Review: A Double-Header

I don’t often do dance two-fers, but Saturday, Feb. 3 offered a tantalizing opportunity by two different companies and I didn’t want to have to choose between them. So what to do? Go to both, naturally.

As the late afternoon shadows stretched to about double one’s size, and encroaching ocean breezes chilled the warm daylight, we gathered outdoors at the bucolic Will Rogers State Park for “Doggie Hamlet,” by Ann Carlson. Presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, “Doggie Hamlet” is Carlson’s take on Will Shakespeare’s play about everyone’s favorite avenging-but-equivocating Danish prince. Another primary inspiration was “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” David Wroblewski’s novel that retells Hamlet’s story, set on a Wisconsin farm in the 1950s.

In “Doggie Hamlet,” Carlson has her own say on this universal story, in a sly way.

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Photos (including top image) by Reed Hutchinson

Carlson, a much honored choreographer, has what might seem an unusual and expansive outlook on what constitutes dance and what it can be; here, she combines sheep herding with movement to make something extraordinary. The performers in the 70-minute “Doggie Hamlet” are a flock of sheep, three herding dogs, a shepherd, two women, two men, and a teenage boy. And everyone, animal and human, is a consequential player. A fenced in “stage” of 88 by 154 feet was set up on the field where, in the 1930s, Will Rogers and his famous friends used to play polo. The audience sat on bales of hay encircling the action.

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Two of the three dogs in their final circle, with shepherd Diane Cox. Photo by Reed Hutchinson

I’ll say this about the sheep—besides being adorable they’re compliant performers. They naturally clump together, prefer to move as an ensemble, and when they’re not on the move, they’re content to keep their heads down and eat. Bravo for the sheep. And that brings me to the dogs, Monk, Wull and Lala, who followed the verbal and whistle directions of shepherd Diane Cox as though their lives depended upon it. Throughout the 70-minute show, the dogs, their muscles taut and faces riveted on their charges, took turns guiding the flock to different spots on the field. For a brief yet spectacular finale, the three ran at the same time in synchronized circles. They just simply galloped across the grass—that was it—and it was breathtaking.

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Dog giving the sheep the “eye.” Photo by Reed Hutchinson

The human players, in contrast, were purposely hampered with big rubber boots, which like their costumes of jeans and plaid shirts for the guys (Imre Hunter-To, Peter Schmitz and Ryan Tacata), and a floral dress for Diane Frank suggested the action was set on the farm of the novel. (Tula Strong introduced the action in a prelude, by walking diagonally across the field, not to be seen again.) The characters gestured with their hands, and Tacata uses sign language. There is foreshadowing  of death, a raucous scene that could have been the play-within-a-play, and then at the end, Schmitz announced that it was “killing time.” Cox, the shepherd, ended the slaughter with a verbal direction she also gave to the dogs—“That’ll do!”

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Humans in sheep’s clothing. Photo by Reed Hutchinson

But “Doggie Hamlet” isn’t strictly narrative—how could it be with this cast? Rather, Carlson creates an experience, a scene, a dreamscape, unlike any other. I found myself looking at and comparing the animals’ musculature and movement styles with the humans, who sometimes imitated the animals. The humans carried around actual sheepskins (at least one with legs still attached) and when they put them on they instantly reminded me of wolves in sheep’s clothing, shielding their evil intentions. The smells, the sounds, the changing backdrop of the sun on the Santa Monica mountains made “Doggie Hamlet” about the interplay of imagined story and real life. During their bows, the performers touched the ground before walking off, and that simple gesture reminded me that we are of this earth, and we shouldn’t forget that.

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Taking their bows. Carlson is in the yellow sweater. Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Dance day, part two.

In the evening I was at Los Angeles Contemporary Dance, a young company devoted to performing new work by its own directors and other local choreographers. This was the closing weekend of “Rift,” a program of three newer dances at The Odyssey Theater.

The program’s one premiere was “summer,” made by Stephanie Zaletel, who runs her own company, szalt. In five short scenes that create moods about loss and memory, rather than telling a specific story, Zaletel achieves a sense of power though unison phrases for 13 men and women. There was urgency in the oversized dancing and intense focus, and her cast did well by her work.

Genevieve Carson’s “Stimulaze” (excerpts) provided an extreme workout for Drea Sobke, Tiffany Sweet, Ryan Ruiz and Carson (filling in for JM Rodriguez). All four were remarkable, in this often humorous piece that required split-second timing. Using gesture as metaphor, the dancers grabbed each other, pushed and pulled, fell onto and lifted one another. Everyone excelled, but I marveled, in particular, at Ruiz, who did everything with abandon, whether falling to the floor or throwing himself through spins.

The show opener was Nathan Makolandra’s “Nomad.Lore,” a saucy yet limp jazz number, that intended to suggest the journey of life. Despite precise execution, this piece felt muted and cautious, not quite sure what it was supposed to be. Makolandra breaks up his phrases, creating interludes during which his dancers meander, and these stops and starts undercut the work.

No complaints, though, about the LACDC dancers, who make everything worth watching.     

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