Sadie Black, stretching for the sky, in "Left Unsaid." Photo by Anne Slattery

Sadie Black, stretching for the sky, in “Left Unsaid.” Photo by Anne Slattery

I think Melissa Barak is one of our most talented and skillful ballet choreographers, one of the increasingly rare dance-makers who still believes in classical dance as a medium of artistry.   

I also find that the qualities that attract me to her work—its orderliness, romance, effortless flow, and her insightful use of the ballet vocabulary, plus women in pointe shoes—can sometimes turn into a piece’s liabilities. The orderliness occasionally looks like an academic exercise. Clever and complex phrases of steps overwhelm her dancers, particularly in their efforts to stay in together. Music is her inspiration, and I applaud her ear and ability to translate aural colors, melody and rhythm into movement. I would also like to feel and see her kindle the passions and attributes of her own dancers more often.

But we can’t forget this is a young company, not even two years old; only three of the 14 dancers have been with Barak Ballet for more than a year. So this is all my way of saying that though not every piece on the company’s concert at the Broad Stage this weekend (Feb. 6 and 7) was delightful, the fledgling troupe is an exciting presence for Los Angeles.

Barak presented two ballets new to local audiences and my favorite was the evening’s closer, “Middle of Somewhere,” a piece for four couples that was originally created for Sacramento Ballet. It opened with flurries of activity followed by sudden stasis, echoing the recorded music by Italian composer Ezio Bosso, which raced along and then stopped. A couple circled the stage, exited and then was replaced by a new one, all with crisp directional shifts. A central duet for Jennifer Drake and the expressive Mauro Villanueva suggested the simultaneous push and pull of a relationship straining under stress. The final section was even faster with big jumps and sparkling energy, the dancers better able to stay in unison than earlier in the evening. “Middle of Somewhere” gives us fresh and carefree play.

From "Yueh Fei." Photo by Anne Slattery

From “Yueh Fei.” Photo by Anne Slattery

“Yueh Fei,” on the other hand, looked dated, and uncomfortably quaint in its attempts to convey a Chinese affect. The ballet takes its cues from a contemporary composition of the same name by composer Huang Ruo. The music combines Western and Asian musical traditions with a mix of  strings and percussion, melody, tricky rhythms, and dissonance. Barak tried a similar melding—flexed feet, bent knees, upturned hands, and the S-shaped body of Indian dance. But in this instance, the phrases Barak has chosen looked stiff and pasted onto the music, rather than an organic outgrowth of it. Monique L’Heureux’s speckled lighting added interest and mystery.

The dancers were divided into a trio, two couples and leading duo, but all the dancers seemed to struggle with the steps and they were placed awkwardly about the stage, which is unusual for Barak. At the very end, Villanueva, a kind of god in shimmering gold tunic, stepped forward, raised a hand and then dramatically clenched his fist. With a sweeping arm, he threw down whatever it was he had “caught,” and with that simple gesture piqued my interest in some suggested magical ritual. The dancers spiraled outward from a clump, crouched in a circle surrounding Villanueva, and the piece was over, ending just at the spot where I became interested.

Barak invited Nicolo Fonte, the choreographer in residence at Salt Lake City’s Ballet West, to stage his 2003 piece “Left Unsaid” for her dancers. Set to a  piece (unidentified) by J.S. Bach, “Left Unsaid” was a satisfying counterpoint to Barak’s lighter style. Fonte has a sensual, stretched vocabulary, with the dancers’ lower bodies grounded into the stage. Three men, in black sport coats and trousers, danced with acute longing with a shifting trio of women, clad in sophisticated whitish-blue leotards (the handsome costumes by Kathy Scoggins).

Black and David Kim. Photo by Anne Slattery

Sadie Black and David Kim. Photo by Anne Slattery

The highlight was a duet for the passionate David Kim and fearless Sadie Black. The two moved progressively closer together on a diagonal, while Jesse Campbell and Evan Swenson circled them slowly, almost ominously. Black folding chairs were the not-very-original prop pieces, but I didn’t mind so much because I was so taken with the intensity of the dancing. Another nice work for the Barak repertory.

