Symphony9

American Ballet Theatre has a lot to offer these days, and its one big, thrilling, ace in the hole is Alexei Ratmansky, its artist in residence. The choreographer—Russian-born and schooled, his skills expanded and fine-tuned in Denmark and Canada—treats the classical art form in an expansive way. He has a complete grounding in technique, of course, an appreciation of the theatrical toolbox, and the kind of curiosity an artist needs to break new ground. He does not reduce the classical palate in the name of self-serving innovation—he uses it all, thereby expanding it. Ratmansky does narrative, does abstraction, and philosophically and musically thematic works. He might be too classical for some. For me, he makes ballet vital and absolutely proves that it is a living art form, even for the 21st century.

The other thing he has done, and one of the reasons he has been such a boon for ABT, is he breathes life into a company that has always had dancer-talent to spare, but hasn’t effectively used them all. Because ABT is his home, Ratmansky knows these dancers and what they’re capable of. He casts them against type, so we see them  anew, too. Perhaps he even changes their own sense of self. In any event, the dancers onstage are always engaged, in the moment, and the ballets crackle with immediacy and the surprise of everyone pushing into the risky territory of truly live—rather than the safety net of the rote—performance.

This was the case Friday evening when the company danced an all-Ratmansky program at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion ( the closing show of the ’15-’16 season for Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center).  In “Symphony #9,” to Dmitri Shostakovich, it’s Stella Abrera who shows us something else, something other than her adagio side, with saucy allegro phrases, little beats and jumps on point (there’s an ingenious pairing with Herman Cornejo, who is executing a remarkable string of etrechat six). Abrera and Craig Salstein are the lead couple of the first movement, a jaunty section of clever spatial devices, the dancers split by gender into interacting but separates “troupes.” “Symphony #9” (music from 1945) is one third of a Shostakovich trilogy, in which Ratmansky explores his own relationship, and the composer’s, to their shared homeland.

The slow second movement is led by Russian ballerina Veronika Part and soloist Alexandre Hammoudi. Here, there is sadness and love, each dancer representing and giving physicality to the “voices” of the opening clarinet and other woodwind instruments. Humans always need one another in Ratmansky’s ballets. At the section’s end, the couple lies down in jerky spurts, achieving a prone position that suggests perhaps they’ve died, making me think of the circumstances of the symphony, completed after the end of  World War II’s devastation.

Those connections are suggested in the final section (three musical movements played without pause) as the ballet now has a beige backdrop by George Tsypin with archaic drawings, including uniformed men with banners and dirigibles. The dancing is once again bright, upward, and Cornejo takes the lead here, Ratmansky using his lead’s unique buoyancy. Conductor David LaMarche led the musicians in their own stellar performance. Keso Dekker’s darkly hued halter dresses for the women and sleeveless tops and slacks for the guys were simple yet elegant. (Photo above by Rosalie O’Connor, with a different cast.)

symposium1

“Serenade After Plato’s Symposium” is named after Leonard Bernstein’s five-part concerto (1954) used here as a score. This is a balletic discussion about among seven men (photo by Rosalie O’Connor) that will find additional resonance, I suppose, if you are well-versed in the source material—Plato’s “Symposium”—but which isn’t necessary to know for appreciation. Dancers Jeffrey Cirio, Marcelo Gomes, Blaine Hoven, Calvin Royal III, Gabe Stone Shayer, Daniil Simkin, and James Whiteside “banter” through gestures and steps, solos and groupings that telescope a broad range of feelings, from intimacy and companionship to painful solitude. Devon Teuscher materializes through a dramatically revealed opening in the backdrop and represents Diotima, a priestess who taught Socrates about the philosophy of love. Teuscher and Gomes embark on a duet of intense longing, and then she leaves. But the ballet ends with the men in a group, pointing urgently at Tuescher, who returns to the stage. She is Platonic ideal, or that which one aspires to.

Symposium2

Slower and more cerebral than “Symphony #9,” “Serenade” makes stunning soloists out of dancers more often relegated to the uniformity of group numbers. Tall and gracious, Royal (pictured above, photo by Rosalie O’Connor) has a luxurious smoothness and pliant body. Jeffrey Cirio showed off fleet timing and soaring leaps. Shayer entertains with an infectious wit (and smile) and  bubbly personality. There aren’t enough solo parts for all of ABT’s high-caliber dancers Ratmansky puts them on the playing field, even if he can’t single-handedly level it. Brad Fields has created an understated but brilliant lighting design, helped by Jerome Kaplan’s white square scrim, positioned overhead. Kaplan’s costumes are problematic, though, with loose fabric scraps that interfere with the dancers’ steps, dangerously so.

Boylson2Rosalie O'Connor

The evening closed with Ratmansky’s “Firebird,” a magical, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately triumphant version of the Stravinsky ballet from 1910. Because I’m running long here, I’ll link here to my Los Angeles Times review of its premiere in Orange County in 2012. We saw a different cast on Friday. Among the leads, Cassandra Trenary was new to me, a standout soloist with big acting chops. She played up all the hilarious notes Ratmansky has given to the ragtag enchanted Maidens. Roman Zhurbin reprised the part of Kaschei and he continues to amaze with his reptilian version of evil. Isabella Boylston (above, O’Connor photo) was the night’s Firebird, and she brought strength and mystery to a part that feels stunted, never gathering enough steam; there are too many stops and starts, and ungainly positions. Perhaps someone will master it, but Ratmansky will tinker further.

In the meantime, bask in the unearthly imagery created by Wendall Harrington’s projections, Simon Pastukh’s unearthly trees and other scenery, and Galina Solovyeva’s fairy-tale costumes (glad the women’s wigs are back). It is an eye-popping sight.

