In 2013, Israeli dancer and choreographer Danielle Agami migrated from Seattle to Los Angeles with her young company, Ate9. In the past four years, she’s had so many gigs that I wondered if she had a magical Time-Turner (see “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), to be everywhere at once. Two shows at Los Angeles Theatre Center; choreographer of the headphone opera “Invisible Cities” at Union Station; an out-of-the-box solo for ballerina Melissa Barak; an award-winning piece in Palm Springs; a residency at UCLA; other shows in L.A., Orange County and elsewhere.
I’ve probably left things out, but you get the idea. The woman pushes hard and works harder.
On Saturday (Nov. 11), Agami and AteNine (now Nine, instead of 9) premiered “calling glenn” at Royce Hall, and both the piece and the fact of being presented by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance are important milestones for Agami. “calling glenn” is a strong, complex piece, 70 minutes straight through. It depends upon, and benefits from, the collaboration between Agami and composer-musician Glenn Kotche, who plays live during the work, upstage and behind the nine dancers. Kotche, of the alternative rock band Wilco, moves between a large drum set laden with strange and beautiful-sounding percussion instruments to two different xylophone-type pieces. (I’m hedging because technically they might not be xylophones.) Kotche delivers rhythmic assurance and a melodic backdrop that nicely contrasts with Agami’s twisted and distorted movement (more on that shortly). Kotche’s intent is never to overpower the dance, but to drive it forward and complement. He succeeds wonderfully. At one point the dancers pull chairs in front of him just to watch the concert, and you empathize.
The dance is rather otherworldly and the stage is stripped of backdrop and wings; Kotche’s instruments are the scenery and black chairs lined up on each side are its only props. The dancing proceeds episodically, with scenes flowing one into the other, sometimes with clear demarcation and other times not. Agami favors a jerky movement style, the dancers’ bodies distorted, twisty and weighty. Dancers perform differing signature gestures at once, and these unrecognizable shapes are complicated in a formless way. There’s a great deal of falling, as though gravity is simply too great a force to fight.
It’s not until almost the halfway point that Agami suggests a narrative I recognized. Two by two, dancers meet for differing duets, each one a cascade of actions begetting reactions triggering others. Some were sexual, others confrontational. There’s tenderness, too. During her duo, Agami meticulously places her arms in a perfectly round hoop and partner Raymond Ejiofer dives through, accepting her challenge.
Later, a woman brings a microphone onstage and is about to address us, until another woman pushes the first out of the way. A shoving match ensues, and soon, everyone is miming angry words, their bodies tensed into repulsive and hateful gestures, Kotche’s drumming standing in for what would be shouted diatribes; music is better. It’s a perfect encapsulation of today’s ugly public discourse. With the microphones evenly lined up, the onstage society suddenly looks like a prison, and the six women and three men have become captives of their own intransigence.
The stumbling block I have with Agami’s pieces is the amorphousness of the body language she and her dancers conceive. I admire the physical intricacy. But there is an obscurity, a remoteness, even a mixed-message quality to her dances that I have yet to crack. In a post-performance question and answer session, Agami noted that she is aiming to express “tiny stories, passions, fantasies, hope and beauty” and emotions. My reading is often the opposite; her work can feel cold, full of intellectual puzzles. I often don’t feel the heartbeat.
That said, “calling glenn” is a step forward, a risky leap of revelation and trusting herself. And the cast, which includes original company members Sarah Butler and Ariana Daub plus Rebecah Goldstone, Genna Moroni, Carissa Songhorian, Gary Reagan and Jobel Medina performed with commitment and passion. I was particularly taken with her male dancers, Ejiofor, Reagan and Medina.