Review: Pony Box and Lula Washing Dance Theatre

The men of Pony Box in a publicity photo

A self-produced concert, bringing together Pony Box Dance Theatre and Lula Washington Dance Theatre (at the Nate Holden on Saturday April 2), turned out to be a much better pairing than I had imagined.

Pony Box is a contemporary ballet company formed a few years ago by Long Beach choreographer Jamie Carbetta Hammond. It has male performers only (all of whom are wonderful). Lula Washington’s LA-based troupe, on the other hand, is one of Los Angeles’ most established companies (with an outstanding group of eight female and male dancers, with both companies sharing the talents of Jack Virga Hall). It has a diverse modern-influenced repertory, but with a focus on exploring the African-American experience.

What made these two female artistic directors good partners, I think, is their complementary artistic visions. They are humanists advocating for a better world through their art. They recognize the strife gripping the world and confront it directly in their art, and they make dances that hold up hope and righteousness as the prize.

The two pieces on Hammond’s half of the program, “The Line” (from 2015) and “The Collective” (2016), have strong similarities. Both take the viewer on metaphorical journeys of transformation. Hammond sets up conflicts that pit the individual against the group; suggesting that conformity is a lure, but also a dangerous state. She favors  a long and beautiful dance line, and complicated body positions. Her dancers are portrayed as sophisticated and Hammond emphasizes their masculinity. The men perform shirtless, enhancing the sensuality of her pieces. But this is not about selling sex, a la Chippendale’s; these men are strong but vulnerable, individuals but also symbols for humanity.

“The Line” begins with all seven dancers outside a rectangular rope that frames the stage and gives the dance, one supposes, its name. They have solos suggesting moments of prayer or spiritual searching, and then they dive into—or are sucked in, more likely—the center of the stage. Once there, they submerge into a face-less uniformity. Malachi Middleton pulls away, and tries breaking through to the others. He has a lovely, tender duet with Christian Beasley, but Beasley rejects Middleton’s efforts at connection. Middleton ends the piece by climbing a ladder, ascending, we presume, to a better place.

“The Collective” starts with a circle, the dancers dressed in two-toned stretch shorts each pair black on the behind and brightly colored on front. Hammond gives the guys cooperative movements; they are literally linked, supporting and pulling one another. A crate placed upstage, however, is the excuse for a hidden onstage costume change; when they emerge they’re wearing black and white pants, and black and white Venetian-style masks, a different one for each dancer (created by Ashley Castillo and Joseph Umali Fernandez). In this strange segment, each man  has a pole on which he awkwardly balances his head; it’s then used as a yoke across the shoulders. By the end, half the cast has changed yet again and discarded the masks; these are potent theatrical symbols yet their meaning here is murky. A collage of musical pieces, including works by Radiohead and Doug Hammond set an edgy mood, but they don’t drive the dance. This was true in “The Line,” as well, which featured recorded pieces by Doug Hammond (the choreographer’s husband), Thomas Yorke and Olafur Arnalds.

I like Hammond’s movement inventiveness but I’m not always sure what she’s trying to communicate. There are lengthy center stage, front-facing unison passages, which are reminiscent of classroom exercises. These two works are overly long. At the same time, I’m intrigued by the boldness and possibility of an all-male company, particularly one with a female leader.

Washington’s company presented three pieces, two of which featured onstage live accompaniment by Marcus L. Miller’s ace jazz quartet (he is Washington’s son-in-law). Washington’s 2015 “Search for Humanism” began the second half and it is the choreographer’s literal cry of fury over the ongoing spate of killings of African-Americans. “Stop! Stop killing! My babies are sacred!” a dancer-griot, or sage, implores and then shrieks at the audience. This is amped up, white-hot anger, and the dancers scamper at hyper-speed about the stage, fall as though shot, but then are revived with hugs. I thought of this piece as a kind of “Guernica,” Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece decrying the massacres of the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately, “Search for Humanism” is flatly literal, and artistic perspective is sorely lacking—it’s one long scream of pain. I understand and empathize with the impulse, but it’s limiting as a dance.

Tamica Washington-Miller’s “Together” (2011) is a sweet showcase about love, and the fundamental rightness of finding one’s better half. It also showed off Krystal Hicks, a gorgeous dancer with perfect timing and rhythmic nuance. Raymond Ejiofor was her tender partner.

The evening ended on the high note that is “Global Village,” a 2010 celebration to Fela Kuti’s music. Washington made this infectious, joyous piece for the company’s first tour of China in 2011 and it is full of little touches that represent a multitude of cultures. The women’s brightly colored blouses have extra long sleeves, and waves of pigment flash over their heads every time they wave their arms. Washington has an unerring sense here for shifting groupings. It’s more than simply a fun and uplifting work—it’s enduring.   

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