Dance


Now 10 years old, Contra-Tiempo is one of Los Angeles’ most ambitious and accomplished home-grown dance companies, but your average resident would be hard-pressed to know about this striking group. It gets most of its gigs on the road, away from L.A., which is a loss for us. Artistic director Ana Maria Alvarez gives her company a distinctive mix of urban, Latin, Afro-Cuban, and contemporary movements; salsa dance was a part of her family’s life and she has integrated this vernacular form into her concert-dance language, which would seem a perfect blend for multicultural Los Angeles.

So the fact that Contra-Tiempo is in the midst of an eight-performance run (through Jan. 24) for the premiere of Alvarez’s latest work, “Agua Furiosa,” is a development worth applauding. Thank you to its presenter, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, for making it happen.   

In “Agua Furiosa” (literally, “raging/angry water”), it is Alvarez who is raging, and she has leveled her fury at a long list of social injustices: racism, immigration policies, gun violence, and environmental degradation being the most prominent in the 90-minute work. The five women and three men act out various themes—pointing pretend guns and “killing” each other, for example. Alvarez uses symbolic gestures, too, such as when the dancers form an old-fashioned bucket line to put out a pretend fire—except they don’t have any water. Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and an Afro-Cuban deity of wind and storms called Oya served to inspire Alvarez, too.

She isn’t telling any particular story, though. Different dancers do take on the role of the enslaved half-human Caliban; yet, he is mostly a symbol. I felt that what Alvarez most wants the audience to take away is that we are all Caliban, in the sense of the “other.”

There’s a lot going on in “Agua Furiosa,” too much, frankly. The piece’s five acts play like disconnected scenes, and there isn’t the kind of cumulative growth that carries the viewer from beginning to end. I wish that Alvarez had either pared down her laundry list of grievances or gathered the various threads together for a final catharsis. I also wished I could turn off d. Sabela grimes’ sound score, an instrumental and vocally sampled track of grating, ad nauseam repetition. It was a case of aural assault distracting from my visual enjoyment.

And there’s the rub, the one consistent motif: the dancing in “Agua Furiosa” is furiously gorgeous as are her dancers—Isis Avalos, Christopher Cuneza, Jannet Galdamez, Bianca Golden, Samad Guerra, Diana Toledo, Bianca Medina, and Francisco Herrejon. Galdamez opens the piece with a shimmying, torso-rippling solo that resembles the natural flow of water. Alvarez’s signature salsa is performed only briefly as a couples dance. African-inflected moves are sprinkled throughout, as are fearless break-dancing solos. Avalos has an extended solo of leaping, crawling, and gripping intensity. Singer Pyeng Threadgill promenades through the space, dividing the acts with haunting a cappella numbers. These are the moments from  “Agua Furioso” that will stick with me.

The piece continues through Sunday, Jan. 24 at the Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater on the UCLA campus. Click here for ticket information.

Is there a more fabulous pairing on the LA dance scene than whip-smart, oversized Andrew Wojtal  and the physically omniscient Guzmán Rosado in Richard Siegal’s “The New 45”? Naw, I doubt it.

Not quite a couple, but something closer to buddy-movie material, Wojtal and Rosado slip in and out of one another’s orbit, wiggling body parts in isolation in Siegal’s sweet and slapstick duet.

They are just two of the standout dancers in BodyTraffic, the Los Angeles-based contemporary dance company that, in truth, is comprised of standouts. BodyTraffic had a two-night gig at the Broad Stage Feb. 26-27 (I was there the 27th; sorry for the delayed report). These are individuals who can meld into unison, but whom you also recognize for their distinctive styles and strengths.

The section for Rosada and Wojtal was part of the charming, five-part “The New 45,”  to recordings of Clark Terry, Oscar Peterson and others. If you follow BodyTraffic, you know Siegal’s “o2joy,” another upturned-smile of a dance to jazz standards; it is a BodyTraffic signature piece. “The New 45,” according to the program, was made earlier than “o2joy,” but only now had its local premiere. The two share a similar aesthetic and format—a loose, floppy, full-body reaction to different musical numbers. Co-director Tina Finkelman Berkett’s opening solo, for example, was sort the dance equivalent of scat-singing with Berkett wiggling her hips and jerking her body. Siegal knows how to make the BodyTraffic dancers shine; they do comedy well.

