Final RAD Fest late show saves the best for last

It’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday and I’m nearly in tears. No, this is not an overly emotional farewell to RADFest 2023, but rather a moment of stunned appreciation for the final dance of the festival’s short works series. Excuse the cliche, but the RADFest curators sure know how to save the best for last.

On the wooden floor of the Judy K. Jolliffe Theatre, Kevin Williamson stands atop a pile of loam, microphone in hand. Maria Gillespie, dressed all in red, reclines in front of him. Williamson begins to tell a story: “I take a pill every night. It’s so effective, I don’t cry at the gym anymore.” In a loose black shirt and pants, Nguyên Nguyên picks up a long stick with two plastic bags filled with water suspended from each side. He balances the apparatus on his head. A projection plays in the background, mapping images of the three performers traipsing through snow, running in the middle of the road, sliding down dunes and crawling through the desert. On stage, Nguyên lets the full weight of his head fall into Gillespie’s hands, the momentum pulls the two into an exciting sideways slide to the floor. The dancers balance head to head at a precarious angle with their feet planted far away from the center point. They swing, loop, jump, dive and fall in unison. Gillespie launches herself into a soaring horizontal throw, landing in the loam. Even as an excerpt, “To Get There From Here” is absolutely sublime. The dance is nostalgic, communal, loving, painful, expertly crafted and hands down my favorite work of the festival. 

The other group dance in this program, Rowan Janusiak’s “Comeuppance of Turbulence – Thunderclap,” also holds a spot in my top five picks of RADFest 2023’s short works. Back in the Wellspring Theater, Janusiak composes a surreal daydream. Warm light cascades over jumbled rows of chairs. Two suitcases—one large and yellow, the other small and patterned in reds, greens, yellows and purples—establish the rows as the seating arrangements on a deconstructed airplane. Protagonist Steph Gennusa—one of the stand out performers in this evening’s program—nosedives over the front of their chair and arches perilously, face down with their legs extended up to the sky. They spiral, flip and fly fearlessly, rocketing across the stage with abandon. ElleAnna Casterline, Kristin Hanson, Alana Packo, Amelie Vidrio and Ariel Vidrio stumble zombie-like onto the red eye flight. They drag themselves down the aisle. Packo and Gennusa climb onto an upstage chair together. The pair embrace and slowly rotate to Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” as chaos ensues beneath them. Gradually, the rotation turns into a shake and then a hop as the pair, locked together, chug the chair across the stage. They peek out into the aisle, figuring out how to return to their seats after their mile-high commotion. Janusiak has an exceptional compositional eye. Every detail of this dance from costume colors and textures, to the multiple arrangements of chairs and an expansive dance theater movement vocabulary has been carefully crafted and well thought out. I can’t wait to see more of their work in the future. 

The rest of the program consists of solos. 

Improvisation appears in multiple layers throughout Kent De Spain’s “Discourse.” A surround sound voice asks: “What do you do for fun?” “Are you married?” and “Can you hear me?” Sometimes, De Spain answers verbally. Sometimes, he uses the questions as springboards for movement improvisation. Other times, he opens his mouth wide but an answer never escapes his lips. He swallows the question. In response to the voice from above, De Spain looks up at the sky, perhaps watching a plane fly by or otherwise imagining shape shifting clouds. He crawls to a chair. His hands touch his stomach. He extracts something seemingly vile from his mouth. Selected at random by Max/MSP patch, a program that randomizes sound order from a bank of options, the arsenal of questions pelt De Spain. He puts his hands together as if in prayer, takes a final pass around the chair and looks out once more as the lights fade on his echo chamber.   

Performer Benjamin Cheney dances through a technicolor world in Peter Sparling’s “Valley of Sighs.” As bright blue, yellow, red, purple and green projected paintings kaleidoscope behind him, Cheney flies his arms wide, sweeping his legs in circles as he blissfully skates across the stage. He keeps his focus largely to himself, though I can see his smile. Sparling intends to periodically leave negative space within the projections for Cheney to occupy. Unfortunately, this design choice is only effective if the viewer watches from a seat that is aligned with center stage. From my stage left vantage point, the projections run over Cheney, the colors obscuring rather than framing him. I would rather watch Cheney’s joyous dancing without the projection than lose him among the colors. 

Dressed in a blue track jacket, blue shirt and red pants, Nora Sharp swaggers in from the upstage left corner. Pelvis leading the way, they sniff and promptly wrinkle their nose in disgust. Their identity changes throughout their self-choreographed excerpt of “The Dumpster out Back,” the personality shifts marked by signature clothing items. They layer down into a t-shirt, snap on a glittery suspender and don the jacket again. One of the personalities, “Hey! It’s me, not Jeff,” holds the leading role in this story. Not Jeff serves as middle management, keeping the militant stare and sinister chuckle of the jacket-clad identity in check with the overeagerness of the goofy single-suspendered frat bro. Sharp live loops the sound for the end of this dance, including a series of sung “oohs” and a voicemail to Jeff from Not Jeff. For me, this production is too long and doesn’t align with my aesthetic preferences. It feels more like a work of theater that happens to have some dance in it rather than holding dance as the primary focus.

Butoh comes to Michigan in Laura Swedenborg’s latest untitled work. According to her bio, Swendenborg views butoh as a dance that can be found at the intersection of stage, public performance and spiritual practice. Her dance, hypnotically slow, glacially patient and beautifully grotesque, holds true to these values. Wearing a white dress and covered in white paint from her bald head to the bottoms of her feet, Swedenborg dips her foot into a cone of light descending from the ceiling. She tilts her chin up to the light, lip twitching. Her head droops to her shoulder as her knees buckle in slow motion, jutting her hip to one side. Her movement and dress gives the appearance of a haunted babydoll. She may be very old, or very young, or emaciated, or porcelain, or animal. Her fingers shake to the far off reverberations of a Stacey Pickering sound bath. Swedenborg curls in on herself, her elbows akimbo. She coils and contorts. Micro quakes vibrate through her face and shoulders. The audience sits in silence, seemingly entranced by Swedenborg’s astounding patience. 

A virtual encore of all four RADFest professional series programs and the youth showcase will be available for online audiences March 10-12. Tickets at