Photo by Denise Leitner

Photo of Multiplex Dance by Denise Leitner

A pilot program with exciting potential to promote local dance by giving companies more performing opportunities–which is what Los Angeles dancers say need and want–debuts in February.

It is called Home Grown @ Bootleg and the first weekend of concerts will feature Antics, which under the direction of Amy “Catfox” Campion combines street dance with spoken word, and Multiplex Dance, which does “techno-industrial modern dance,” in the words of its artistic director Chad Michael Hall. They will share three evenings, Feb. 19 through 21. There will also be a free discussion/group-participation event with the artists at 1 p.m. on Feb. 21. All shows are at the Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.

It is rare for local companies to be able to afford to present themselves for even one concert, let alone three. The idea behind Home Grown is to have the companies shoulder some of the cost of the performances, but to make it affordable enough so they can put on multiple shows. The companies auditioned for the chance to participate.

Home Grown was developed by Pentacle director Felicia Rosenfeld, working in partnership with Bootleg Theater, which is a venue that presents quality theater, music and dance. Pentacle is a nonprofit management support organization, an under-the-radar group as far as the public is concerned. But it has become an important player in Los Angeles by providing services that most small companies can’t pay for themselves. For Home Grown, Pentacle pays for a production coordinator, acts as liaison between the dancers and the theater, and is helping companies with marketing and publicity. But Rosenfeld makes a distinction that she says is important: Pentacle is not producing these concerts. Each company is required to pay $4,000 to participate. Rosenfeld wanted the groups have to have a financial stake.

“Most L.A. companies, unless they perform in a festival (usually as part of a showcase), self-produce performances in the Los Angeles area,” Rosenfeld said in a written statement. “This is an expensive endeavor that typically leads to one performance with mostly friends and family in the audience. Through Home Grown @ Bootleg, Pentacle will serve as aggregator of self-produced Los Angeles dance, providing a pathway for audiences to be able to see L.A.-based dance companies’ and artists’ work for more than one night and not in a showcase format….There is no real home for dance in the city. Pentacle and Bootleg want to start to create audience identification with Bootleg Theater as a trusted venue for local dance.”

Most in the audience don’t understand the financial underpinnings of what we see onstage. When a theater “presents” a dance company (or music, or theater), it means the theater is taking most of the financial risk. Local dance companies have a hard time getting that deal—they end up presenting themselves, which means they have to rent a theater, do all the publicity, and so on. And even if they sell out, they won’t be able to recoup their investment, in most instances. Only the very top tier of local companies, such as Diavolo or Bodytraffic, are invited to appear on the series at theaters such as the Broad Stage or at UCLA. Home Grown @ Bootleg is a mid-way step and could prove to be crucial in helping dancers pull themselves up in terms of getting known in their own hometown and getting more stage time, which helps improve artistic quality. It’s worth checking out.

The second Home Grown program will feature Invertigo Dance Theatre and Danza Floricanto/USA, April 23 to 25. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For reservations: 213.289.3856  or  www.bootlegtheater.org  

The first thing you’ll want to know, naturally, is if Ira Glass--the radio host of the title–can dance. As a matter of fact, he moves very nicely, thank you very much. He’s tall and slim, has very good rhythm, and an unselfconsciousness about his body that makes him engaging just to watch, even when he’s not talking in that distinctive nasal tone. I was left curious how Glass, who created and heads up NPR’s “This American Life,” met choreographer and dancer Monica Bill Barnes, who grew up in Berkeley and founded her small downtown NYC company in 1997. She’s a highly esteemed choreographer, but, still, she’s not a big name. It could have been through the late writer David Rakoff, who appeared on “This American Life” and performed with Barnes. No matter. This was a sweetly quirky collaboration that, thanks to Glass, has introduced audiences that I would bet see contemporary dance infrequently, to two lovely dance-artists.

