Review: 10 years of BodyTraffic Happiness

Of all the groups that have taken up residence in L.A. in the past 15 years, BodyTraffic intrigues and excites me the most. Co-directors Tina Finkelman Berkett and Lillian Barbeito have a clear vision and have the determination and strength to have realized it. They engage risk-taking choreographers—respected men and women, not the flavor-of-the-month types—to make new pieces on the BodyTraffic dancers, and these dances fit them like bespoke clothing. The works’ subject matter and emotional tone are wide-ranging. But they nonetheless feel linked, thanks to a shared kinetic earthiness and a commitment to truth-telling, both by the choreographers and the performers.

The company celebrated the end of its 10th anniversary season Thursday night at the Wallis Annenberg Center, a weighty milestone. (Performances through Sunday, June 2) BodyTraffic’s amazing initial crew of dancers, the ones that launched the group, have cycled out. Only the incomparable Guzmán Rosado and Finkelman Berkett are still dancing; Barbeito has stopped performing, at least for the moment. But the youngsters they’ve brought in share their predecessors’ playfulness and keen focus, and their musicality; thank you for the full-body accents and melodic flow, and why is basic rhythm, encompassing the beat, such a lost art? Bravo to these newbies: Lorrin Brubaker, Joseph Davis, Haley Heckethorn, Natalie Leibert, Jessica Liu and Jamal White.

BODYTRAFFIC dance Concert held on May 31, 2018 at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California.
Dancers Natalie Leibert, Jamal White and BodyTraffic. Photo by Rob Latour

Two premieres were highlights. Matthew Neenan, co-founder of BalletX, has made an eight-number jukebox dance called “A Million Voices,” an ode to the unsurpassed Peggy Lee and a bygone time as captured by seminal songbook composers such as Johnny Mercer (“Blues in the Night”). The dancers are often interpreting the lyrics, with a gentle soulfulness, rather than ripping irony. But Neenan recognizes that what used to be called innocence might not seem merely quaint today, but blatantly ignorant. So, at the end of the patriotic “Freedom Train,” he gives Brubaker a twisted solo in silence, a brief cry from the heart. And the ending piece, “Is That All There Is,” is another wink at the audience, with Finkelman Berkett and Roasado coupled, and the rest of the cast occasionally tossing martini glasses of water on them. Yes, you’re all wet, Neenan is saying, but enjoy yourself. Life is good.

BODYTRAFFIC dance Concert held on May 31, 2018 at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California.
Tina Finkelman Berkett in “George & Zalman.” Photo by Rob Latour

In the other new piece, Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin adapted his 2006 “George & Zalman” into a solo for Finkelman Berkett, who crafted a devastating portrait. The beating heart of this piece is “making it,” a crude poem of painful reality by the late Charles Bukowski. (Rather the opposite of Neenan’s viewpoint.)

We hear the poem read in recording (by Bobbi Smith, along with a background composition by Arvo Part), repeated bit by bit, the choreography and words unreeling and accumulating until the final exhortation to just “make it.” It was especially thrilling to watch Finkelman Berkett gather steam and drive this piece to the end. With her ear-to-ear grin, she easily becomes the sassy and sweet gal, when called for. Here, her character is cycling nowhere fast, and Finkelman Berkett throws herself into the dark underside and takes her with us, willingly.

The program also includes Sidra Bell’s quirky “Beyond the Edge of the Frame,” an excerpt of Stijn Celis’ enthralling “Fragile Dwellings,” and a company signature work, Richard Siegal’s “O2Joy,” to which Leibert, Davis and White brought new insights and nuance.

Shows tonight, June 1, and tomorrow June 2, at 7:30 p.m. TheWallis.org

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