Whiffs of nostalgia and currency run through digital RAD Fest

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — In an all-digital format, the 12th edition of the Regional Alternative Dance Festival (RAD Fest) brought tastes of this splendid festival to an at-home audience. The schedule kept to the conventions of years past, with two streamed concerts, a youth performance, a dance film screening, classes and discussions held throughout the weekend.

Watching the smattering of dance works making up the second of two professional performances last Saturday on my laptop, I felt, for the most part, the essence of what makes RAD Fest so special. Under the umbrella of “alternative dance,” everything from ballet to hip-hop showed up in this particular array of seven pieces. While a few were clearly newer creations, the night began with what appeared to be archival footage of RAD Fest frequent flyers Chicago Repertory Ballet in their 2015 piece “Wasteland.”

CRB has two identities: The contemporary ballet company regularly tackles evening-length narratives, interspersed with periods of amorphous experimentation. “Wasteland” is an example of the latter, with six dancers in flesh-toned underthings gorgeously traipsing the stage in what appears to be an abstraction of desolation and despair — maybe.

“Wasteland” is one of three pieces by Chicago artists on this all-Midwestern program, a rarity for the festival that, despite its name, typically attracts artists from across the U.S. Coming second on the bill is Chicago’s Irene Hsiao in “Transformation,” created with filmmakers Vin Reed and Giau Minh Truong. The piece is filmed amongst Yin Xiuzhen’s 1997 installation of the same name, which was part of Smart Museum’s “Allure of Matter” exhibit last summer.

Xiuzhen’s piece consists of bits of concrete salvaged from Beijing rubble as a city in transition tore down buildings to make room for a modern metropolis. Overlaying each tile is a photograph, the contents of which are illegible on this video but form a curve atop the stones, which provide the slightest contrast from a stark-white floor and background, plus the white gown Hsiao dons as she slides to and fro, often with a white umbrella and always with her knee-length dark locks swirling around her. Our vantage point is our screens showing Hsiao dancing in front of a screen of her own, for a duet (or sometimes a trio) with herself as the film plays behind her. Though her movement is subtle, abstract and largely nondescript, all signs point to the residue time and artifacts leave on our memory. Similarly, “Transformation” is a piece that becomes more meaningful the further away you get from it — frustratingly long and repetitive in the moment; all too short in the annals of dance watching.

Closing the evening is South Chicago Dance Theatre with “Litanies.” SCDT is no stranger to Kalamazoo; director Kia Smith, attended Western Michigan University prior to starting the company in her native Chicago. And they are, at this point, a well-oiled machine that performs easy-on-the-eyes dances while leaning fervently into topics of race and social justice. “Litanies,” by choreographer Crystal Michelle Perkins, is no exception.

Wisconsin’s Kate Corby offers an excerpted version of her 2019 work “Dance Like a Man,” featuring Josh Anderson and Mikey Rioux in a tongue-in-cheek pal-around on the travails of being a man in the dance field. The rest of the lot are solos: “Drawbridge” by Grand Haven’s Rya Greene, “Lullaby” by Alice Svetic (a recent grad of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Corby teaches) and “Wait For It,” by Lawrence Calbert.

Of those — all of which appear to be new based on each choreographer/soloist wearing a mask — Calbert’s is most memorable. The Kalamazoo native offers a simple montage set to a “Hamilton” track, his hat and tie layering a jovial, gentlemanly vibe over a slightly softened pop and lock set.

What the online version of RAD Fest can’t possibly capture, of course, is the celebratory verve of the Epic Center which spills into locations across the downtown core each year. For this critic, Kalamazoo becomes a dance destination, at a minimum, one weekend a year. While that feeling is inevitably lost on the 13″ laptop in my dining room, this place holder only deepens my affection for RAD Fest and makes me yearn for next year Buying Soma.

Header photo: A still from Irene Hsiao’s “Transformation”