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?

Saturday, I was up on Mount Washington for  HomeLA, a salon featuring 14 dance artists performing inside, and out, of a spectacular contemporary house with impressive hillside and city views. Presenter Rebecca Bruno had developed a similar site-specific series in her own home in San Diego (she studied dance at UCSD), and for this inaugural LA edition, she partnered with the Dance Resource Center and Pieter.

HomeLA “seeks to contribute to a dialogue among independent dance makers, musicians, home owners, and guests on issues relating to performance and domestic space” and the performances, it was hoped, would “activate” the architecture and the “particular ethos” of the home. We were handed an architectural floor plan of the home’s four levels, with the names of the dance groups printed in the room or area where they would be performing. Dance start times were staggered throughout the evening so theoretically you could catch every dance.

It was a very casual evening (in contrast to the pretentiousness of the promotional materials quoted above). Aside from dance, there were weak but tasty drinks, served by two women standing in a whirlpool bath, plus a continuously replenished bowl of popcorn. Even with those amenities, we stayed for only 90 minutes, about half the evening. To me, dancing felt almost like an afterthought; this was more like a party. Rather, it was a party. The very loose and unstructured nature of the event meant that it was up every individual to focus as much or as little as they chose to on the artists.

I believe the artists–some of whom are among the city’s more well-known experimentalists–had invested considerable thought into how to adress dancing in someone’s private space. Melanie Rios Glaser created a “sleeping dance” and she was very comfortably tucked into a bed on the roof of a lower room. She was dreaming, perhaps, of her “knight in shining armor,” according to an explainer text, her inspiration coming from a story by a Guatemalan author. Amanda Furches twirled in a red dress on a hilltop perhaps a quarter mile away, a fanciful and fairy-like figure, whom we could see from the house’s terrace. My favorite performer was Maya Gingery, an elegant and intensely focused woman who strode and even pirouetted on the edge of the empty swimming pool. Her strong carriage and purposefulness appealed to me; how the work related to the “ethos” of the house was, I’m afraid, lost on me.

But HomeLA got me up to Mount Washington for the very first time, and I have to say a hearty “thank you!” for that.

It’s a known, anecdotal, unscientific fact, that Mark Morris fans will follow the Mark Morris Dance Group anywhere; the Dead Heads of the dance world.

How else could he have made such a success in Brooklyn, where the group is headquartered and has an annual season? Many years ago I played hooky from a work-related responsibility, and trekked to UC Riverside to catch the company and Morris, who was still performing. (And that’s all I’ll say about my transgression.)

So there was a big crowd of folks who, I’ll bet, were making their first trips to Northridge because the MMDG was at CSUN’s Valley Performing Arts Center Saturday night (April 27). It was a tremendous program, spanning 30 years of Morris’ choreographic output, and the dancing and live musical accompaniment (violinist Georgy Valtchev, pianist Colin Fowler and Julia MacLaine on cello) were near flawless. With the exceptions of familiar faces such as Lauren Grant, Maile Okamura, Noah Vinson and Michelle Yard, there were many unfamiliar faces among the dancers. Unlike other companies, however, Morris maintains clear and consistent artistic control, and the group’s style remains recognizably his — unique and undiluted.

In “Canonic 3/4 Studies” (1982), Morris is playing with dancing in three-quarter time. Each was a mini-exercise, flirty ballet steps contrasted with big galumphing strides, and wide-stance plies. The nine men and women were dressed like boy ballet students — white short-sleeve T-shirts tucked into black tights. Inside dance jokes abound: an uncomplaining partner waits for two women to leap back and forth in front of him, and he catches them with flawless timing, a  sweet smile on his face.

“Festival Dance” (2011) is, at least partly, a couples’ dance, an exuberant celebration of love and community to a piano trio by Johann Hummel. Morris paints delicately with a palette of romantic and whimsical partnering. But the stage churns, too, with weaving chains of Morris’ intricate folk dances.

After intermission, the mood shifted entirely thanks to “Grand Duo” (1993), one of several pieces Morris has made to the music of the late experimental musician Lou Harrison. Here, Morris suggests the community is a tribe, communicating with hieroglyphic gestures. Two groups “threw” invective at one another in time to the piano’s chaotic chords. I had forgotten Morris’ fantastic range, his wild imagination. “Grand Duo” was the thrilling reminder.

The best explanation I have for an Italian contemporary dance company that calls itself Spellbound, is that its artistic director and choreographer, Mauro Astolfi, trained and worked for about eight years in New York City. That may or may not have anything to do with it, just my speculation. In any event, Spellbound Contemporary Ballet was here, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre Tuesday for a one-night performance. An almost-full house got to decide for itself whether it was bewitched and enthralled by Astolfi’s three pieces. There was a standing ovation at the final curtain, but since that has become such a common occurrence, that is less of a sure-fire indicator than you might suppose. I was impressed mostly with the dancers’ electricity, but got bored pretty quickly with Astolfi’s one-note style.

We don’t see much Italian dance in southern California — yet another mystery that certainly an agent could explain in short order. Money undoubtedly has something to do with it. The Segerstrom Center presented Aterballetto and works by Mauro Bigonzetti, and the La Scala Ballet, many years ago now. In the case of Spellbound, the respected New England Foundation for the Arts is sponsoring the inaugural tour for this troupe of six women and three men.

Astolfi’s style: It is absolutely distinctive, an ever-flowing, full-body ripple, with dancers coursing together at intersecting points about the stage and then pulling apart again. Those meetings appeared almost random. During these junctures, dancers’ differing body parts fit together like well-made puzzle pieces. Give them points for the remarkable physical control to maintain this consistent dynamism and momentum. During infrequent passages of unison dancing, the power of these squiggles and jiggles multiplied exponentially.

But the movement felt almost entirely abstract, detached from emotion, and appealed more as physical feat. I found little communicative value within, making each dance feel very much like the one before it. I found little relation in the gestural language to the program descriptions of each piece, for example. Astolfi’s whipped steps seemed to float on top of the contemporary musical compositions that served as the score; the music existed to create a mood. Rhythmic diversity was also of less concern.

The final company of this season at the Barclay will be Ballet BC, from Vancouver, which I am eager to see, having gotten good reports from a close dance critic friend.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30 other followers