I wish the opening of the WestWave Festival’s “DanceWave” series had been as strong as the “DanceWave 3” program I caught last night. In addition to a stunning performance by AXIS Dance’s Rodney Bell and Sonsheree Giles in Alex Ketley’s riveting “To Color Me Different,” I especially enjoyed Chris Black’s deadpan “Headlines,” with its overlapping medley of inspirational pop songs accompanied by deliciously ridiculous movement phrases. The skirt-shaking vitality of Afro Puerto Rican troupe Hablando con Tambores was a major discovery, and it was an eye-opener to see leading Joe Goode dancer Jessica Swanson moving those hips Middle Eastern style with Zooz Dance Company. Even when the choreography disappointed, as in the talented Brittany Brown Ceres’s “Shade,” the dancing last night was always professional and frequently luxurious, as with Ballet Afsaneh soloist Tara Catherine Pandeya.

Wednesday’s “DanceWave 2” did not reach such a consistent standard, but I enjoyed Alayna Stroud’s artful pole dance (no, not the naughty kind) and the elegant Odissi dance of Guru Shradha. Fellow Travelers Performance Group rolled out their trademark dark absurdity in “Cocktail Hour,” with its central dancer strapped into what looked like a medieval torture device, a wooden wheel attached by ballast to her back, orbiting the stage as she turned in place and fellow dancers with martinis ducked beneath its axis.

Humor is in the funny bone of the beholder; I heard notable dance rabble rouser Keith Hennessy squealing in delight at Amy Lewis’s “How many presents/balls/chips/scarves/books/hearts/circles can you wrap/catch/win/throw/read/cut out/make in four minutes thirty-two seconds?,” while what struck me as pure obnoxiousness made me long to flee the theater. The beautifully danced hula of Halau o Keikiali’i soothed my nerves.

I still feel torn between appreciating the WestWave Dance Festival’s special role in the Bay Area dance scene, and wanting a more curated approach. As it stands, I find it too uneven to recommend to the general public–but it’s an important place for choreographers, especially younger ones, to try out ideas, and it’s useful for making discoveries.

One thing I feel certain of is the effectiveness of the new five-minute format. Knowing that every piece was between four minutes and thirty-two seconds and five minutes made for a fascinating comparative study. When a piece felt interminable, you registered this all the more clearly. I found myself spending most of my viewing time thinking about why one piece was engrossing, another never-ending, and contemplating the ways my personal prejudices and tastes played into the equation.

Dancers’ Group did a heroic job keeping the WestWave going. The Bay Area does need it. I hope it returns in some form in 2009.

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