February 2015


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