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The men of Pony Box in a publicity photo

A self-produced concert, bringing together Pony Box Dance Theatre and Lula Washington Dance Theatre (at the Nate Holden on Saturday April 2), turned out to be a much better pairing than I had imagined.

Pony Box is a contemporary ballet company formed a few years ago by Long Beach choreographer Jamie Carbetta Hammond. It has male performers only (all of whom are wonderful). Lula Washington’s LA-based troupe, on the other hand, is one of Los Angeles’ most established companies (with an outstanding group of eight female and male dancers, with both companies sharing the talents of Jack Virga Hall). It has a diverse modern-influenced repertory, but with a focus on exploring the African-American experience.

What made these two female artistic directors good partners, I think, is their complementary artistic visions. They are humanists advocating for a better world through their art. They recognize the strife gripping the world and confront it directly in their art, and they make dances that hold up hope and righteousness as the prize.

The two pieces on Hammond’s half of the program, “The Line” (from 2015) and “The Collective” (2016), have strong similarities. Both take the viewer on metaphorical journeys of transformation. Hammond sets up conflicts that pit the individual against the group; suggesting that conformity is a lure, but also a dangerous state. She favors  a long and beautiful dance line, and complicated body positions. Her dancers are portrayed as sophisticated and Hammond emphasizes their masculinity. The men perform shirtless, enhancing the sensuality of her pieces. But this is not about selling sex, a la Chippendale’s; these men are strong but vulnerable, individuals but also symbols for humanity.

“The Line” begins with all seven dancers outside a rectangular rope that frames the stage and gives the dance, one supposes, its name. They have solos suggesting moments of prayer or spiritual searching, and then they dive into—or are sucked in, more likely—the center of the stage. Once there, they submerge into a face-less uniformity. Malachi Middleton pulls away, and tries breaking through to the others. He has a lovely, tender duet with Christian Beasley, but Beasley rejects Middleton’s efforts at connection. Middleton ends the piece by climbing a ladder, ascending, we presume, to a better place.

“The Collective” starts with a circle, the dancers dressed in two-toned stretch shorts each pair black on the behind and brightly colored on front. Hammond gives the guys cooperative movements; they are literally linked, supporting and pulling one another. A crate placed upstage, however, is the excuse for a hidden onstage costume change; when they emerge they’re wearing black and white pants, and black and white Venetian-style masks, a different one for each dancer (created by Ashley Castillo and Joseph Umali Fernandez). In this strange segment, each man  has a pole on which he awkwardly balances his head; it’s then used as a yoke across the shoulders. By the end, half the cast has changed yet again and discarded the masks; these are potent theatrical symbols yet their meaning here is murky. A collage of musical pieces, including works by Radiohead and Doug Hammond set an edgy mood, but they don’t drive the dance. This was true in “The Line,” as well, which featured recorded pieces by Doug Hammond (the choreographer’s husband), Thomas Yorke and Olafur Arnalds.

I like Hammond’s movement inventiveness but I’m not always sure what she’s trying to communicate. There are lengthy center stage, front-facing unison passages, which are reminiscent of classroom exercises. These two works are overly long. At the same time, I’m intrigued by the boldness and possibility of an all-male company, particularly one with a female leader.

Washington’s company presented three pieces, two of which featured onstage live accompaniment by Marcus L. Miller’s ace jazz quartet (he is Washington’s son-in-law). Washington’s 2015 “Search for Humanism” began the second half and it is the choreographer’s literal cry of fury over the ongoing spate of killings of African-Americans. “Stop! Stop killing! My babies are sacred!” a dancer-griot, or sage, implores and then shrieks at the audience. This is amped up, white-hot anger, and the dancers scamper at hyper-speed about the stage, fall as though shot, but then are revived with hugs. I thought of this piece as a kind of “Guernica,” Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece decrying the massacres of the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately, “Search for Humanism” is flatly literal, and artistic perspective is sorely lacking—it’s one long scream of pain. I understand and empathize with the impulse, but it’s limiting as a dance.

Tamica Washington-Miller’s “Together” (2011) is a sweet showcase about love, and the fundamental rightness of finding one’s better half. It also showed off Krystal Hicks, a gorgeous dancer with perfect timing and rhythmic nuance. Raymond Ejiofor was her tender partner.

The evening ended on the high note that is “Global Village,” a 2010 celebration to Fela Kuti’s music. Washington made this infectious, joyous piece for the company’s first tour of China in 2011 and it is full of little touches that represent a multitude of cultures. The women’s brightly colored blouses have extra long sleeves, and waves of pigment flash over their heads every time they wave their arms. Washington has an unerring sense here for shifting groupings. It’s more than simply a fun and uplifting work—it’s enduring.   

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Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, photo by Alice Blangero

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo was up at the Segerstrom Center’s international dance series, with the U.S. premiere of artistic director Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Choré,” on Friday night (Feb. 12). It struck me as 75 minutes of strange and frustrating work—occasionally engaging thanks to its theatrics; choreographically sleep-inducing (Eyelids, stay open!); and ultimately a mix of just too many weighty intellectual topics.

Let’s start with the title “Choré.” What Maillot is referencing here is also known as Syndenham’s chorea, chorea minor, and Saint Vitus Dance—a nervous disorder in which irregular, jerking movements are caused by involuntary muscular contractions, often a result of rheumatic fever. (Thank you, Webster’s New World Dictionary.)  “Choré,” however, is not about illness. But it is about the compulsion to dance. Dancing is a natural part of being human, “Choré” tells us, and the forms that dance takes are a direct reflection of its makers and adherents, of culture and history, and how it metamorphoses over time. These are issues that the choreographer has been obsessed with throughout his career.

