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.

Is there a more fabulous pairing on the LA dance scene than whip-smart, oversized Andrew Wojtal  and the physically omniscient Guzmán Rosado in Richard Siegal’s “The New 45”? Naw, I doubt it.

Not quite a couple, but something closer to buddy-movie material, Wojtal and Rosado slip in and out of one another’s orbit, wiggling body parts in isolation in Siegal’s sweet and slapstick duet.

They are just two of the standout dancers in BodyTraffic, the Los Angeles-based contemporary dance company that, in truth, is comprised of standouts. BodyTraffic had a two-night gig at the Broad Stage Feb. 26-27 (I was there the 27th; sorry for the delayed report). These are individuals who can meld into unison, but whom you also recognize for their distinctive styles and strengths.

The section for Rosada and Wojtal was part of the charming, five-part “The New 45,”  to recordings of Clark Terry, Oscar Peterson and others. If you follow BodyTraffic, you know Siegal’s “o2joy,” another upturned-smile of a dance to jazz standards; it is a BodyTraffic signature piece. “The New 45,” according to the program, was made earlier than “o2joy,” but only now had its local premiere. The two share a similar aesthetic and format—a loose, floppy, full-body reaction to different musical numbers. Co-director Tina Finkelman Berkett’s opening solo, for example, was sort the dance equivalent of scat-singing with Berkett wiggling her hips and jerking her body. Siegal knows how to make the BodyTraffic dancers shine; they do comedy well.

They also do good serious, as they demonstrated in Hofesh Shechter’s “Dust,” another local premiere. “Dust” was a dystopian fable, or maybe Shechter’s pessimistically realistic view of mankind. Projections on the backdrop announced that “In the beginning there was darkness,” and later announcements wonder what is worth “living for,” “dying for,” and “fighting for.” The three men and three women are divided by gender and stalk the space hunched over, shaking their hands and quivering. Faces to the ground, they looked pained, afraid. The piece has a driving, syncopated energy, making the humans look small, caught in a dark destiny. One man pulls himself apart from the group and finds himself in a splash of light. It’s not salvation, but rather a momentary refuge, and he ends up turning out the light, as though it were a bulb.

Next was an excerpt of “A Trick of the Light,” a “preview” according to the program (and thus not ready for reviewing), of a piece by Joshua Peugh that is premiering this month in Vancouver, British Columbia (wish our program insert had Peugh’s bio). I’ll just say that what we saw was a tantalizing bit of gentle nostalgia about the search for love, or maybe just the right dance partner.

After all that, it was hard to focus on even a short excerpt of Victor Quijada’s “Once again, before you go.” This was a clever movement work of controlled athleticism. The BodyTraffic dancers are so talented, so physically exciting, that they can make nearly anything visually appealing. But even they can’t fill something empty with meaning. The night’s other outstanding performers were Brandon Alley, Melissa Bourkas, Michele Carter, Bynh Ho (a nice addition to the group), Lindsey Matheis, and Miguel Perez. Finally, I don’t know if Berkett’s BodyTraffic partner, Lillian Barbeito,  has given up performing for good, but I missed her, and seeing the two of them together.

   

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.

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