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Austin gains a miraculous new dance troupe in Ishida

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Maddie Medina and Myles Lavallee perform in "Longing Floats Around You," a new dance by Brett Ishida.

Imagine being trapped inside a dancer's body during the past 18 months of pandemic.

You can train, practice and rehearse before a mirror, through a computer screen, or perhaps within a strictly circumscribed health bubble. But every nerve, muscle and instinct tells you that this is not enough. 

Where is the audience, that crucial partner in every performance? 

Members of the miraculous new Austin troupe, Ishida, almost burst out of their skins from the opening moments of "Faraway, So Close," their first in-person show since the start of the pandemic. 

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At the stunning Dell Fine Arts Center at St. Andrew's — once again following pandemic protocols — we in the audience knew a little bit about what they felt, because we have been deprived of this vital, shared experience for so long.

Founded by California native Brett Ishida in 2019, this group, whose dance credits are nothing short of extraordinary, performed together first in January 2020. (I missed that show.) Like performers everywhere, they went into lockdown even before their second scheduled show in June 2020 was canceled.

Artistic director Ishida had created this August evening's first piece, "Dream of Black You Came Roaming," for that June 2020 concert, but we only glimpsed a fragment of it during "Faraway, So Close." During the intervening time, the troupe faced countless challenges, including two dancers who fell ill. This fragment felt straightforwardly incomplete.

All three performed dances bore the imprint of the COVID-19 crisis, by design or not.

"Dream," for instance, starts with two women drenched with water and continues with four men struggling with unexplained physical disturbances.

Bret Easterling's "True Love Will Find You In the End" neatly fits into a COVID-19 narrative: As lovers, Elise Monson and Anthony Tette perform separately to varied types of music. Yet every time they touch, a medical alarm goes off, and, breaking character, they apologize to each other. Gratefully, they are finally allowed to hug warmly and perform gloriously in tandem. It's a beautiful and moving dance.

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Ishida's "Longing Floats Around You" takes on a more complicated project. Three couples are simultaneously confined by physical intimacy with their partners. They start off in dark, somber clothes, then lose some of their outer clothing.

While they appear to enjoy the closeness, they also seem to grow grouchy. Ishida edges amazingly close to the feelings of loving couples who nevertheless need space, and not just in the conventional sense.

Jamaii Melvin lifts Anthony Tette in "Longing Floats Around You," a dance by Brett Ishida.

All these performers, who come from some of the best schools and companies in the country, could go toe to toe with any longtime Austin dancer. Their lifts alone are vaulting revelations.

These dancers are more than just good. At times, they are Hubbard Street Dance Chicago good. Or Joffrey Ballet good.

Ballet Austin has already earned a national profile. So have Tapestry, Forklift Danceworks, Blue Lapis Light and some other Austin troupes, along with singular creators such as Deborah Hay. The University of Texas dance program, too, is blazing new trails.

So is Austin evolving into a miniature Chicago, Seattle, Miami or San Francisco for multiple forms of dance? Hope springs eternal.

"Faraway, So Close" will be repeated Aug. 19-21 at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center in Houston, so maybe in the future we'll regularly share Ishida with our Texas neighbors.

Either way, count me completely converted.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.