The opening tableaux of “Pretty, Peculiar Things” is an announcement that Melissa Barak has good things in store. Unexpected things, like the backward toss of a ballerina. Subtle humor. And a lively stage atmosphere overflowing with a deep kinetic intelligence of what movement can express. Barak keeps it fresh. She’s a dance-maker’s dance-maker.
Here’s the scene: The curtain rises on five women in black soft tutu-dresses, bent over at the waist, their arms cross-linked behind their backs. They could be life-size mechanical dolls switched off. Or a kick in the pants at the “little swans” pas de quatre from “Swan Lake.” According to the program, Barak was inspired by the strong, glamorous women of pop graphic artist Patrick Nagel. I say all of the above.
“Pretty, Peculiar Things” was the closing number in a program of balletic-but-diverse new repertory by Barak Ballet at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The company is a mix of terrific local dancers and soloists from places such as the Joffrey, Tulsa Ballet and elsewhere; they scoot into town to work with Barak. The dancing Friday night was electric and fearless, if sometimes a little rough around the edges, most likely because they’re not a regular ensemble.
In “Pretty,” Barak found her rhythm and tonal qualities from a cool new-music album, “In C Remixed” (all the music was recorded). Composers included Glenn Kotche and Jad Abumrad (a host for NPR’s “Radio Lab”). In the first movement, petite Maine Kawashima tossed off fleet allegro jumps, ending with a hops on pointe that circled in place. Lighting designer Nathan Scheuer played with different colors on the backdrop and Barak lined her corps de ballet upstage for semaphore arm signals that provided contrast to downstage action.
The ensemble was strong as were the two lead couples: Jeraldine Mendoza, an emotive beauty, paired with Dylan Gutierrez and Lauren Fadeley with Zachary Guthier. Finally, bravo to Holly Hynes for her black and neon women’s costumes and the men’s powder blue onesies—the latter being the ballet’s most peculiar bit (but witty).
The opening number, “Within Without,” was the first piece I’ve seen from Andrea Schermoly, South African-born dancer who is now resident choreographer with Louisville Ballet. “Within Without” is about pain, the pain of wanting a child and being unable to have one—an unusual topic for concert dance. Above the stage, a large Calder-like mobile slowly rotated (artist Eric Johnson), one part shaped like a hand, another like a foot.
Schermoly tells no specific story, but the audience can easily feel her woe. The eight dancers are overcome; they are wrung out, morose. They flop over, or strike outward, searching for comfort that doesn’t ever feel delivered. Schermoly sets up quickly shifting movement phrases, sometimes at double time to her score (selections from Hildur Duõnadóttir, Vivaldi and Chopin). Julia Erickson and Guthier were the poignant central couple.
Ma Cong’s debut, “Carry Me Anew,” in contrast to the rest of the lineup, was a limp, decorative number. The repetitive musical selections from German composer and record producer Nils Frahm were offputting. And Cong worked with a limited movement palate that was as bland as the unattractive gray costumes (designed by Rebecca Turk). There was plenty of group shape-shifting, and preparations that ended in big lifts or leaps. Over and over. It had the feel of a gymnastics routine.
Happily, Barak’s piece was the closer, sending us home with a big ta-da and many beautiful, clever images swirling in our heads.