They also do good serious, as they demonstrated in Hofesh Shechter’s “Dust,” another local premiere. “Dust” was a dystopian fable, or maybe Shechter’s pessimistically realistic view of mankind. Projections on the backdrop announced that “In the beginning there was darkness,” and later announcements wonder what is worth “living for,” “dying for,” and “fighting for.” The three men and three women are divided by gender and stalk the space hunched over, shaking their hands and quivering. Faces to the ground, they looked pained, afraid. The piece has a driving, syncopated energy, making the humans look small, caught in a dark destiny. One man pulls himself apart from the group and finds himself in a splash of light. It’s not salvation, but rather a momentary refuge, and he ends up turning out the light, as though it were a bulb.

Next was an excerpt of “A Trick of the Light,” a “preview” according to the program (and thus not ready for reviewing), of a piece by Joshua Peugh that is premiering this month in Vancouver, British Columbia (wish our program insert had Peugh’s bio). I’ll just say that what we saw was a tantalizing bit of gentle nostalgia about the search for love, or maybe just the right dance partner.

After all that, it was hard to focus on even a short excerpt of Victor Quijada’s “Once again, before you go.” This was a clever movement work of controlled athleticism. The BodyTraffic dancers are so talented, so physically exciting, that they can make nearly anything visually appealing. But even they can’t fill something empty with meaning. The night’s other outstanding performers were Brandon Alley, Melissa Bourkas, Michele Carter, Bynh Ho (a nice addition to the group), Lindsey Matheis, and Miguel Perez. Finally, I don’t know if Berkett’s BodyTraffic partner, Lillian Barbeito,  has given up performing for good, but I missed her, and seeing the two of them together.

   

Sadie Black, stretching for the sky, in "Left Unsaid." Photo by Anne Slattery

Sadie Black, stretching for the sky, in “Left Unsaid.” Photo by Anne Slattery

I think Melissa Barak is one of our most talented and skillful ballet choreographers, one of the increasingly rare dance-makers who still believes in classical dance as a medium of artistry.   

I also find that the qualities that attract me to her work—its orderliness, romance, effortless flow, and her insightful use of the ballet vocabulary, plus women in pointe shoes—can sometimes turn into a piece’s liabilities. The orderliness occasionally looks like an academic exercise. Clever and complex phrases of steps overwhelm her dancers, particularly in their efforts to stay in together. Music is her inspiration, and I applaud her ear and ability to translate aural colors, melody and rhythm into movement. I would also like to feel and see her kindle the passions and attributes of her own dancers more often.

But we can’t forget this is a young company, not even two years old; only three of the 14 dancers have been with Barak Ballet for more than a year. So this is all my way of saying that though not every piece on the company’s concert at the Broad Stage this weekend (Feb. 6 and 7) was delightful, the fledgling troupe is an exciting presence for Los Angeles.

Barak presented two ballets new to local audiences and my favorite was the evening’s closer, “Middle of Somewhere,” a piece for four couples that was originally created for Sacramento Ballet. It opened with flurries of activity followed by sudden stasis, echoing the recorded music by Italian composer Ezio Bosso, which raced along and then stopped. A couple circled the stage, exited and then was replaced by a new one, all with crisp directional shifts. A central duet for Jennifer Drake and the expressive Mauro Villanueva suggested the simultaneous push and pull of a relationship straining under stress. The final section was even faster with big jumps and sparkling energy, the dancers better able to stay in unison than earlier in the evening. “Middle of Somewhere” gives us fresh and carefree play.

