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.

Laguna Dance Festival returns this week and artistic director Jodie Gates is presenting two popular contemporary dance companies: Parsons Dance and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. The former was founded by David Parsons in 1985 as an outlet devoted (mostly) to his highly athletic and accessible modern dance works. His most famous piece, “Caught,” a solo in which a carefully timed strobe light makes it appear the dancer is flying about the stage, is one of those scheduled. Aspen Santa Fe is the only company I can think of that has made a success of having two “homes” in different cities. This is a small, but appealing group that has a classical ballet foundation, and a diverse repertory. Artistic director Tom Mossbrucker has selected pieces by Trey McIntyre, Jorma Elo, and Alejandro Cerrudo for the Laguna festival.

Parsons Dance performs 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, and  Friday, Sept. 6, while Aspen Santa Fe dances at 7:30 Saturday, Sept. 7 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8. All shows at the Laguna Playhouse in downtown Laguna Beach. Click here for ticket information.

Two master classes, one to be taught by Parsons (Sept. 4) and the other by Aspen Santa Fe executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty (Sept. 8), are sold out, but you can call 949-715-5578 to find out about observing one or both classes.

“It feels that things are simmering, if not percolating” in the L.A. dance community.–Choreographer David Rousseve, artistic director of REALITY

That was just one of the interesting comments made during the morning session of the L.A. Dance Summit, which took place today (June 8) at downtown Los Angeles’ Japan America Theatre. I think David is right, and the conference was one bit of that simmering.

It was spearheaded by Bonnie Oda Homsey, former Graham dancer and co-founder of American Repertory Dance Company, and Cora Mirikitani, president and CEO of the Center for Cultural Innovation, with help from the city and county arts councils/commissions. It was put together with good intentions–to gather the entire community of dancers, choreographers, teachers, administrators, and so on, for discussions, and to provide concrete advice and assistance for making it in L.A. as a dance artist. Still, the summit was announced not so long ago and there was not quite enough advance notice to do a huge publicity campaign. I thought it was a significant event and wrote a story for the L.A. Times. Still, it was unclear how big a crowd would turn out, particularly given it’s the same weekend as the Ojai Music Festival, directed this year by Mark Morris.

I saw Bonnie when I arrived and she said there were more than 200 registrants; she was very pleased about that. I’ll name drop just some of the people I saw: Don Hewitt (former Kaleidoscope director who has moved back to L.A.), Gary Bates, Barak Marshall, Jenny Backhaus, Dale Merrill, Lorin Johnson, Melissa Barak, Tamica Washington-Miller, Melanie Rios Glaser, Michael Alexander, Matt Wells, Jane Jelenko (Music Center Dance Arts), and Fred Strickler. The afternoon was devoted to practical workshop sessions, and I did not stay for those. Following the summit, Bonnie and Cora hope to come up with a working paper that will outline the community’s greatest needs and suggest ways to move forward. I will blog about that later. Below are some outtakes on what struck me the most.

Renae Williams Niles, now vice president of programming at the Music Center, gave a brief opening speech that was titled “The Legacy of L.A. Dance.” Her comments were not, unfortunately, quite that sweeping or comprehensive. She said that up until a decade ago, the only times the community gathered, it was in reaction to some crisis. She labeled this gathering pro-active, and as such, it was a positive development. The vastness of Los Angeles is its greatest challenge, she noted, a central theme that was repeated by others. (Other familiar themes: not enough funding for artists, not enough administrative infrastructure, not enough rehearsal space, and a lack of performance venues.)

Laura Zucker, executive director of the county Arts Commission, moderated the plenary panel. She opened with some revealing statistics from a report to be released in a few weeks: Forty local dance companies, with budgets between $1million and $25,000, had combined revenues of $8.7 million; they gave 550 annual performances here and on tour, reaching more than 300,000 attendees. Yet, revealingly, these companies are able to employ only 18 full-time, and 62 part-time staff members. In addition, 84 percent of their revenue comes from earned income, meaning they’re trying to live off ticket sales alone, which is nearly impossible to do.

Margaret Jenkins, artistic director of her SF-based eponymous company, spoke about her Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange program that has benefitted 30 L.A. artists since she brought it here in 2008. The program fosters, she said, a “rigorous dialogue” among emerging and veteran choreographers, who are paired together; provides compensation to them; helps alleviate the isolation of working alone; and gives choreographers sustained feedback.

Olga Garay-English, executive director of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, urged dancers and dance-makers to be creative and collaborative off-stage as well as on. She noted that during the recent economic collapse her department stepped up its fundraising and was able to get funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to start a technical assistance program. Seven local companies and individuals were selected to take part in it. She also added that NEA officials recently complained to her that they don’t get enough grant applications from L.A. companies, suggesting that there are funding opportunities out there for local companies to grab.

In his remarks, David Rousseve spoke about a peculiarly L.A. dichotomy: The possibilities to make art here can seem more limitless than in other places, yet it’s also logistically harder to achieve. David brought up places to which dancers can turn for help and inspiration: residencies offered by CAP UCLA; spacefinderla.org to locate rehearsal space; alternative dance presenting organizations Show Box LA and Pieter. But he noted there is a “profound lack of infrastructure,” which handicaps L.A. artists.

Finally, Kristy Edmunds, the newish (she just finished her second year) executive and artistic director of CAP UCLA, spoke about her role as presenter and curator of an organization that has been producing live performance for 75 years. She noted that a cynic could say her job is to shop for what the audience “is currently seeking.” She believes, on the other hand, that letting box office concerns dictate curatorial decisions, would mean everyone would leave the theater feeling “empty.” Edmunds noted that she has pulled out seats to improve sight lines in the beautiful but barn-like Royce Hall, and that she wants to improve on the artistic experience of seeing dance there. She said that meeting with local dance-makers is a continuous and integral part of her job, and that she is interested in artists’ work in its full “dimensionality,” not just as a single production to sell.

Clearly, the morning was devoted to focusing on whatever positive elements there are to being a dance artist in L.A. I wonder, did the artists who attended think the summit was beneficial? Do you also think things are simmering?

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