The show, at Cal State Long Beach’s Carpenter Performing Arts Center Saturday, Dec. 6, was formatted like “This American Life”–several acts, with an over-arching theme that ties everything together. The acts were about the rigors of dancing, love, and death (aka how everything must come to an end). But there was dance sequences in each section, so I considered Barnes’ infectious, perky movement as the connecting thread here.

I can’t take my eyes off Barnes. She’s got dark hair, pale skin and a charismatic style. This is only the second time I’ve seen her work, but I have a sense that this show’s jazzy, show-bizzy unison duets with partner Anna Bass are somewhat atypical of her company’s work. They came equipped with a miniature proscenium arch and red curtains, confetti, and a nifty mirrored disco ball, for a scene in which six men and women were brought up from the audience to enact a middle school party number.

I was a little squirmy well before the show’s two-hour end point, but that’s because Glass makes me a little squirmy (uh-oh, here comes the hate mail). He’s a little too precious for me; pretending he’s telling us privileged information when in fact, it’s part of the show every time. But bring back Barnes again and her full company, and I’ll be there.

There is much to love, and some to hate about Ohad Naharin’s “Sadeh21,” a remarkable and stunning piece created several years ago. Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company gave it its U.S. premiere Saturday (Nov. 1) at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Despite these opposing forces, “Sadeh21″ is unforgettable. Give thanks for that to the astounding physicality and emotional fearlessness of the men and women in Batsheva.

They are the reasons for loving this piece–and pretty much anything Batsheva does. I don’t think there’s another group that dances at the level and to the extremes that this ensemble does. But it’s not simply their superior technical ability that is so inspiring; in truth, choreography and performance are inseparable in Naharin’s works. This is dancing of a gorgeous clarity and purpose, such that the eye sees all the movement as though it were being done in slow motion, when in fact its often being executed at the velocity and momentum of a grace note. Your knees, your back, your mouth, even, every body part aches in sympathy with the dancers’–as when one uses his fingers to stretch his grin as though it were on a rack. Yet they make the unbelievable look effortless, and fill it with meaning.

The “hating” part is a little more difficult to explain. It’s not that I so profoundly disliked sections of this 75-minute piece, although I found the slew of diverse recordings used as a score uninspiring as accompaniment. Rather, “Sadeh21″ is tough–its individual scenes, without explicit narrative, still added up–for me, at least–to a poetic snapshot of human exertion and suffering. There is humor, whimsy and then, an enormous feeling of loss–of the Sisyphean toil of human existence. Couples embrace, but it becomes a duel of pushing, like rams butting one another with their horns. A man faces us and earnestly speaks in a high-pitched voice, but it’s all gibberish. It’s not just that we cannot understand him, but one can feel how misunderstandings occur, how wars start. The women beat their feet against the stage in harsh rhythmic jolts, while the men, changed into black dresses, flail about behind them in frantic explosions. This viewer’s discomfort grew as the dance progressed, peaking with a solo nearly at the end, performed entirely to a woman’s recorded screams of suffering.

“Sadeh21″ was frustrating, too. Each scene was numbered, until we got to 7, when 7-18 were lumped altogether. I could not see the purpose. And this stitching together of disparate scenes makes for a choppy work, one lessened by the inability (or refusal?) to make it flow as a whole.

For the finale, the dancers scaled the white wall upstage–which was less than halfway to the proscenium, creating a claustrophobic environment onstage (by Avi Yona Bueno)–and fell off behind it, out of our sight. Then they started cavorting, doing swan dives, and so on, as credits scrolled on the backdrop. Talk about a mood-breaker! I wish Naharin had let everyone come out and take conventional bows, because a standing O was called for here, for once.

A few quick thoughts on L.A. Dance Project, which performed at the theater at the Ace Hotel, Oct. 24-26. This was the fourth time that I’ve seen the company in the two years since it debuted (and that’s not counting artistic director Benjamin Millepied’s duet at MOCA in the summer 2012). That’s a high rate of shows in a home city for any company, and especially one that has such a busy touring schedule.

