Gene Kelly. Alice Blangerojpg

Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, photo by Alice Blangero

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo was up at the Segerstrom Center’s international dance series, with the U.S. premiere of artistic director Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Choré,” on Friday night (Feb. 12). It struck me as 75 minutes of strange and frustrating work—occasionally engaging thanks to its theatrics; choreographically sleep-inducing (Eyelids, stay open!); and ultimately a mix of just too many weighty intellectual topics.

Let’s start with the title “Choré.” What Maillot is referencing here is also known as Syndenham’s chorea, chorea minor, and Saint Vitus Dance—a nervous disorder in which irregular, jerking movements are caused by involuntary muscular contractions, often a result of rheumatic fever. (Thank you, Webster’s New World Dictionary.)  “Choré,” however, is not about illness. But it is about the compulsion to dance. Dancing is a natural part of being human, “Choré” tells us, and the forms that dance takes are a direct reflection of its makers and adherents, of culture and history, and how it metamorphoses over time. These are issues that the choreographer has been obsessed with throughout his career.

French author and librettist Jean Rouaud approached Maillot with a proposition: Make a ballet that looks at the developments of dancing in light of the American movie musical and, oh yeah, throw in major world events, including the Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and so on. That is “Choré.”

THe Stars 2

I have to say that Maillot is more sophisticated than Russia’s Boris Eifman, who attempts to tackle some of the same issues but turns all his ballets into the dance equivalent of a melodramatic nightmarish scream-fest. Still, Maillot was not able to present any insights into the woven threads that connect life and art.

Rather, Maillot, with the essential collaboration of costume designer Philippe Guillotel and stage and lighting designer Domique Drillot, created some striking stage pictures. Not original, but eye-catching nonetheless.

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They present a world that is first sepia-toned and then black and white. Amid a group of elegantly attired couples—stand-ins for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—is one faceless masked duo in coal black, very eerie. A Gene Kelly character and his surrogates enter later, in polo shirts.  The second scene, a stereotypical look back at Hollywood movie-making, concludes with the dancers performing on a painted flooring of M.C. Escher-like stairways, which when reflected in the giant mirrored backdrop made for an ingenious recreation of a Busby Berkeley routine. Quite fabulous.

The “war” sequence places most of the cast in head to toe black-and-white convict-striped unitards, shades of Alwin Nikolais’ breakthrough designs. Dancer Mimoza Koike, the efficient secretary harassed by her superiors on the movie set, is now in shredded skirt, alone and horrified, the audience’s representative to war’s disasters. The aftermath is a surprisingly still, a denuded landscape of two couples on platforms, the women flying on aerial harnesses. Perhaps they are angels.

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Mimoza Koike, photo by Alice Blangero

The ending is an incongruously and abruptly happy sequence of boogeying and shimmying. And there is color for the first time, the entire cast walking on with punctuation marks of orange, green, and yellow jackets, shoes, and so on.

For his score, Maillot commissioned music from Bertrand Maillot (the choreographer’s brother), Yan Maresz and others, and used various existing compositions from John Cage and Danny Elfman.

The irony, I suppose, is that the actual dancing in “Choré” was the least interesting part of the production. Maillot has given his highly accomplished and enthusiastic dancers  run-of-the-mill group phrases, a chirpy solo here, a string of fouettes there. Koike was the night’s standout and it was lovely to see Bernice Coppieters (who has otherwise retired from the stage) come back; unfortunately her part as the “star”  was largely forgettable.

Next up at Segerstrom Center: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, April 7 through 10

  

Liam Scarlett was in the corps de ballet at England’s Royal Ballet when he made his first major work, “Asphodel Meadows,” for his home company. The ballet was a big hit; the year was 2010. A string of important commissions followed from Miami City Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, among others. For a fellow in his 20s, his was an astoundingly precipitous rise.

Fast forward to Jan. 27, 2016. His second work for San Francisco Ballet premieres, and I saw it this past weekend at the War Memorial Opera House. Called “Fearful Symmetries,” it is set to John Adams’ orchestral work of the same name, which, with its pulsing beat and urgency, is a logical draw for choreographers; NYCB’s Peter Martins has his own “Fearful Symmetries.”

Scarlett approaches the music with a feral, throbbing lustfulness. The 16 dancers, clothed in skimpy black by costume designer Jon Morrell, stand face front and shimmy their shoulders with a dare-me-to confidence; or their backs are to us and they wiggle their butts. Or they face one another and rub against each other in the manner that would get you taken to the high school principal’s office.