French author and librettist Jean Rouaud approached Maillot with a proposition: Make a ballet that looks at the developments of dancing in light of the American movie musical and, oh yeah, throw in major world events, including the Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and so on. That is “Choré.”

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I have to say that Maillot is more sophisticated than Russia’s Boris Eifman, who attempts to tackle some of the same issues but turns all his ballets into the dance equivalent of a melodramatic nightmarish scream-fest. Still, Maillot was not able to present any insights into the woven threads that connect life and art.

Rather, Maillot, with the essential collaboration of costume designer Philippe Guillotel and stage and lighting designer Domique Drillot, created some striking stage pictures. Not original, but eye-catching nonetheless.

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They present a world that is first sepia-toned and then black and white. Amid a group of elegantly attired couples—stand-ins for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—is one faceless masked duo in coal black, very eerie. A Gene Kelly character and his surrogates enter later, in polo shirts.  The second scene, a stereotypical look back at Hollywood movie-making, concludes with the dancers performing on a painted flooring of M.C. Escher-like stairways, which when reflected in the giant mirrored backdrop made for an ingenious recreation of a Busby Berkeley routine. Quite fabulous.

The “war” sequence places most of the cast in head to toe black-and-white convict-striped unitards, shades of Alwin Nikolais’ breakthrough designs. Dancer Mimoza Koike, the efficient secretary harassed by her superiors on the movie set, is now in shredded skirt, alone and horrified, the audience’s representative to war’s disasters. The aftermath is a surprisingly still, a denuded landscape of two couples on platforms, the women flying on aerial harnesses. Perhaps they are angels.

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Mimoza Koike, photo by Alice Blangero

The ending is an incongruously and abruptly happy sequence of boogeying and shimmying. And there is color for the first time, the entire cast walking on with punctuation marks of orange, green, and yellow jackets, shoes, and so on.

For his score, Maillot commissioned music from Bertrand Maillot (the choreographer’s brother), Yan Maresz and others, and used various existing compositions from John Cage and Danny Elfman.

The irony, I suppose, is that the actual dancing in “Choré” was the least interesting part of the production. Maillot has given his highly accomplished and enthusiastic dancers  run-of-the-mill group phrases, a chirpy solo here, a string of fouettes there. Koike was the night’s standout and it was lovely to see Bernice Coppieters (who has otherwise retired from the stage) come back; unfortunately her part as the “star”  was largely forgettable.

Next up at Segerstrom Center: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, April 7 through 10

  

Liam Scarlett was in the corps de ballet at England’s Royal Ballet when he made his first major work, “Asphodel Meadows,” for his home company. The ballet was a big hit; the year was 2010. A string of important commissions followed from Miami City Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, among others. For a fellow in his 20s, his was an astoundingly precipitous rise.

Fast forward to Jan. 27, 2016. His second work for San Francisco Ballet premieres, and I saw it this past weekend at the War Memorial Opera House. Called “Fearful Symmetries,” it is set to John Adams’ orchestral work of the same name, which, with its pulsing beat and urgency, is a logical draw for choreographers; NYCB’s Peter Martins has his own “Fearful Symmetries.”

Scarlett approaches the music with a feral, throbbing lustfulness. The 16 dancers, clothed in skimpy black by costume designer Jon Morrell, stand face front and shimmy their shoulders with a dare-me-to confidence; or their backs are to us and they wiggle their butts. Or they face one another and rub against each other in the manner that would get you taken to the high school principal’s office.

I don’t want to mislead: Such provocations are a kind of a tease. The dancing is thrilling, full of bravura partnering and blatant classical athleticism. But it’s also simplistic. The dancers enter and exit mostly from the back. They appear and vanish into a cloak of black lighting (designs by David Finn), which intensifies the piece’s fever and mystery. Whole sections unroll in ordered group unison. At the end, as Adams’ music gets softer and slightly more gentle, a couple in balletic white (or pale blue) enters, and embarks on a brief, more traditional partnering adventure. What was this? The antithesis of the stalking gangs we’d just been watching? A duo who merely dreamed up the previous 25 minutes and we were witness to their thoughts?

“Fearful Symmetries” was the final ballet on a program that also included George Balanchine’s 1967 “Rubies,” one section from the full-length “Jewels,” and 1988’s “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” Mark Morris’ brilliant take on quirky, folk-like piano works by Virgil Thomson. The three ballets made for an amazing evening, even if you didn’t happen to like everything. Here were strong choreographic statements from different generations of dance-makers, to music by innovative composers, and performed with focus and power by first-rate dancers.

“Drink” is a clever, cerebral, and visually stunning piece that is a playful mind-game of joyful complexity (the antithesis of Scarlett’s piece). Led by Vanessa Zahorian, Taras Domitro and Sofiane Sylve, the dancers attacked “Rubies” with joyful and calibrated abandon. Both pieces were memorably served. Other standouts were Pascal Molat (stepping in for Gennadi Nedvigin in “Drink”), and in “Symmetries,” Joan Boada, Lorena Feijoo and Zahorian, again.

All I want to know is why aren’t Southern California’s presenters bringing San Francisco Ballet here to dance for us? We need them.

 

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