From "Yueh Fei." Photo by Anne Slattery

From “Yueh Fei.” Photo by Anne Slattery

“Yueh Fei,” on the other hand, looked dated, and uncomfortably quaint in its attempts to convey a Chinese affect. The ballet takes its cues from a contemporary composition of the same name by composer Huang Ruo. The music combines Western and Asian musical traditions with a mix of  strings and percussion, melody, tricky rhythms, and dissonance. Barak tried a similar melding—flexed feet, bent knees, upturned hands, and the S-shaped body of Indian dance. But in this instance, the phrases Barak has chosen looked stiff and pasted onto the music, rather than an organic outgrowth of it. Monique L’Heureux’s speckled lighting added interest and mystery.

The dancers were divided into a trio, two couples and leading duo, but all the dancers seemed to struggle with the steps and they were placed awkwardly about the stage, which is unusual for Barak. At the very end, Villanueva, a kind of god in shimmering gold tunic, stepped forward, raised a hand and then dramatically clenched his fist. With a sweeping arm, he threw down whatever it was he had “caught,” and with that simple gesture piqued my interest in some suggested magical ritual. The dancers spiraled outward from a clump, crouched in a circle surrounding Villanueva, and the piece was over, ending just at the spot where I became interested.

Barak invited Nicolo Fonte, the choreographer in residence at Salt Lake City’s Ballet West, to stage his 2003 piece “Left Unsaid” for her dancers. Set to a  piece (unidentified) by J.S. Bach, “Left Unsaid” was a satisfying counterpoint to Barak’s lighter style. Fonte has a sensual, stretched vocabulary, with the dancers’ lower bodies grounded into the stage. Three men, in black sport coats and trousers, danced with acute longing with a shifting trio of women, clad in sophisticated whitish-blue leotards (the handsome costumes by Kathy Scoggins).

Black and David Kim. Photo by Anne Slattery

Sadie Black and David Kim. Photo by Anne Slattery

The highlight was a duet for the passionate David Kim and fearless Sadie Black. The two moved progressively closer together on a diagonal, while Jesse Campbell and Evan Swenson circled them slowly, almost ominously. Black folding chairs were the not-very-original prop pieces, but I didn’t mind so much because I was so taken with the intensity of the dancing. Another nice work for the Barak repertory.

The first thing you’ll want to know, naturally, is if Ira Glass--the radio host of the title–can dance. As a matter of fact, he moves very nicely, thank you very much. He’s tall and slim, has very good rhythm, and an unselfconsciousness about his body that makes him engaging just to watch, even when he’s not talking in that distinctive nasal tone. I was left curious how Glass, who created and heads up NPR’s “This American Life,” met choreographer and dancer Monica Bill Barnes, who grew up in Berkeley and founded her small downtown NYC company in 1997. She’s a highly esteemed choreographer, but, still, she’s not a big name. It could have been through the late writer David Rakoff, who appeared on “This American Life” and performed with Barnes. No matter. This was a sweetly quirky collaboration that, thanks to Glass, has introduced audiences that I would bet see contemporary dance infrequently, to two lovely dance-artists.

The show, at Cal State Long Beach’s Carpenter Performing Arts Center Saturday, Dec. 6, was formatted like “This American Life”–several acts, with an over-arching theme that ties everything together. The acts were about the rigors of dancing, love, and death (aka how everything must come to an end). But there was dance sequences in each section, so I considered Barnes’ infectious, perky movement as the connecting thread here.

I can’t take my eyes off Barnes. She’s got dark hair, pale skin and a charismatic style. This is only the second time I’ve seen her work, but I have a sense that this show’s jazzy, show-bizzy unison duets with partner Anna Bass are somewhat atypical of her company’s work. They came equipped with a miniature proscenium arch and red curtains, confetti, and a nifty mirrored disco ball, for a scene in which six men and women were brought up from the audience to enact a middle school party number.

I was a little squirmy well before the show’s two-hour end point, but that’s because Glass makes me a little squirmy (uh-oh, here comes the hate mail). He’s a little too precious for me; pretending he’s telling us privileged information when in fact, it’s part of the show every time. But bring back Barnes again and her full company, and I’ll be there.