I don’t want to mislead: Such provocations are a kind of a tease. The dancing is thrilling, full of bravura partnering and blatant classical athleticism. But it’s also simplistic. The dancers enter and exit mostly from the back. They appear and vanish into a cloak of black lighting (designs by David Finn), which intensifies the piece’s fever and mystery. Whole sections unroll in ordered group unison. At the end, as Adams’ music gets softer and slightly more gentle, a couple in balletic white (or pale blue) enters, and embarks on a brief, more traditional partnering adventure. What was this? The antithesis of the stalking gangs we’d just been watching? A duo who merely dreamed up the previous 25 minutes and we were witness to their thoughts?

“Fearful Symmetries” was the final ballet on a program that also included George Balanchine’s 1967 “Rubies,” one section from the full-length “Jewels,” and 1988’s “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” Mark Morris’ brilliant take on quirky, folk-like piano works by Virgil Thomson. The three ballets made for an amazing evening, even if you didn’t happen to like everything. Here were strong choreographic statements from different generations of dance-makers, to music by innovative composers, and performed with focus and power by first-rate dancers.

“Drink” is a clever, cerebral, and visually stunning piece that is a playful mind-game of joyful complexity (the antithesis of Scarlett’s piece). Led by Vanessa Zahorian, Taras Domitro and Sofiane Sylve, the dancers attacked “Rubies” with joyful and calibrated abandon. Both pieces were memorably served. Other standouts were Pascal Molat (stepping in for Gennadi Nedvigin in “Drink”), and in “Symmetries,” Joan Boada, Lorena Feijoo and Zahorian, again.

All I want to know is why aren’t Southern California’s presenters bringing San Francisco Ballet here to dance for us? We need them.

 

L.A. Dance Project has, indeed, proved to be an L.A. company, performing locally more often than any other company that I know of. Here’s my review of their latest show, this past weekend.

 

Now 10 years old, Contra-Tiempo is one of Los Angeles’ most ambitious and accomplished home-grown dance companies, but your average resident would be hard-pressed to know about this striking group. It gets most of its gigs on the road, away from L.A., which is a loss for us. Artistic director Ana Maria Alvarez gives her company a distinctive mix of urban, Latin, Afro-Cuban, and contemporary movements; salsa dance was a part of her family’s life and she has integrated this vernacular form into her concert-dance language, which would seem a perfect blend for multicultural Los Angeles.

So the fact that Contra-Tiempo is in the midst of an eight-performance run (through Jan. 24) for the premiere of Alvarez’s latest work, “Agua Furiosa,” is a development worth applauding. Thank you to its presenter, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, for making it happen.   

In “Agua Furiosa” (literally, “raging/angry water”), it is Alvarez who is raging, and she has leveled her fury at a long list of social injustices: racism, immigration policies, gun violence, and environmental degradation being the most prominent in the 90-minute work. The five women and three men act out various themes—pointing pretend guns and “killing” each other, for example. Alvarez uses symbolic gestures, too, such as when the dancers form an old-fashioned bucket line to put out a pretend fire—except they don’t have any water. Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and an Afro-Cuban deity of wind and storms called Oya served to inspire Alvarez, too.

She isn’t telling any particular story, though. Different dancers do take on the role of the enslaved half-human Caliban; yet, he is mostly a symbol. I felt that what Alvarez most wants the audience to take away is that we are all Caliban, in the sense of the “other.”

There’s a lot going on in “Agua Furiosa,” too much, frankly. The piece’s five acts play like disconnected scenes, and there isn’t the kind of cumulative growth that carries the viewer from beginning to end. I wish that Alvarez had either pared down her laundry list of grievances or gathered the various threads together for a final catharsis. I also wished I could turn off d. Sabela grimes’ sound score, an instrumental and vocally sampled track of grating, ad nauseam repetition. It was a case of aural assault distracting from my visual enjoyment.

And there’s the rub, the one consistent motif: the dancing in “Agua Furiosa” is furiously gorgeous as are her dancers—Isis Avalos, Christopher Cuneza, Jannet Galdamez, Bianca Golden, Samad Guerra, Diana Toledo, Bianca Medina, and Francisco Herrejon. Galdamez opens the piece with a shimmying, torso-rippling solo that resembles the natural flow of water. Alvarez’s signature salsa is performed only briefly as a couples dance. African-inflected moves are sprinkled throughout, as are fearless break-dancing solos. Avalos has an extended solo of leaping, crawling, and gripping intensity. Singer Pyeng Threadgill promenades through the space, dividing the acts with haunting a cappella numbers. These are the moments from  “Agua Furioso” that will stick with me.

