The Orange County contemporary dance company Backhausdance celebrates its 15th anniversary this year and artistic director Jenny Backhaus is taking a bit of a break from creating the bulk of the group’s repertory. This strikes me more as an evolutionary development than a major sea change. I’ve been watching the company’s development almost from its beginning—their first show I went to was in February 2005—and even early Backhausdance programs featured at least one piece made by a guest choreographer.
At Backhausdance’s Thursday evening (Feb. 22) show at the Musco Center in Orange, the entire first half was devoted to works by others: two by Israeli choreographer Ido Tadmor and a world premiere, “Beyond the Noise,” by Italian choreographer Walter Matteini (made in collaboration with Ina Brockx).
Matteini is new to me. Interspersing recordings of eerie wind noises and incomprehensible whispers with music by Bach, Vivaldi and others, Matteini creates a mournful picture of mostly unhappy couples. “Beyond the Noise” has 10 dancers, and Matteini pairs two men with different women, and groups the remaining six women together to form a kind of Greek chorus. The women walk and stagger about woefully and at other points perform unimaginative sections of unison movement. In a central duet, Ellen Akashi and Santiago Villarreal shove and pull at each other, sometimes naturalistically, sometimes using formal dance language. At the close, a new, apparently loving couple stands still in an embrace, but there’s no real sense of redemption or happiness. Matteini’s palatte is restrictive and the piece becomes repetitive early on.
Tadmor’s dances put a spotlight on him, rather than the other dancers, which was disappointing. Don’t get me wrong—he moves with refinement, grace and technical expertise, though there’s a little too much hyperextension for my taste. I just don’t think I would have programmed both of these pieces. “Netta,” named for and dedicated to his mother, is a solo done in silence, with the occasional percussive interruptions of Tadmor smacking the floor with both hands. He stays mostly in a single spotlight, but travels with showy leaps and kicks to a spotlight on stage left, then returns to the original spot on the extreme right. He wiggles, coils and unfurls his right arm in purposeful, minute articulations, even turning his hand into a gun at one point, which was a lone, unexpected suggestion of violence. These gestures communicate as isolated physical feats, however, never coalescing to make a specific point or even to create a portrait.
This was not the case with “The Empty Room,” an often charming duet for Tadmor and Akashi created to various musical selections. Seated at a desk and in goofy costumes (designer Yaron Braha Bezalel), they chatter animatedly using nonsense syllables. There’s a progression from friendship to love to loss, that while occasionally crude—Tadmor mimes biting Akashi’s behind—stirs up poignant feelings. The opening segment was particularly strong with rhythmically defined mimed gestures.
The company performed Backhaus’ “The Elasticity of the Almost,” from 2013, in the second half. It contains the choreographer’s kinetic musings about time and how we use it—and it uses us. The dancers play with, scoop up and throw tens (hundreds?) of plastic red balls throughout the course of the roughly 30-minute piece; while I’m not sure this works thematically, it’s a charming visual conceit. We could give “Elasticity” a subtitle: “Living in the moment or how to dance with many red balls.”
The work exhibits Backhaus’ strengths and skills at creating exciting group movement. When she’s at her best, Backhaus choreography is clever and quick, and she’s like a craftsman in her construction of geometric forms. There’s also a naiveté and open-hearted cheerfulness about her pieces. That’s how I think of the company’s profile and its style, in fact. I don’t think the dances made by others have yet fully added to that profile, or contributed to the company’s growth. Perhaps that, too, is part of the evolutionary process.
It’s well past time, too, for Backhaus to decide if she wants to have equal numbers of male and female dancers, particularly if she’s going to bring in outside choreographers more often. As “Beyond the Noise” demonstrated, the current situation creates problems for the guest dance-makers. Final beef: the lighting designs (credited to Tiffany Williams) were too dark for most of the program.
Bravo, though, to the dedication of Backhaus’ dancers. In addition to Vallarreal and Askashi, they included on this evening Tawny Chapman, Amie Lee Kilgore, Joshua King, Katie Natwick, Kaitlin Regan, Chihiro Sano, Megan Seagren, Evan Swenson, and Amanda Kay White