The Friday night debut of Jacob Jonas The Company at Wallis Annenberg Center was a big deal for choreographer and artistic director Jonas.
The Beverly Hills High School alum is only 24 and started his concert-contemporary-street-dance group a mere two years ago. And there he was, with his 11 dancers being presented by this small but new and mighty (as in influential) theater, in his hometown.
But it was another milestone, too, in a string of them, for the dance community in the Los Angeles metro area, where theaters rarely take risks by presenting young local companies. There has been a steady and exciting expansion, in quantity and quality, of dancing and dancers (and most of Jonas’ group are from Southern California). Jonas adds another dimension to the scene.
Jonas was a young teen when he hooked up with the Calypso Tumblers, a street performance group in Venice with whom he ended up touring worldwide. Jonas has hand-picked dancers with diverse backgrounds and dance skills, from ballet to jazz to parkour to breaking. Jonas takes all of that material and thoughtfully utilizes it to present a message, sometimes a story, a metaphor, and, if Friday night was any indication, it’s material that always has heart.
The opening piece, “In a Room on Broad St.,” gives us 10 seemingly lonely individuals, clearly cut off from one another, but who, by my interpretation, appeared to want human connection. (In the post-performance discussion, Jonas said that competition was a main theme of the piece.) Jonas and Anibal Sandoval had a remarkable duet, pushing and overpowering one another with their backs pressed together. In a solo of amazing physical feats, Lamonte “Tales” Goode twisted his body into pretzel poses, balancing one-handed.
In the premiere of “fly,” Jeremy Julian Grandberry, Charissa Kroger, Brooklynn Reeves and Jill Wilson repeatedly traced a zigzag pattern from left to right across the stage. A virtuoso step or two was added during each crossing, creating variations to an ever-developing theme. As the piece progressed, the backstage curtain very slowly rose, so by the end, the audience could see the dancers running back to the left side, where they’d start their zigzaging journey again. Jonas later revealed that this linear route was inspired by a heart monitor machine and a recent death in the family. I’m not sure I would have intuited his meaning. But it didn’t matter because the moving picture Jonas has choreographed has enough complexity and suggestions of narrative possibilities that it succeeds even without Jonas’ back story.
In “Obstacles,” on the other hand, Jonas was intent on sharing with us his inspiration and source material. “Obstacles” is about a friend, Mallory Smith, who has cystic fibrosis, which is a life-threatening disease. Audio of Smith talking about her struggles punctuate the dance. Her stories are honest; the emotion in her voice suggesting stoicism. Meanwhile, petite Marissa Labong (a powerhouse artist and veteran of the L.A. dance scene) and Jonas stand in a long diagonal spotlight. Labong attempts throughout the piece to get ahead of Jonas—climbing over him, sneaking around him, running in front.
But each time, Jonas firmly, forcefully, picks her up and places her back at the start, upstage left, and then places himself ahead of her, his back to her, his feet dug into the ground, as he waits for her next escape attempt. He’s her obstacle; he’s her disease. She has to live with him, whether she likes it or not. We watch her pass through various emotional states until she sits down cross-legged, giving up her battle. But he comes to her and they end up walking hand-in-hand to the starting point; it’s as if he’s encouraging her to keep trying, even though there’s nothing particularly kind about it.
Smith’s narrative was well-told and well-spoken, but it was superfluous; Jonas can trust his movement…although, I recognize that telling Smith’s story was a significant part of his intention. Still, he has created a universal piece about life. And he and Labog gave physically committed, emotionally memorable portrayals.
The program’s other premiere was a dance film called “Grey,” shot at the Getty Center. Jonas and cinematographer William Adashek captured the gorgeous contrasts of light and dark, curve and straight line in the iconic buildings, and beautifully matched dance to it.
The one stumble of the night was when the Wallis staff failed to alert the audience that the pause between the first two pieces was not an intermission. Nearly half the crowd left their seats–and no announcement was made to stay seated. As a result, “fly” was nearly half over before the streams of people returning to their chairs stopped. I’d like to see that piece again in better circumstances.