I understand why they’ve made the Ace their home in newly “hip” downtown L.A., but it’s a less than ideal place to see dance. Sight lines are horrible, and it’s hard to see the dancers feet and lower bodies when sitting in the orchestra level. That made it very hard to appreciate Emanuel Gat’s “Morgan’s Last Chug.” This “study on layered temporality” was a rather ordinary abstraction of theme and variations to Bach, Purcell and other music, as well as a selection from Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape.”

More rewarding was Millepied’s latest, “Untitled,” to Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 3. Millepied’s work continues to grow in emotional feeling and complexity. The choreographer used the arpeggio chord progressions of the Glass’ piece and repeatedly strung his dancers like beads into circular chains, from which different soloists popped out. Costume designer Janie Taylor, former principal dancer with New York City Ballet, created bouncy black and white skirts for the women, and shorts for the men in a window-pane design. The program ended with William Forsythe’s “Quintett,” a work from which L.A. Dance Project seems to find its heart and the stylistic inspiration for the rest of its repertory. A little more diversity, though, would be a good thing.

From "Stardust." Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.

From “Stardust.” Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.

David Rousseve’s dance “Stardust” is a gorgeous and poetic meditation on human ugliness. It is at times otherworldly, and yet deals in stark detail with some of humanity’s darkest failings. It is a dance of the 21st century: with a textual narration that appears on the backdrop as Tweets from the main character, Junior (who is never seen); with mystical video art, including shooting stars and a soaring dove (by Cari Ann Shim Sham*); and an ironically low-tech-looking giant cell phone, from which Junior’s grandfather contacts him in his dreams via Skype.

“Stardust” had its premiere one year ago at REDCAT, and, happily, it was performed again by the choreographer’s 10-member company, Reality, at the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach on Saturday night (Sept. 27). The work’s themes and language are raw and profane, and there was a small but steady exodus among some of the theater’s patrons. But what Rousseve has really captured is Junior’s “righteous” and “pure” spirit through certain repeated phrases of smoothly flowing movement. Like a river full with snow melt, the dancers course about the stage, spinning, stretching, and leaping, pushed along, but not roughly. It’s a peaceful dance-language, despite the fact that Junior finds no peace in his lifetime. Yet, “Stardust” still manages to project hopefulness.

When Benjamin Millepied was named the new artistic director of Paris Opera Ballet, folks jumped to the conclusion that would be the end of L.A. Dance Project, the chamber company he founded with substantial support from the Music Center. Not so. His commitment seems genuine to keeping L.A. Dance Project alive; maybe someone else will eventually take over as chief choreographer. Recently retired NYC Ballet principal dancer James Fayette was just brought in as managing director, so he’ll be minding the store when Millepied starts his new job in Paris this September.

In the meantime, the company deepens its ties to the community, including a new collaboration with the Colburn School. And L.A. Dance Project performed here again duing the weekend, at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel, a historic downtown movie palace at Broadway and 10th that will apparently be its local performing home. Millepied’s “Reflections” (2013) opened the program (I went Saturday afternoon), and while I have been lukewarm about his work thus far, I was more enthusiastic about this piece. His loose-limbed, casual, give-in-to-gravity style was used to depict sweet love, in duos and trios. The five dancers stacked themselves like building blocks and collapsed like dominoes. He gave the incomparable Charlie Hodges a fantastic solo of jumps landing on half-point, wide-open leaps and spins with high a passe. “Reflections,” though too long, melted the heart, bringing to mind one’s own intimate encounters. Pianist Gloria Cheng played David Lang’s minimalist score with strength and skill. Two backdrops by visual artist Barbara Kruger — “Stay” and “Go” — and a message on the floor — “Thinking of me, thinking of you”– suggested contrasting emotions, but dance was more “stay” than “go.”

