Nickerson-Rossi Dance cruises with Full Throttle

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Choreographer Michael Nickerson-Rossi now splits his time directing bi-coastal dance troupes Nickerson-Rossi Dance West, based in L.A. and NRD East, with eight dancers based in Philadelphia. The company is becoming a more visible presence in the Philadelphia community. This month they held their first dance ‘lab’ during a five day run at the Performance Garage, with Philadelphia area dancers participating in master classes and experimental workshops. The sessions culminated in a performance on August 10th, comprised of repertory works by Nickerson-Rossi and guest choreographers. In the first half of the program and the accompanying premiere of the director’s ballet Full Throttle, twenty or so ‘outreach’ dancers joined the NDR roster of eight dancers.

Nickerson-Rossi established his company in 2012 and so far in Philly has presented excerpts of his choreography on programs with other companies, notably the Hope Rising benefit at Temple and Koresh’s Come Together Festival.  Full Throttle offered an introduction to the full NRD East company and a sampling of company’s repertory.

Choreographer Jamie Nichols’ solo Celestial Spirit opened the concert. The piece was premiered at the 2018 Palm Springs Festival (an event co-founded by Nickerson Rossi). Heidi Buehler, of NRD West, came to Philly to perform this piece. Scored to a poem by Herman Hesse (recited by Nichols) and aria from Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, Nichols keeps this choreographically literal as Buehler moves over the stage under a long white sash of silk, creating eerie shapes and inner turmoil. The somberness gets a bit static until Buehler breaks out in more liberated movement, Buehler sacrificing technique for more drama befitting the existential themes.

Nickerson-Rossi’s With from 2013 is a duet danced by Rachel Bunting and Rosemary Scalise. It conjures a playful and adversarial physical dialogue between them that defines their relationship.  Nickerson-Rossi’s idiosyncratic movement and sharp ballet fusion technique articulated their intense connection. The choreography belies their secret language and these dancers draw you closer to their relationship struggle and indelible connection, a universality that could be representative of sisters, best friends, mother-daughter or lovers.   

Italian dancer-choreographer, Lorenzo Pagano, is currently a soloist with the Martha Graham Company. and has previously collaborated with Nickerson-Rossi as dancer and dancemaker. Pagano’s 2017 piece, Eterno Ritorno, with a pulsing orchestral soundscape, featured NRD principals Chad Allen Ortiz and Sarah Warren opening in a dramatic enigmatic duet inching over the floor.  They are joined by apprentice dancers Angelina Lenzer, Christiana Lenzer and Niccolo Orsolani. Pagano’s more lyrical choreography has the aesthetic power, in the best sense of Graham technique, and these dancers make the most of it with precision and dramatic flair.

Finishing the first act is Nickerson-Rossi’s Thee Threads an excerpt from his ballet, Attainment. Pairing Ortiz and Warren, is an exemplar of the director-choreographer’s clarity of movement, in a series of idiosyncratic duet phrases, punctuated with lifts that just float, and otherwise danced with impeccable balletic line by these partners.

For the simple fact that it was created in five hours, on the company’s dancers and 17 guest dancers chosen from the week’s lab sessions, Nickerson-Rossi’s Full Throttle was the concert highlight.  A three-part ‘study’, it was cohesive, eloquent and most impressive, looking energized with a solid foundation for creative development. The first section is a comedy ala ‘A Chorus Line’, as the dancers pull back the rehearsal curtain, talking about their lives and taking swipes at Nickerson-Rossi’s methods in the studio. As they go through their in-studio paces, and ‘free to flock around’ swipes at the choreographer’s instruction, they break out in fab free dance and indulge in shameless Instagram moments with the audience.

Following, in contrast, is a haunting trio, with soloist Barby Roche, Christiana, and Angelina Lenzer. Too brief to figure out what is dramatically going on, Nickerson-Rossi’s gives these three dancers choreography that taps their technical and personal artistry.

In the final movement, nine women and one man appear on stage in staggered lines, rising and falling, each tier offering exacting waves of movement variations. As the rest of the dancers sweep on stage, the patterns become more complex.  Most impressive was the assured ensemble work with the full integration of the NRD East company members and newbie Philly outreach dancers –  together moving with such ensemble technical interplay and esprit de corps.  Meanwhile, the music by Ezio Bosso has the propulsive Philip Glass-esque drive that ignites Nickerson-Rossi’s choreography.

The stated core mission of Nickerson-Rossi Dance, “thrives to be community-centric” was ambitiously represented in this program. Just as impressive is the obvious camaraderie and positivity that Nickerson-Rossi fosters with immersive training, educational and studio environments.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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