Laguna Dance Festival Beams in Sublime Dancers and Choreographers As Seen on TV

Stardust. Photo by Rachel Neville

A David Bowie tribute by New York-based Complexions Contemporary Ballet headlines the 14th-annual Laguna Dance Festival this weekend, which will also feature master classes, preshow talks, and a gala of solos and duets with professional ballet dancers. The work and backstage lives of some of these pros have been seen on such TV fare as Breaking Pointe, America’s Got Talent and the elite-level So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD).

While Skylar Campbell will return to his hometown to perform with the National Ballet of Canada, a particular Anaheim Hills local won’t be making an appearance because she’s already on tour with SYTYCD’s top 10. Contemporary dancer Hannahlei Cabanilla won it all on this summer’s 15th season of the show, slaying every style she drew, from hip-hop to disco to some dubious mash-up done in very high heels called, er, heels.

The festival gets under way on Thursday, Oct. 4 via “Backstage With Complexions,” a free demonstration and live rehearsal with the company led by artistic director/choreographer of Stardust Dwight Rhoden. Desmond Richardson and Rhoden, two Alvin Ailey dancers and frequent contributors to SYTYCD, co-founded Complexions, and their innovative and demanding movement is infused with an undeniable life force. For 25 years, they have been devoted to removing barriers with their multicultural mix of dancers and aesthetic choices. According to the company mission, “Whether it be the limiting traditions of a single style, period, venue or culture, Complexions transcends them all, creating an open, continually evolving form of dance that reflects the movement of our world—and all its constituent cultures—as an interrelated whole.”

Friday is the OC debut of Stardust, with a preperformance talk beginning at 6:30 p.m. on the Laguna Playhouse stage. Inspired by the shape-shifting genius of Bowie, Rhoden began work on Stardust prior to the icon’s masterful exit from this life via Blackstar. “I just loved that he was a chameleon, touched every genre of music,” Rhoden says in an interview on the company’s website. “He wasn’t afraid.” How will the fearless Rhoden capture Bowie’s 50 years of prolific output? The range of living and creating is spectacular.

There’s the U.S. promo tour in 1971, when Bowie wore a dress to interviews, and the 1977 duet of “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby. Will we see his music-hall-and-space-alien influenced personae as well as the drug-addled fascism of the Thin White Duke? Among Bowie’s acting roles are Tesla, Andy Warhol, Pontius Pilate, extraterrestrials and vampires. Just narrowing down the iconic tunes that made the cut into the 40-minute production boggles the mind; four of the nine finalists are “Changes,” “Rock and Roll Suicide,” “Heroes” and “Space Oddity.” Bowie’s influence on other artists may never wane—Rhoden says his young dancers in Stardust have become avid fans.

Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, “Stars of Dance” takes the stage, featuring professionals from Ballet West, the National Ballet of Canada and San Francisco Ballet; excerpts from Complexions’ repertory including Stardust; dancers from USC’s inaugural BFA program, including one piece choreographed by festival founder and artistic director Jodie Gates; and DIAVOLO/Architecture in Motion’s Knockturne. DIAVOLO’s creative process is intriguing, as the dancers choreograph themselves in relation to the physical constructions created by director Jacques Heim.

Dancers aged 12 and up of intermediate or advanced skill level have the opportunity to take master classes from Complexions (Saturday) and principal dancer Beckanne Sisk of Ballet West (Sunday) at Laguna Beach High School’s studio. Because education is a principal mission of Laguna Dance Festival, a $50 student package includes Sunday’s morning class, a preshow talk at the Playhouse, followed by the 2 p.m. performance of “Stars of Dance.”

Much later in October, Sankofa Danzafro of Colombia perform La Ciudad de los Otros (The City of Others) by director Rafael Palacio. Also presented by Laguna Dance Festival, its powerful integration of Afro-Colombian dance with urban movement is dynamic, rhythmic and athletic. There’s an abandoned quality in the solos, but a tight synchronicity within the ensemble that’s made all the more thrilling by the accompaniment of live drumming and singing. The Oct. 25 event starts with a 6:30 p.m. reception at the Neighborhood Congregational Church’s Bridge Hall.

Laguna Dance Festival at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach; Thurs.-Sun., Oct. 4-7. See website for schedule and ticket information.

Sankofa Danzafro performs at Neighborhood Congregational Church, Bridge Hall, 340 St. Anns Dr., Laguna Beach; Oct. 25, 6:30 p.m. $50.

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