The second work was a preview excerpt from Hiroaki Umeda’s “Peripheral Stream,” best summarized as a visual art piece with movement. Umeda was choreographer, composer and visual designer. A grating electronic score of beeps and static accompanied swirling dancing, with the dancers rolling body parts in isolation. Umeda’s  digital video backdrops of lines or checks made for strong imagery, but the dancers neither disappeared into the video nor stood out from it, making it all rather pointless and irritating.

Far more accessible, Justin Peck’s “Murder Ballades” (2013)  was a lovely abstraction and more classical than any of L.A. Dance Project’s repertory seen here thus far. Though story-less, it’s sections rang of urgency and longing. The crackling drive and force of his balletic style woke up the audience and provided needed contrast within the program. The project’s dancers responded with welcome fierceness. The title referred to the folk music–songs recalling the stories of murders–that composer Bryce Dessner used as inspiration for her richly textured score. Sterling Ruby created a diverting patchwork backdrop.

One of L.A. Dance Project’s missions is to bring together visual, musical and dance artists, to create multi-layered works. While an admirable goal, it’s hard to make such collaborations feel organic. But little gems are produced, as well, such as Dessner’s score (recorded by a group called eighth blackbird), and “Reflections” pairing with Lang.

Gillian Murphy and Qi Huan by Evan Li

Gillian Murphy and Qi Huan, photo by Evan Li

I admit it’s rather tired for me to call the Royal New Zealand Ballet “small but mighty.” But as I watched them Saturday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (presented by Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center), that overused expression kept popping into my head as most appropriate for this company of 34. A scant 14 Wilis, plus the aggressively fierce Abigail Boyle as Myrtha, managed to look twice as numerous onstage in this 2012 traditional-revisionist “Giselle.” How else to explain that?

The New Zealanders, who by my records were last in Southern California in November 1990 at Irvine Barclay Theatre, are now led by former ABT principal dancer Ethan Stiefel. This “Giselle,” co-created by Stiefel and Johan Kobborg, has become a vehicle for Stiefel’s fiancee, ABT’s Gillian Murphy, who had been typecast as Myrtha, never given a chance to try her hand at the mad scene. Perhaps because she is most familiar with the Romantic style of the second act, her Giselle-as-Wili was most affecting–sorrowful, aching, but utterly explosive in the role’s leaps, beats and lickety-split turns. Playing meek, however, was more problematic for Murphy. She has yet to find her distinctive personality as the first act peasant girl; doe-eyed sweetness is not quite enough. Qi Huan, on the other hand, was an Albrecht to cherish. Narcissistic  and heartless as he tricks and woos Giselle, he was believably broken-hearted at her death. And, like Murphy, his physical prowess only increased as the ballet progressed, his soaring beats being especially impressive. And, he was an unerring partner, steadfast as he grabbed her by the hips and power-lifted her over his head.

But I was just as struck by the style and commitment of the rest of the company, despite the few bobbles and missteps. They performed with a rare crispness and exuberance; the made the story vital and consequential. The dancing was light and musical, with the accent up, rather than down. (Perhaps this influence came from Kobborg, a veteran of the Royal Danish Ballet, although the Royal New Zealand Ballet was founded back in 1953 by another Danish principal.) Jacob Chown was a sympathetic and charming Hilarion; Bronte Kelly and Rory Fairweather-Neylan were the accomplished wedding couple. Mayu Tanigaito and Clytie Campbell were formidable as the Wili soloists,

As far as Stiefel and Kobborg’s tweaks and revisions, some provided dramatic urgency, while the really big one–spoiler alert–the ending, was rather dreadful, in my opinion. The ballet is framed as a flashback for Albrecht, who has never gotten over Giselle’s death; he rushes to her grave at the ballet’s last seconds, and the Wilis march on militaristically to get him. It felt completely wrong-headed. More interesting was how Hilarion was made a more active rival for Giselle, with the peasant pas de deux turned into a dance competition for Albrecht and Hilarion. When Bathilde (Campbell) looks into Giselle’s face, she sees not a pretty girl of a lower-caste, but feels the chill of a real threat, and turns away.  One nice touch from a company that offered many.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 36 other followers