Modern-day salon offers accessible contemporary dance

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Kaveri Seth/Courtesy

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“No popcorn or cookies this time. We need to dance, I’m afraid.”

RAWdance’s co-artistic directors Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein played host beautifully this weekend at the 21st iteration of the CONCEPT series. Not only did they pass popcorn and pleasantries between performances, but they also took to the stage themselves, premiering an original work titled “Reset.”

With hands full of popcorn and ears full of techno-beats, audience members arranged themselves around a makeshift stage in the middle of the San Francisco War Memorial Green Room.

The high-ceilinged, gold-columned, robin’s-egg blue setting is enough to give any event an air of prestige. The curators of CONCEPT series: 21, however, balanced the high-culture vibe with silliness and fun, allowing audiences to feel at home even in a space designed to exude exclusivity.

Since 2007, San Francisco-based contemporary dance company RAWdance has hosted its “Concept series” which gives audiences an unconventional look at the choreographic process. According to the program, part of the “concept” behind the CONCEPT series is that artists are invited to show work “at any point along the creation process.” This unique viewing experience harkens back to the artist’s salons of old, complete with hors d’oeuvres, ornate décor and eccentric hosts.

Though it is unusual to see unfinished works performed for a general audience, the combination of a lavish setting and a relaxed atmosphere gave the unpolished edges of some “in-progress” performances an avant-garde sheen. And because the works were presented “in the round” with audiences on both sides, the dancers faced an additional challenge of presenting themselves completely three-dimensionally.

Of the six pieces featured this weekend, Smith and Ryan’s work was much more advanced in the choreographic process than some. After quickly changing into costumes, the duo emerged with the dancers. The high-energy, beat-driven performance was like a wacky underwater robot rave and a dinner party all in one: it was graceful and formal, but still delightfully quirky.

Equally refined was Bianca Cabrera’s “Re-Queued.” The braided partnering and the dancers’ intensity made for a captivating performance. That being said, certain motifs and presentational choices seemed to allude to a sort of unspecified genie-like caricature that was unnecessary and a bit distracting — the intricate choreography needed no gimmicks to hold the audience’s attention.

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Margo Moritz/Courtesy

A promising work of the night was an untitled duet choreographed by Courtney Mazeika. The dancers grew through space with expansive limbs as their separate movements folded into one another. The work is still “in-progress,” and has serious potential, but needs to flesh out the relationship between the dancers as it develops. As it stood, the dancers seemed to find and forget each other by accident.

The show also featured three different solo performances — each raw and vulnerable in its own way. Of the solo works, Rogelio Lopez stood out with a tender solo in one long liquid wave that poured in and out of the floor. Kristin Damrow’s “EAMES,” named after its subject furniture designer Charles Eames, was bright and angular, but felt a bit stunted by the design-oriented gestures and could develop a more dynamic character going forward. Bhumi B. Patel’s “remaining tender” was simple and evocative, but the internal focus did not always translate well to the audience.

Seeing the pieces in various forms of completion brought up an interesting question: How do you ever know when a piece of art is “finished?” The CONCEPT series troubles the idea that art is a product to be packaged and consumed, and instead invites audiences and choreographers to take a more fluid approach.

The vulnerability the dancers and choreographers offered up by displaying works in progress and revisited works added to the casual and accessible environment — the “pay-what-you-can” philosophy and hourlong runtime certainly help as well. For both audiences new to contemporary dance and old-timers seeking out an alternative to the tried and true black-box scene, RAWdance’s CONCEPT series is a must-see.

Contact Katie O’Connor at [email protected].