The program repeats tonight (July 9) at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow (July 10) at 2 p.m. Click here for more information.

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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.

Photo by Denise Leitner

Photo of Multiplex Dance by Denise Leitner

A pilot program with exciting potential to promote local dance by giving companies more performing opportunities–which is what Los Angeles dancers say need and want–debuts in February.

It is called Home Grown @ Bootleg and the first weekend of concerts will feature Antics, which under the direction of Amy “Catfox” Campion combines street dance with spoken word, and Multiplex Dance, which does “techno-industrial modern dance,” in the words of its artistic director Chad Michael Hall. They will share three evenings, Feb. 19 through 21. There will also be a free discussion/group-participation event with the artists at 1 p.m. on Feb. 21. All shows are at the Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.

It is rare for local companies to be able to afford to present themselves for even one concert, let alone three. The idea behind Home Grown is to have the companies shoulder some of the cost of the performances, but to make it affordable enough so they can put on multiple shows. The companies auditioned for the chance to participate.

Home Grown was developed by Pentacle director Felicia Rosenfeld, working in partnership with Bootleg Theater, which is a venue that presents quality theater, music and dance. Pentacle is a nonprofit management support organization, an under-the-radar group as far as the public is concerned. But it has become an important player in Los Angeles by providing services that most small companies can’t pay for themselves. For Home Grown, Pentacle pays for a production coordinator, acts as liaison between the dancers and the theater, and is helping companies with marketing and publicity. But Rosenfeld makes a distinction that she says is important: Pentacle is not producing these concerts. Each company is required to pay $4,000 to participate. Rosenfeld wanted the groups have to have a financial stake.

“Most L.A. companies, unless they perform in a festival (usually as part of a showcase), self-produce performances in the Los Angeles area,” Rosenfeld said in a written statement. “This is an expensive endeavor that typically leads to one performance with mostly friends and family in the audience. Through Home Grown @ Bootleg, Pentacle will serve as aggregator of self-produced Los Angeles dance, providing a pathway for audiences to be able to see L.A.-based dance companies’ and artists’ work for more than one night and not in a showcase format….There is no real home for dance in the city. Pentacle and Bootleg want to start to create audience identification with Bootleg Theater as a trusted venue for local dance.”

Most in the audience don’t understand the financial underpinnings of what we see onstage. When a theater “presents” a dance company (or music, or theater), it means the theater is taking most of the financial risk. Local dance companies have a hard time getting that deal—they end up presenting themselves, which means they have to rent a theater, do all the publicity, and so on. And even if they sell out, they won’t be able to recoup their investment, in most instances. Only the very top tier of local companies, such as Diavolo or Bodytraffic, are invited to appear on the series at theaters such as the Broad Stage or at UCLA. Home Grown @ Bootleg is a mid-way step and could prove to be crucial in helping dancers pull themselves up in terms of getting known in their own hometown and getting more stage time, which helps improve artistic quality. It’s worth checking out.

The second Home Grown program will feature Invertigo Dance Theatre and Danza Floricanto/USA, April 23 to 25. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For reservations: 213.289.3856  or  www.bootlegtheater.org  

LINES Ballet, photo by Marty Sohl

The Laguna Dance Festival begins Thursday night. Here are the major events:

  • ** A “sampler” of dance; choreography from Jennifer Lott, Jessie Ryan and Saleemah E. Knight; Sept. 6, 6:30 p.m. Laguna Art Museum. Free
  • ** Backhausdance, Sept. 7, 7:30 p.m., Laguna Playhouse
  • ** LINES Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Sept. 8, 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 9, 2 p.m. Laguna Playhouse

The lowdown:

Jodie Gates, formerly a leading dancer with Joffrey Ballet and Frankfurt Ballet, moved to Laguna Beach when she ended her performing career. She had this ambitious idea that the beachside city would make the perfect place to start a dance festival. She figured it was the kind of destination town — like Vail or Ojai — that could attract tourists as well as locals for a major arts festival. The first performances were in 2006 and because of her connections, Gates was immediately able to attract big-name companies and dancers to town, like Complexions and New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck and Joaquin DeLuz, or groups that hadn’t been here yet, such as BalletX. She has held free performances on the beach, organizes master classes for local students and has the artistic directors give pre-performance talks (as they will do for this festival). All of that has gone a long way to building audiences and local loyalty.

Nonetheless, this hasn’t made it an easy sell. Gates is now an associate  professor of dance at UCI and she travels frequently, setting Forsythe ballets and her own works on other companies. On top of that, the theaters in Laguna Beach are small; the festival began in the Laguna Beach High School theater. The Laguna Playhouse is a big step up, but it has only 420 seats.

One of the admirable steps Gates has taken is to put Los Angeles and Orange County dance companies into her programs from the festival’s beginning. By aligning local dance with touring companies, she has helped to raise the profile of dance groups here that struggle to sell tickets when there are better-known and better-funded companies from outside coming into town.

Backhausdance is one of those local companies. Jenny Backhaus‘ modern dance group is celebrating its 10th season. Their program includes early favorites, such as “Sitting on January,” as well as excerpts from more recent pieces, including “The Margin.”

LINES and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago recently finished a summer residency at UCI,  in rehearsal together with LINES founder Alonzo King for a rare collaborative work.  (Local audiences will be able to see that new piece at the Music Center, June 21-23, 2013.) The companies will be doing separate pieces in Laguna: LINES has scheduled King’s “Dust and Light” and Hubbard Street has scheduled “Three to the Max,” a collage of pieces by Ohad Naharin.