for romantic love, then “Flex” could be considered an odyssey of another kind — an ode to filial love.

Choreographed in honor of his father Honorio’s memory, Carlon tells me he created the dance to fill in the “gaps” of his father’s untold immigrant journey from the Philippines to California and his own memories of his late father, who was 70 when Carlon was born.

Gigi Todisco, Orlando Agawin, Justin Morris, Spencer Jensen & Ching Ching Wong in ‘Flex’ | Jonathan Potter

“Ever since I was born, I knew he was dying,” Carlon tells me.

The result of Carlon’s meditation on his father’s life is a mixture of dance moods exploring themes of migration, mythmaking, and mourning. There are scenes suffused with loose salsa dancing and old-time-y music; vintage photography is projected on the walls, recalling perhaps another time and place on a faraway island. Meanwhile, dancers squatting to the ground and slowly picking invisible crops bring to mind the wave of Filipino farmworkers who came to the States in the ’20s and ’30s to harvest the fields of the West. (Carlon himself grew up in a migrant-working family.)

The eponymous chorus of Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz,” is cleverly altered to the “Philippines Waltz” (sung with haunting clarity by Joan Padeo), giving Carlon’s father’s odyssey a place within the American canon even after history may have diminished or forgotten it.

Some moments of “Flex” feel a touch pedagogic. The Industry’s David Castillo plays a fourth-wall-breaking narrator in a suit who opens the show typing on an old-fashioned typewriter and making Houdini-esque statements to the audience like, “Yes, I have tricks up my sleeve. …I give you truth that has the pleasant charm of illusion.

David Castillo opens ‘Flex’ | Jonathan Potter

“Memory,” he continues, “it is sentimental, it is not realistic, it happens to music.”

Unnecessary showmanship aside, Carlon’s “Flex” pulses with meaningful movements. In one moment, Carlon’s ensemble of dancers lie on their sides like beached mermaids and slowly kick their legs, creating a current of fluttering limbs across the stage. Other times, they lift up featured dancer, Ching Ching Wong, and make her look as if she’s riding a raft caught up in a wild sea.

The most stirring moment of the piece is a somber duet between Wong and Spencer Jensen. He lies beneath a bench like a corpse within a coffin, while Wong lies above him like a widow resting above her spouse’s tombstone. A miraculous moment happens when they both arch their backs and Jensen wraps his arms around her — the barrier between life and death seems transcended.

Ching Ching Wong (right) in ‘Flex’ | Jonathan Potter

They dance delicately upon the bench, Spencer elevating Wong into extraordinary lifts. Wong even appears to dangle from his neck by her feet at one point; she rests beatifically on his shoulders in another. The Princess Grace Award winner is a vision throughout — swooping and spinning with smooth-as-butter ease, sailing across the stage even when there’s no one to carry her small but mighty frame.

She is a force of nature all her own, a pearl in Carlon’s tumultuous sea of memory.

‘Flex’ | Jonathan Potter