The piece continues through Sunday, Jan. 24 at the Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater on the UCLA campus. Click here for ticket information.

I wrote the essay and list of favorite performances, below, at the invitation of the Dance Resource Center of Southern California. But I left out one important development in local dance this year: Felicia Rosenfeld’s appointment as executive director of the DRC. Felicia, as head of the Los Angeles office of Pentacle from 2006-2015, started a number of important and new programs here benefitting area dancers and choreographers. This past year, she spearheaded Home Grown @ Bootleg, a performance series at the Bootleg Theater. The two organizations helped a group of companies self-produce three shows each. This is something of a breakthrough for the area, an important opportunity for companies that want to move beyond the showcase format, but are not yet able to attract presenters to put them on their schedules. With her long experience at Pentacle, Felicia brings the much-needed, expansive vision to the community.

Wishing everyone great dancing in 2016!

Living in the L.A. region, our lives are circumscribed by two constants over which we have no control: geography and traffic. The former dictates you’re going to have to drive pretty far to see a performances. The latter—the traffic—just keeps getting worse. What to do? Perhaps everyone will understand when I say that I just didn’t make it to some shows, and was unable to see as much as I wanted to.  So I have tinges of regret. That said, I traveled as far north as Northridge (for Diavolo) and as far south as Costa Mesa (for American Ballet Theatre among others) in my dance travels of 2015.

I regret missing some performances at the Music Center, Redcat, and particularly at UCLA. When I went to see Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s striking “Vortex Temporum” in November, Royce Hall was shockingly empty. It was horrible. Perhaps that night was an aberration, but I think not. I would bet the opening of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills and the Broad Stage in Santa Monica have cut deeply into UCLA’s audiences.

In addition, the Los Angeles Times, for which I write as a freelancer, has dramatically cut back its dance coverage. Other newspapers in the area have also hacked their dance and arts coverage, a sorry state of affairs for both the arts and journalism.

There—the bad news is out of the way. The good news: There was a lot that was wonderful this past year. These were my most joyous moments:

  1. BodyTraffic. The company’s February shows were a reminder of what Tina Finkelman Berkett and Lillian Barbeito have added to the Los Angeles dance scene. They commission smart and physically challenging pieces, while also looking for dance-makers who aren’t just the flavor-of-the-month. Their dancers bring individuality to the stage and they like it that way. Bravo.
  2. Diavolo. As I became a regular at Jacque Heims’ and Diavolo performances beginning in the late 1980s, I didn’t guess he’d be the L.A. choreographer to break through on a national level. But he has and the three-part, full-evening work “L’Espace du Temps” is a culmination of Heims’ belief that this daredevil gymnastic style could be, not just accessible to audiences, but also convey artistic themes and worth. I look forward to the next new piece in 2016.
  3. Barak Ballet. Finding your neo-classical ballet voice has been a forward-and-backward process for Melissa Barak (as it is for others). But she has a keen musical and kinetic intelligence. A spate of recent fellowships and commissions will contribute to her growth, and that of her young company.
  4. Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet. Rogers has been around a long time. And yet, it’s only more recently that I’ve become a big fan of his abstract classical style, all long lines, women on-half-pointe, everyone slowly rotating in promenade. His latest work, “Still Life,” with a lush orchestral score by Czech composer Zybnek Mateju, was a powerhouse piece. Thank goodness for the folks at the Luckman Theater who make sure Rogers’ company has at least one annual local performance.
  5. Alexei Ratmansky. American Ballet Theatre’s artist in residence was represented by three different pieces in 2015, “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Nutcracker” and “Cinderella” (the latter for the Mariinsky). I am attracted to the musicality and the great breadth of his choreography. At a time when ballet has been reduced down to its showiest steps, Ratmansky pulls out the full-range of the classical vocabulary. Too, he is a most human choreographer, whose dances are filled with warmth and humor.
  6. Mark Morris Dance Group. “Dido and Aeneas”  is funny, poignant, earthy, raw and clever. More, please.
  7. Twyla Tharp. Her latest dances are so tricky and the men and women on this latest tour were simply elite performers.
  8. Batsheva. I love to be surprised and Batsheva’s dancers almost always do that.

See you at the theater,

Laura

In a February post, I talked a little about Home Grown @ Bootleg, a series created by Pentacle, with support from the Bootleg Theater, to give local companies more opportunities to perform in Los Angeles.

