April 2013


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.

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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.

Choreographer Melissa Barak, a onetime company member with New York City and Los Angeles ballets, has spent the past two years planning for her own contemporary ballet company to be based in Los Angeles, her hometown. Sunday night was the “pre-launch performance” and about 300 turned out at the new Ann and Jerry Moss Theater in Santa Monica for the show. The concert was smartly planned: four pieces that represent the kinds of works supporters could expect Barak Ballet to produce, including a playful new quartet by Barak, “La Follia,” to music by Antonio Vivaldi. River North Dance Chicago’s Melanie Hortin and Michael Gross performed Frank Chaves‘ searing “Sentir em Nos” while Oregon Ballet Theatre‘s Haiyan Wu and Brian Simcoe did an expert job with “Liturgy,” by Christopher Wheeldon, who is a friend of Barak’s. The show opened with Alissa Halpin and Kelly Ann Sloan in Darrell Grand Moultrie’s striking duet, “Moments,” which knocked out the audience at last summer’s National Choreographer’s InitiativeBarak was a participant there with Moultrie.

The friendly audience gave Barak a standing ovation at the end. It was an hour of great dancing with receptions before and after the show so that viewers could talk to the choreographer and get to know her better. (She inserted a questionnaire in the program to gauge  interest in the evening and get to practical matters, such as, “how many miles would you be willing to travel to see live dance.”)

If all goes as planned — which means, if she has raised enough money — Barak has said she will hire dancers for the official company over the summer and begin performances in the fall. Stay tuned.