Arts & Culture

Tiny stage, big emotions: Ten Tiny Dances Tacoma returns to Jazzbones

VIDEO: Two friends find healing in dance

Tacoma's annual Ten Tiny Dances is usually a challenge because of its limitations: a stage just four by four feet. But this year, one of the dances is difficult in a deeper way. Vince-John Frijas has created a dance with his friend Angel Williams
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Tacoma's annual Ten Tiny Dances is usually a challenge because of its limitations: a stage just four by four feet. But this year, one of the dances is difficult in a deeper way. Vince-John Frijas has created a dance with his friend Angel Williams

At Fircrest’s Image Studio of Dance on a late Monday, two very different rehearsals are happening in adjacent studios. One is striking but not unexpected: Two dance students, clad in dramatic black and white, are spinning and curving on a black mat that’s 4-foot by 4-foot, just like the stage they’ll perform on Sunday night at Tacoma’s annual Ten Tiny Dances. But in the other studio, a more unusual Ten Tiny act is taking shape — one dancer comforting another on the very real-life death of a friend.

“A lot of people try to avoid (grief), but I think the best way is to face it head on,” says choreographer Vince John “VJ” Frijas. “The cool thing about dance is that you can talk about things without saying a single word.”

With dance you can expose yourself without saying anything. That’s the most exciting thing about being a dancer.

Lauren Sanford, choreographer

Frijas would know. For the past few weeks, he’s been working out a duet with dancer and friend Angel Williams, who recently lost a good high school friend in an accident. As the two step in, weave away, embrace and touch hands in the Fircrest rehearsal studio, you can see the pain and comfort flowing back and forth like a visual song.

“When I asked Angel what she thought about doing (this dance for Ten Tiny), facing the pain, I think she was terrified,” said Frijas, a hip-hop and contemporary dancer who directs Image Studio. “But it’s like I’m helping her through it.”

Ten Tiny Dances is an annual event that began in Portland in 2002 and is still overseen by Portland creator Mike Barber. Run in Tacoma by former MLKBallet members Faith Stevens and Lorraine Constantine, it has always been a fundraiser, first for MLKBallet and, since the tuition-free school folded, the MLKBallet scholarship fund at Tacoma City Ballet. The premise is simple: Put 10 short dance acts onto a stage small enough to fit anywhere — a bar, a club, a café — and see how creative the choreographers can get. The Jazzbones bar setting adds a casual, social vibe to the all-ages show.

Tacoma’s Ten Tiny has seen solos, duos, even five dancers crammed onto that 4-foot platform in the middle of Jazzbones. It’s seen ballet, mock ballet, tap, contemporary, yoga-inspired dance and performance theater. This year, the show adds a pole dancer (Jane Courtney, from Athena Vertical) and flamenco (Emilie Stevens and Ben Meersman). Other acts include Ten Tiny veterans Vincent Michael Lopez and Kate Monthy, Seattle choreographer Cyrus Khambatta, Lara Seefeldt and Laura Aschoff. The Barefoot Collective will perform a pre-show dance installation around the stage to the music of classical guitarist Alex Hart and violinist Maggie Booher.

Tacoma’s Ten Tiny Dances has seen solos, duos, trios, even five dancers crammed onto that 4-foot platform doing ballet and mock-ballet, tap, contemporary and performance theater.

Audiences are advised to get there early: Ten Tiny regularly sells out and last year netted more than $2,000 for the scholarship fund.

Ironically, not every choreographer finds the tiny stage a challenge. For Lauren Sanford, who’s creating the black and white duo in the other Image school studio, it’s actually more of a freedom.

“It’s kind of fun for me because in competitions, which I spent years doing, we don’t get to go over three minutes,” explains Sanford, who is basing her contemporary dance piece, “Dissociation,” on the discord and tension that come with multiple personality disorder, a topic that fascinates her.

But for Frijas and Williams, the taped 4-foot square on the studio floor is almost irrelevant compared to the emotions playing out in the movement above it. First back to back as if strangers, then face to face, and finally swaying in a tentative slow-dance embrace, the two friends talk their way through rehearsal and grief in real time. It’s all to the raw words of John Mayer’s “Heart of Life”: “Pain throws your heart to the ground/Love turns the whole thing around.”

“We’re really close as co-workers, and we put a lot of ourselves into these dances,” says Sanford. “Each piece is connected to us on such a deep level. With dance you can expose yourself without saying anything. That’s the most exciting thing about being a dancer.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Ten Tiny Dances

When: 6 p.m. Sunday; doors open 5 p.m.

Where: Jazzbones, 2803 Sixth Ave., Tacoma.

Tickets: $25 at door, $20 advance, $15 students and 11 and younger.

Information: 253-396-9169, jazzbones.com.

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