L.A. Dance Project has, indeed, proved to be an L.A. company, performing locally more often than any other company that I know of. Here’s my review of their latest show, this past weekend.

 

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.

I wrote the essay and list of favorite performances, below, at the invitation of the Dance Resource Center of Southern California. But I left out one important development in local dance this year: Felicia Rosenfeld’s appointment as executive director of the DRC. Felicia, as head of the Los Angeles office of Pentacle from 2006-2015, started a number of important and new programs here benefitting area dancers and choreographers. This past year, she spearheaded Home Grown @ Bootleg, a performance series at the Bootleg Theater. The two organizations helped a group of companies self-produce three shows each. This is something of a breakthrough for the area, an important opportunity for companies that want to move beyond the showcase format, but are not yet able to attract presenters to put them on their schedules. With her long experience at Pentacle, Felicia brings the much-needed, expansive vision to the community.

Wishing everyone great dancing in 2016!

Living in the L.A. region, our lives are circumscribed by two constants over which we have no control: geography and traffic. The former dictates you’re going to have to drive pretty far to see a performances. The latter—the traffic—just keeps getting worse. What to do? Perhaps everyone will understand when I say that I just didn’t make it to some shows, and was unable to see as much as I wanted to.  So I have tinges of regret. That said, I traveled as far north as Northridge (for Diavolo) and as far south as Costa Mesa (for American Ballet Theatre among others) in my dance travels of 2015.

I regret missing some performances at the Music Center, Redcat, and particularly at UCLA. When I went to see Flemish choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s striking “Vortex Temporum” in November, Royce Hall was shockingly empty. It was horrible. Perhaps that night was an aberration, but I think not. I would bet the opening of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills and the Broad Stage in Santa Monica have cut deeply into UCLA’s audiences.

In addition, the Los Angeles Times, for which I write as a freelancer, has dramatically cut back its dance coverage. Other newspapers in the area have also hacked their dance and arts coverage, a sorry state of affairs for both the arts and journalism.

There—the bad news is out of the way. The good news: There was a lot that was wonderful this past year. These were my most joyous moments:

  1. BodyTraffic. The company’s February shows were a reminder of what Tina Finkelman Berkett and Lillian Barbeito have added to the Los Angeles dance scene. They commission smart and physically challenging pieces, while also looking for dance-makers who aren’t just the flavor-of-the-month. Their dancers bring individuality to the stage and they like it that way. Bravo.
  2. Diavolo. As I became a regular at Jacque Heims’ and Diavolo performances beginning in the late 1980s, I didn’t guess he’d be the L.A. choreographer to break through on a national level. But he has and the three-part, full-evening work “L’Espace du Temps” is a culmination of Heims’ belief that this daredevil gymnastic style could be, not just accessible to audiences, but also convey artistic themes and worth. I look forward to the next new piece in 2016.
  3. Barak Ballet. Finding your neo-classical ballet voice has been a forward-and-backward process for Melissa Barak (as it is for others). But she has a keen musical and kinetic intelligence. A spate of recent fellowships and commissions will contribute to her growth, and that of her young company.
  4. Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet. Rogers has been around a long time. And yet, it’s only more recently that I’ve become a big fan of his abstract classical style, all long lines, women on-half-pointe, everyone slowly rotating in promenade. His latest work, “Still Life,” with a lush orchestral score by Czech composer Zybnek Mateju, was a powerhouse piece. Thank goodness for the folks at the Luckman Theater who make sure Rogers’ company has at least one annual local performance.
  5. Alexei Ratmansky. American Ballet Theatre’s artist in residence was represented by three different pieces in 2015, “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Nutcracker” and “Cinderella” (the latter for the Mariinsky). I am attracted to the musicality and the great breadth of his choreography. At a time when ballet has been reduced down to its showiest steps, Ratmansky pulls out the full-range of the classical vocabulary. Too, he is a most human choreographer, whose dances are filled with warmth and humor.
  6. Mark Morris Dance Group. “Dido and Aeneas”  is funny, poignant, earthy, raw and clever. More, please.
  7. Twyla Tharp. Her latest dances are so tricky and the men and women on this latest tour were simply elite performers.
  8. Batsheva. I love to be surprised and Batsheva’s dancers almost always do that.

See you at the theater,

Laura

In a February post, I talked a little about Home Grown @ Bootleg, a series created by Pentacle, with support from the Bootleg Theater, to give local companies more opportunities to perform in Los Angeles.

