Spellbound, only a little

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.

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