Review: JA Collective, A.I.M. & Contra-Tiempo

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JA Collective, photo by Jake Lanza

I have been reviewing dance concerts for 37 years. It’s been such a privilege – as well as a responsibility — to do this for a living. It has brought me great joy. But I’ve lately been craving a shakeup of my routine. I have been thinking about how to change the lens through which I view and consider the performances ahead.

So for 2020, I have given myself a challenge. I will be writing compilation reviews, posting them on this website at the end of each month. I hope, for 2020, to see more newly formed groups and individuals who are starting out. I might not write about everything I see (particularly if the work does not meet certain artistic standards). I will occasionally throw in a profile or news announcement. And I hope to free myself from the more rigid writing framework of newspaper style of reviewing. 

As always, I want to see if I can make you, the reader, feel through my words as though you were there with me, watching what I see, feeling what I experience. That’s always been my personal goal in writing criticism, but I think I can do better. I’m hoping that these reviews will become a history of this year, and perhaps reveal how artists are thinking and sharing through dance, and what their artwork tells us about our lives in this particular era and place. 

Part one

I went to three concerts in January, and I will start with the one in the middle because it excited me the most (thought the other two were quite good). That middle show (Jan. 24) was the JA Collective at the Odyssey Theatre, the third of five weekends of the theater’s annual new-dance festival. The JA initials stand for Jordan Johnson and Aidan Carberry, who, along with performer Stephanie Dai at this show, are 2019 graduates of the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at USC. 

Johnson and Carberry describe their world premiere piece, “Wrenz Kaloogy,” as a “collection of conversations, thoughts, and actions.” It’s a perfect description. They offered a string of short, whimsical scenes: two bodies so thoroughly entwined it was impossible to tell whose head was at the other end of which foot, whose arm was connected to whose torso, and so on. A threesome seated on a bench engaged in synchronized wrapping and unfurling of hands and limbs, all executed with drill-team precision; a body-slapping and clapping dance was timed to the  popcorn kernels exploding in three-different colored microwave machines (though one didn’t work). 

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Photo by Jake Lanza

Carberry buttoned a shirt onto one leg, affixed a clown’s red nose to his instep, pulled his sock up onto his toes, and voila! He made a leg puppet that mimed amiably with the peppy Dai. A few times, she retreated to a desk at downstage right, where she wrote in a notebook with ferocious intensity. When we came into the theater, there were hand-written cards on every seat. Mine asked, “Have you ever felt like you?” I presume these props were from JA, and my answer is “Yes, most of the time, I feel like me.”

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Photo by Jake Lanza

I like JA’s lightheartedness and the witty undertone to everything. Their choreography emphasizes deft and fast hand movements. I could feel the beat and rhythmic structure. It was part hip-hop, part hand ballet. Each “conversation” was just the right length, never belaboring or dragging out ideas, which were one-note, yet still clever. I noticed reflections of Pilobolus and Momix, and yet JA and Dai are wholly original. It made me smile; here was a discovery, a group to keep an eye on. 

Part two

Can we, Los Angeles, please claim Kyle Abraham as our own? His company, A.I.M. (formerly called Abraham in Motion), is based in New York, but Abraham spends at least part of the year here on the faculty of UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Culture. A.I.M.’s Jan. 25 concert at Cal State Long Beach’s Carpenter Center felt like a homecoming, attracting a disparate dance community.

Los Angeles County High School of the Arts graduate Marcella Lewis was the standout soloist in “Show Pony,” a piece that somehow manages to be understated and bravura at the same time. In a sparkly gold unitard, Lewis’ persona alternates between “on” in big bold letters and reserved. Dan Scully’s lighting designs signaled these alternating states of being, as did the energy in the musical track “Hatshepsut” from electronic musician Jlin. Abraham’s group piece, “Drive” (2017), was a throbbing tour de force of tightly wound, and then exploding athleticism.

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Javon Jones and Claude “CJ” Johnson in “Solo Olos.” Photo by Christopher Duggan

It was the concert’s more subdued first half, though, that I will recall. It opened with Trisha Brown’s 1976 quintet, “Solo Olos.” The stage is bare and there is silence as accompaniment – to start. The backdrop is black and the dancers wear white pants and tops, simple and loosely hanging. Brown crafted stick-figure movements, with phrases spinning forwards and backwards. These distinct grouping of movements were repeated, but the order was ever-shifting. One of the five dancers exits off the end of the stage, grabs a microphone and directs individual colleagues to go forward, backward or “spill,” his voice becoming musical accompaniment. He’s randomly organizing the dance, and yet the four performers somehow, miraculously, meet up in unison.

“Solo Olos” is a palindrome – words that are spelled the same forward as backward. Brown turned simple concept into a transfixing game of bodies moving through space. Abraham’s “Quiet Dance” immediately followed “Solo Olos” on the program and though its was different and separated by 35 years, “Quiet Dance” looked like next-generation Brown. Same open stage, similarly light-colored costumes, and five dancers performing necklaces of movement that were basic in structure but still challenging to execute well. 

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Catherine Kirk in “The Quiet Dance.” Photo by Sharen Bradford

Abraham found his inspiration in Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time,” in a solo piano recording by Bill Evans. Here’s just one poignant stanza from this song (featured in the Broadway musical, “On the Town”): “There’s so much more embracing/ Still to be had but time is racing/ Oh, well, we’ll catch up some other time.” “Quiet Dance” didn’t make use of the lyrics, but you didn’t really need them. It’s wistful, achingly beautiful tone was clear through Abraham’s choreography.

Part three 

Contra-Tiempo has been working on and performing “joyUS justUS” for a while. If I’m not mistaken, it debuted at the Carpenter Center one year ago. I saw it on Jan. 17 at The Wallis, which is presenting only Los Angeles-based companies for the current dance season.

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Photo by Kevin Parry

Ana Maria Alvarez, the chief choreographer and founding artistic director of Contra-Tiempo, says this piece is “a call to action.” Some folks prefer to enjoy their entertainment as a passive amusement, without the social justice lecture. Alvarez wants to actively engage her audience – and to educate. She has been involved in activist dance her whole career; it’s her reason for being. There’s considerable danger involved in this artistic approach and she skillfully walked that knife’s edge. This work – say it quickly and you get “joyous justice” – expresses pleasure and delight over and again, and Alvarez makes everyone feel good. That’s a winning recipe because “a spoonful of sugar…” well, you know the rest.

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Photo by Kevin Parry

The dance begins with three women exclaiming, “You and I become us.” That narrative is repeated throughout, in words and actions. Right from the beginning, Alvarez establishes everyone as participants. We were given fabric scraps to twirl to display our approval. Extra dancers and viewers were seated onstage on three sides. Tapestries hung from the ceiling. Candles and an altar festooned the stage. Tuce Yasak’s lighting design cast big shadows of the dancers on the theater’s walls. It was like being in a living room. We were close and meant to be closely engaged.

The second half was devoted to justice — for people of color, for people seeking a better life in this country. Whereas the first half was full of samba, salsa dancing and rippling bodies, later scenes evoked sadness and solitariness. But Alvarez ends with a dance party because, as one performer tells us, we have a right to joy. 

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Photo by Kevin Parry

Alvarez credits her company’s performers with helping her create this winning piece. Some of them have since left the troupe. The current group is outstanding and included Isis Avalos, Charlie Dando, Jannet Galdamez, Bianca Medina, Dalphe Morantus, Alan Perez, Jasmine Stanley and the amazing double-threat, singer-dancer, Diana Toledo.

Till February

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