The second series of concerts was scheduled, featuring Invertigo Dance Theatre and Danza Floricanto/USA in April. Invertigo, however, had to drop out and Pentacle director Felicia Rosenfeld scrambled to find a replacement. The three concerts will now take place June 26 and 27, and feature Danza Floricanto at each performance and a rotating group of companies along with the Lester Horton Awards ceremony at the final show: 7 p.m. June 26, Danza Floricanto/USA, szalt, OdDancity, and No)one. Art House; 1 p.m. June 27, Danza Floricanto/USA, The Assembly, and The Sunland Dancers; 7 p.m. June 27, Danza Floricanto/USA and Horton Awards Celebration.

Gema Sandoval, artistic director of Danza Floricanto/USA, which is the oldest Mexican folkloric troupe in Southern California, has made a new contemporary piece “Immigrant Stories.”  Check it out. I went to the first shows and was happy to be introduced to companies and dancers I hadn’t known. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. The Bootleg is at 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Reservations at 213-289-3856 or bootlegtheater.org

Mark Morris’ danced opera “Dido and Aeneas” is a tour de force of late 20th century artistic storytelling, using Henry Purcell’s 1689 musical composition, which is a partial retelling of Virgil’s “Aeneid. It is a riveting assemblage, one that smashes and rewrites stylistic boundaries.

The hour-long piece—it’s done far too soon—had only its second local engagement this weekend at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, presented by the Philharmonic Society.

For years after “Dido’s” 1989 premiere, Morris portrayed the work’s signature oppositional roles of good Queen Dido and the evil Sorceress. On Friday evening, the musically keen choreographer was in the pit conducting the outstanding Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra of Long Beach, five excellent soloists, and the marvelous Bob Cole Chamber Choir from Cal State Long Beach.

Twelve members of the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group took on multiple characters in this tale of the Carthaginian monarch and her consuming love for the Trojan hero. Aside from the two leads, the dancers are like roving troubadours, breaking the fourth wall as they shape-shift into different parts, “commenting” on what’s taking place through movements both dignified and grotesque, and then reeling us in through emotional exuberance.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck sang both the Dido and Sorceress roles, impressing with her shimmery and aching vibrato. The onstage Dido and Sorceress was dancer Laurel Lynch, an elegant and statuesque beauty. Her long curly hair was tied up for Dido, and the unruly locks down in her face for the Sorceress. Making the characterizations real, however, takes more than a change in hair style. Lynch’s Dido was restrained at first, a bit of a blank slate, as she was visibly focusing on the Queen’s exacting positions. She loosened up in her duets with Aeneas. Though models of courtly decorum, they still crackled like fire. When he comes to say goodbye, Lynch swept her arm upward on the words, “Away, away!”, and the force of the gesture was the equivalent of a slap. She transformed her lean line into a full-bodied coarseness while playing the Sorceress.

Bass-baritone Douglas Williams sang Aeneas with a sumptuous quality, which was matched by the dancer-Aeneas, Domingo Estrada, Jr. Morris does not generally cast his works based on a dancer’s looks; indeed he likes to play against type. But here, the physical appearance of Dido and Aeneas is critical—even when Morris improbably switches the genders of the dancers. Estrada, broad-shouldered, bare-chested and devilishly handsome, was matinee-idol perfection. He projects authority and mischievousness, as when he throws a knowing wink to the audience after he has won over Dido and she leads him offstage for loving rewards.

The secondary roles were also enchantingly sung and danced: Michelle Yard as Dido’s too-helpful sister Belinda—soprano Sherezade Panthaki—and Rita Donahue as the sidekick Second Woman—Marguerite Krull in the soprano part. Dance Group veteran Lauren Grant led the sailors in a jolly Irish step dance and jig (sung by Andrew Konopak). Noah Vinson and Dallas McMurray made hilarious scoundrels, heeding the Sorceress as her henchmen-witches (singers Panthaki and Krull).

Morris makes a remarkably small production feel epic, as befitting an ancient myth. Robert Bordo’s set is spare: several low balustrades (on which the dancers’ run, pose, and upon which both Dido and Sorceress similarly collapse), sheets of black hanging cloth, and a backdrop that’s an abstract map of Aeneas’ journey. The dancers’ wear draped black balloon pants and fitted tops, designed by Christine Van Loon. Yet, with great nuance and variety, Morris culls from his vast movement knowledge to create ancient-looking friezes, lines that surge like waves, and classical Indian poses. The piece begins and ends with  solemn promenades. Several scenes conclude with dancers pounding their feet against the floor to create a rumbling hail storm that portends the tragic finale.

Musica Angelica and two guest artists from the Morris music ensemble made their own fireworks. When everyone joined together—musicians, singers, dancers—it proved, yet again, you don’t need a movie screen to make a blockbuster.

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.