The second series of concerts was scheduled, featuring Invertigo Dance Theatre and Danza Floricanto/USA in April. Invertigo, however, had to drop out and Pentacle director Felicia Rosenfeld scrambled to find a replacement. The three concerts will now take place June 26 and 27, and feature Danza Floricanto at each performance and a rotating group of companies along with the Lester Horton Awards ceremony at the final show: 7 p.m. June 26, Danza Floricanto/USA, szalt, OdDancity, and No)one. Art House; 1 p.m. June 27, Danza Floricanto/USA, The Assembly, and The Sunland Dancers; 7 p.m. June 27, Danza Floricanto/USA and Horton Awards Celebration.

Gema Sandoval, artistic director of Danza Floricanto/USA, which is the oldest Mexican folkloric troupe in Southern California, has made a new contemporary piece “Immigrant Stories.”  Check it out. I went to the first shows and was happy to be introduced to companies and dancers I hadn’t known. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. The Bootleg is at 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Reservations at 213-289-3856 or bootlegtheater.org

Mark Morris’ danced opera “Dido and Aeneas” is a tour de force of late 20th century artistic storytelling, using Henry Purcell’s 1689 musical composition, which is a partial retelling of Virgil’s “Aeneid. It is a riveting assemblage, one that smashes and rewrites stylistic boundaries.

The hour-long piece—it’s done far too soon—had only its second local engagement this weekend at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, presented by the Philharmonic Society.

For years after “Dido’s” 1989 premiere, Morris portrayed the work’s signature oppositional roles of good Queen Dido and the evil Sorceress. On Friday evening, the musically keen choreographer was in the pit conducting the outstanding Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra of Long Beach, five excellent soloists, and the marvelous Bob Cole Chamber Choir from Cal State Long Beach.

Twelve members of the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group took on multiple characters in this tale of the Carthaginian monarch and her consuming love for the Trojan hero. Aside from the two leads, the dancers are like roving troubadours, breaking the fourth wall as they shape-shift into different parts, “commenting” on what’s taking place through movements both dignified and grotesque, and then reeling us in through emotional exuberance.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck sang both the Dido and Sorceress roles, impressing with her shimmery and aching vibrato. The onstage Dido and Sorceress was dancer Laurel Lynch, an elegant and statuesque beauty. Her long curly hair was tied up for Dido, and the unruly locks down in her face for the Sorceress. Making the characterizations real, however, takes more than a change in hair style. Lynch’s Dido was restrained at first, a bit of a blank slate, as she was visibly focusing on the Queen’s exacting positions. She loosened up in her duets with Aeneas. Though models of courtly decorum, they still crackled like fire. When he comes to say goodbye, Lynch swept her arm upward on the words, “Away, away!”, and the force of the gesture was the equivalent of a slap. She transformed her lean line into a full-bodied coarseness while playing the Sorceress.

Bass-baritone Douglas Williams sang Aeneas with a sumptuous quality, which was matched by the dancer-Aeneas, Domingo Estrada, Jr. Morris does not generally cast his works based on a dancer’s looks; indeed he likes to play against type. But here, the physical appearance of Dido and Aeneas is critical—even when Morris improbably switches the genders of the dancers. Estrada, broad-shouldered, bare-chested and devilishly handsome, was matinee-idol perfection. He projects authority and mischievousness, as when he throws a knowing wink to the audience after he has won over Dido and she leads him offstage for loving rewards.

The secondary roles were also enchantingly sung and danced: Michelle Yard as Dido’s too-helpful sister Belinda—soprano Sherezade Panthaki—and Rita Donahue as the sidekick Second Woman—Marguerite Krull in the soprano part. Dance Group veteran Lauren Grant led the sailors in a jolly Irish step dance and jig (sung by Andrew Konopak). Noah Vinson and Dallas McMurray made hilarious scoundrels, heeding the Sorceress as her henchmen-witches (singers Panthaki and Krull).

Morris makes a remarkably small production feel epic, as befitting an ancient myth. Robert Bordo’s set is spare: several low balustrades (on which the dancers’ run, pose, and upon which both Dido and Sorceress similarly collapse), sheets of black hanging cloth, and a backdrop that’s an abstract map of Aeneas’ journey. The dancers’ wear draped black balloon pants and fitted tops, designed by Christine Van Loon. Yet, with great nuance and variety, Morris culls from his vast movement knowledge to create ancient-looking friezes, lines that surge like waves, and classical Indian poses. The piece begins and ends with  solemn promenades. Several scenes conclude with dancers pounding their feet against the floor to create a rumbling hail storm that portends the tragic finale.

Musica Angelica and two guest artists from the Morris music ensemble made their own fireworks. When everyone joined together—musicians, singers, dancers—it proved, yet again, you don’t need a movie screen to make a blockbuster.

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