Review: Mark Stuart Dance Theatre's When Change Comes is a Revelation for a Revolution

By: Sep. 27, 2018
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Review: Mark Stuart Dance Theatre's When Change Comes is a Revelation for a Revolution

BWW Review: Mark Stuart Dance Theatre's When Change Comes is a Revelation for a Revolution

In Autumn 2015, Mark Stuart created Standard Time, a provocative theatrical dance show that covered generations of significant times in recent American history (about a hundred years) that were marked by three shattering changes: 1928 (The Great Depression -- Class), 1968 (Civil Rights Movement -- Race) and 2008 (The LGBTQ Rights Movement -- Sexuality).

Standard Time received both critical and audience acclaim and was, in all senses of a limited Off-Broadway run of a dance theatre show, a success. After that, Stuart thought he was finished, proud of what had been accomplished and ready to move on, perhaps even change directions himself.

Then, less than a year later, while on a tour of Evita with his then-girlfriend, now fiancé, dancer/choreographer Jaime Verazin, they watched on the news the horror that was the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice, France, which took the lives of 86 people and injured 458 others. Stuart was devastated and paralyzed with grief, a lack of knowing how best to contribute and what to do to help remedy the sorrows such an occurrence had created. With no money to donate, no power to influence, he only had his art and expression.

And then, 2016 continued onward, and the situation in the world and America became more desperate -- school shootings, mass shootings, police brutality, hate crimes of all kinds against all peoples and, of course, the results of the 2016 Presidential Election.

Stuart who, with his partner Verazin, was involved in the Broadway sensation Bandstand in 2017, transformed his paralysis into passion and began to re-imagine Standard Time into When Change Comes -- an even more powerful, remarkable, and transformative experience not only for the audiences but for the performers and creators themselves. The result is nothing short of revolutionary!

The transfixed audience were gobsmacked by the uncomfortable truths presented to them with such sincerity, painful beauty and complete vulnerability that reflects the myriad experiences of Americans over the past 100 years and their struggles for acceptance and love when only criticism, rejection and denial were available. The indisputable power of emotional expression through non-verbal communication is executed by performers with superior skills in dance, but even stronger talents for baring their souls and by doing so, the desires, anguish and struggles of generations before them. Voiceovers of newsreels connect the eras through defining moments and link the seemingly disparate times together through a shared human experience.

When Change Comes has many merits for any show: the dancers are top notch -- the kind who can flow seamlessly from modern to ballet to theatrical to swing to partnering to break dancing to era-specific moves without so much as appearing to break a sweat. All of them are superb but particular praise must be heaped upon Jaime Verazin, Marc A. Heitzman and Voltaire Wade-Greene who played the leading roles in each of the pieces spanning the decades.

There is a live band, directed by musical savant James Nathan Hopkins (Sax/Keys/Clarinet) and a crew of talented musicians (including twin brothers Daniel and David Bailen and guitarist Beth Callen) who glide across a century of musical styles and genres, borrowing two of the other performers who take a break from the dance floor to sing: Brian Golub and Mary Page Nance. (Nance also compellingly played a leading role of "The Heiress" in the 1928 exploration of Class.)

Any one of these elements would make When Change Comes a worthy investment, but what is really astounding and almost inconceivable when one watches the show is among the most compelling reasons to see and support it -- that 75% of the movement is completely improvised.

While watching the diverse, often era-specific movements, dynamic partnering and complicated lifts, their spontaneity seemed truly incredible, particularly when the rehearsal time for this engagement was quite limited -- how could such a thing be possible and how could it be safe?

Within the answer might lie one of the most revolutionary approaches to dance and physical expressions of emotions in the 21st Century: Stuart and his company began each rehearsal by meditation and then gazing into each other's eyes in order to truly "see each other." Conversations were also a huge part of the process with a focus on a re-evaluation of the material and the impact of the narratives being told.

Almost half of the performers are People of Color and several represent the LGBTQ community. They expressed strong opinions about what was being presented and the authenticity needed to portray it accurately. From there the structure was implemented, not in the form of rigid choreography but "parameters", as Stuart describes it. What these "parameters" did was set the rules of the realities depicted, for example: "You two fall in love, he is of lower class/financial background than you and this is forbidden (also -- he is of a different race and it is forbidden, he is of the same sex and it is forbidden), it takes two songs to fall in love, there are one to two lifts within this time frame but only if it feels authentic. Go!"

The rest is left up to the performers and their truth in the moment. They have to read each other by visual cues and trust one another so completely that their safety rests not only on their emotional rawness but their dependency on the scene partner to give the physical cues needed to execute such extraordinary feats flawlessly while remaining grounded.

In creating a safe space for the performers to feel seen and heard and also to see and hear not only their cast-mates' thoughts, feelings and experiences but explore such sincere investigations with strangers (even and especially those with differing opinions and views) as outside preparation work for their inner richness, the company has become capable of a vulnerability, emotional depth and sincerity rarely seen at that level in dance.

Spanning multiple generations without a fixed punctuation of time (more of an ellipsis), When Change Comes is both backward-gazing and forward thinking. It shows that we may feel we have come far but still have a long way to go.

Mark Stuart Dance Theatre believes that true change can and will come if only we are willing to both look deeply into ourselves and truly see one another. When Change Comes demonstrates power and truth in that belief and reminds one that it takes a few fearless and determined individuals to ignite the first sparks that started every worthy revolution.


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