Moving the WestWave Dance Festival (called Summerfest/dance until two years ago and now in its 15th year) to the Project Artaud Theater was a smart idea. Even though the cavernous former warehouse dwarfs some of the smaller companies using the space, Artaud lays out an altogether funky welcome mat, squeaky stairs included.
Due to philosophical and financial considerations, WestWave has always focused on up-and-coming choreographers. That means there's an abundance of new work — at least half of the pieces in this year's fest are world premieres — as well as a lot more duos, rather than pieces for six and more. On opening night two works exemplified the vitality of local dance: You and You and You by EmSpace Dance's Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and RAWdance's Drained. The two couldn't have been more different. Both were terrific.
In Stuart's piece, three dancers (Damara Ganley, Noel Plemmons, and Julie Sheetz) began very far apart but oozed toward each other like streams of lava. Voluptuous without being erotic, the dancers pressed themselves together, piled on top of each other, and rearranged limbs in order to find space for themselves. This was dancing about mass and weight but also softness and yielding. At the end Plemmons encased Sheetz so tightly that you couldn't be sure whether he was strangling or embracing her.
RAWdance's Wendy Rein and Ryan T. Smith are high-stakes gamblers. In Drained, performed with Dudley Flores and Laura Sharp, they threw themselves into a game of kamikaze dancing that was as exacting as it was freewheeling. They had at their disposal a defined number of moves and gestures for two men, two women, and two boxes. So how many permutations were possible? To find out, the dancers dove in at top speed. Drained may be a one-idea piece, but watching the choreography test the body's limits with such skill and exuberance was great fun.
The rest of the program was more of a mixed bag. Poorly projected visuals undercut Fellow Travelers Performance Group's spare and reticent Warning Signs (by Ken James, with Cynthia Adams). Still, the juxtaposition of the live dancers with their "talking" portraits was intriguing. In the wispy In Closing, Fresh Meat Productions' Sean Dorsey (with Courtney Moreno) looked at the inevitable winding down of a relationship in which love and tenderness survive only as memories. Delicately weaving its components, the piece was a little thin but evoked the situation's mix of tenderness and regret.
Cathleen McCarthy's passionately danced quintet Driven to This started with a protracted but not uninteresting solo, though the piece quickly lost its way. It almost felt like the solo belonged somewhere else. Driven needs a backbone and pruning. The evening's low point came when Kyoungil Ong (who runs quite a good Korean dance company, Ong Dance Company) performed her Flower Tears II. This was a derivative and shallow excursion into dance theater. Centered on a huge white paper gown from which legs or arms periodically emerged, the work was so overwrought and cliché that it bordered on self-parody.
On WestWave's second night, four of the six pieces were by beginners. Showcasing truly inexperienced artists in a festival doesn't do anybody a favor, not least the artists themselves. However, even this decidedly subpar program yielded one discovery. Alena Odrene Cawthorne's delicious Face It embraced weight and phrasing for a vernal celebration of maidenhood in a way that has not been seen since the very early days of modern dance. The choreographer sent her quartet of elegant, pastel-clad dancers (Kathleen Franklin, Angela Pasalis, Susan Tobiason, and herself) into José Limón's swooping circles, serpentine trajectories, wide pliés, and stretching arms — all without a trace of irony. It was hard to believe that this companionable bliss was for real. In stepped Pamela Wood, an older woman in African dress. She couldn't believe it either.