Fantasy, humor, sensuality and malady converge in first day of RADFest

A March snowstorm was no match for the hearty Michigan audiences who brushed off their boots and flocked to the Wellspring Theater for Friday night’s opening of the 2023 Midwest Regional Alternative Dance Festival. Now in its 14th season, RADFest has become an arts staple in Kalamazoo, attracting performers from across the U.S. and Canada to teach, create and perform.

Cori Terry, founder and director of RADFest’s host company Wellspring/Cori Terry and Dancers, knows first hand the power of bringing modern, contemporary and experimental dance to the Midwest. Founded in 1981, Wellspring holds the title of the region’s first and longest standing modern dance company. As the purveyors of RADFest and pioneers of an extensive local dance lineage, it seemed only fitting that Wellspring opened the first show of 2023’s RADFest performance series.

Indicative of Terry’s extensive performance credentials with the Erick Hawkins Dance Company, her work, “The Center Of …” came stamped with the high released chests, spiraled turns and controlled runs characteristic of classic modern dance. With flexed legs raised and arms curved, six dancers dressed in variations of black shirts, pants and dresses went about the business of performing patterns. A recording of ocean waves gave way to Julia Lowe’s “Flowers.” An accompanying flurry of projected roses tumbled behind the dancers. While performers Marisa Bianan, Emily McKee, Andrew Niedbala, Emily Shunksy, Nirvan Singh, Alexis Smith and Angel Sutton all demonstrated technical clarity through interlocking patterns of flocking, threading, weaving, rolling and balance – Bianan caught me off guard with a particularly suspended back attitude – the choreography felt too upright and risk averse for my contemporary sensibilities.

Malachi Middleton and Glenn Rodriguez sizzled in Bernard Brown’s “The Sweetness of Sweat.” Bare chested and clad in white joggers, these two queer men of color splayed their bodies open for consumption. Middleton and Rodriguez undulated, pulsed and swung their bodies, contending with the blatant discrimination and violence enacted against queer bodies during the AIDS epidemic. Visceral silence filled the theater as a recorded AIDS era newscast broke AIDS victims into two categories: guilty gay drug users and clean straight innocents. The undeniably homoerotic partnership rebelled against the guilty verdict. Middleton strolled in close from behind to pull Rodriguez’s leg skyward. An intimate connection at the forehead spiraled into a grind. Middleton’s hand slipped down to grab Rodriguez’s crotch. The men’s sweat glistened; their venerated chests and white pants smearing their assigned dereliction with innocence. On his website, Brown identifies his choreography as advocacy at the intersection of blackness, belonging, and memory. This work upheld all of these values through exceptional dancing and choreography seething with confrontational intimacy.

Claire Porter’s “Sexy Grammar,” was the cheeky TED talk strip tease I didn’t know I needed. Self-aware and irreverent, Porter introduced audiences to a lecture-demonstration-turned-voyeurism project set at a local library. While slowly shimmying out of layers of clothes — a skirt, two shirts patterned with printed words, another skirt – Porter expertly transitioned between speaking through a glitched out word association game and an actual grammar lesson. In grammar, she confided — pushing her chin slightly to the side then adjusting her hip just so — one composes oneself. Music by David Rose egged Porter on, the trombone slides wailing away as she stripped off her final shirt (a short sleeve reading “WORD”) to reveal the top half of a black lace bodysuit. Blatantly dashing any misgivings about her age, she flashed a “watch this” smile before whipping off a pair of silk shorts flaunting the body suit in its entirety. Bare legged and liberated, she strutted about the stage in her sensible, low heeled black shoes — the trademark of a seasoned librarian. With a victorious thrust of her hand to the sky, a strand of pearls tucked between her teeth, Porter declared the completion of a clever lesson in ageism and sexy word play. The audience giggled and catcalled. I for one have never been so tickled by grammar.   

A dance born in chaos, Bonnie O’ Rourke self-identified her duet, “Easy,” as “heart and soul of those who find success in doing…anything.” While I agree with O’Rourke’s claim that the dance itself “bursts with athletic energy,” I had trouble anchoring that energy in any unifying choreographic throughline. The dance, performed by O’Rourke and Destiny Churchwell, included large doses of floorwork better suited for a contemporary phrase work class than a staged performance. I appreciated the dexterity and skill required to achieve the spiraled acrobatics that characterized much of the work’s partnering. For me, these choices would have been more effective if the performer’s characters — sometimes allies, sometimes adversaries, sometimes Tweedledee and Tweedledum — had a more conclusive reason for their relationship. The decision to set the choreography to Son Lux’s “Easy,” and calling the dance by the same name, gave the work a juvenile dance competition lean that overshadowed the performers’ physical talents. I would be curious to see this dance again with a clearer choreographic direction and different music.

As the evening came to a close, a hush washed over the audience. RADicle artist Thryn Saxon’s “Seolh” opened with a soft center spotlight revealing the rippling bare back and cascading brunette hair of musician Bre Short who summoned a ballad of the ocean from her keyboard. Dancers Thryn Saxon and Jamie Kleinschnitz curled into one another, rolling each other tenderly upstage in a tide of their own making before coaxing Costales into the waves. Saxon brushed the hair from Costales’s brow, the gesture at once motherly and sinister. Pushed to standing, a wide-eyed Costales lumbered, flipped and eddied. Knees open, she pressed her chest forward and settled into her hips. Kleinschnitz joined Costales for an invigorating, expertly performed unison. The two dove, nuzzled and conspiratorially circled one another while Saxon supervised. The three dancers slipped across the stage on their stomachs, propelled by turned out flipper hands as their heavy legs swung behind them. They flung their hair with purpose, demanding to be gazed upon. The work was as multi-dimensional as womanhood itself, at once feral, regal, soft, mysterious, sensual, soulful, confident and strong.

RADFest 2023 continues through Sunday at various downtown Kalamazoo locations. A virtual encore of all four short work performance series programs and the youth showcase will be available for online audiences March 10-12. Tickets at