Jonas flying during "In a Room on Broad St." Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

Jonas flying during “In a Room on Broad St.” Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

The Friday night debut of Jacob Jonas The Company at Wallis Annenberg Center  was a big deal for choreographer and artistic director Jonas.

The Beverly Hills High School alum is only 24 and started his concert-contemporary-street-dance group a mere two years ago. And there he was, with his 11 dancers being presented by this small but new and mighty (as in influential) theater, in his hometown.

But it was another milestone, too, in a string of them, for the dance community in the Los Angeles metro area, where theaters rarely take risks by presenting young local companies. There has been a steady and  exciting expansion, in quantity and quality, of dancing and dancers (and most of Jonas’ group are from Southern California). Jonas adds another dimension to the scene.

Jonas was a young teen when he hooked up with the Calypso Tumblers, a street performance group in Venice with whom he ended up touring worldwide. Jonas has hand-picked dancers with diverse backgrounds and dance skills, from ballet to jazz to parkour to breaking. Jonas takes all of that material and thoughtfully utilizes it to present a message, sometimes a story, a metaphor, and, if Friday night was any indication, it’s material that always has heart.

The opening piece, “In a Room on Broad St.,” gives us 10 seemingly lonely individuals, clearly cut off from one another, but who, by my interpretation, appeared to want human connection. (In the post-performance discussion, Jonas said that competition was a main theme of the piece.) Jonas and Anibal Sandoval had a remarkable duet, pushing and overpowering one another with their backs pressed together. In a solo of amazing physical feats, Lamonte “Tales” Goode twisted his body into pretzel poses, balancing one-handed.

Dancer Lamonte "Tales" Goode. Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

Dancer Lamonte “Tales” Goode. Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

In the premiere of “fly,” Jeremy Julian Grandberry, Charissa Kroger, Brooklynn Reeves and Jill Wilson repeatedly traced a zigzag pattern from left to right across the stage. A virtuoso step or two was added during each crossing, creating variations to an ever-developing theme. As the piece progressed, the backstage curtain very slowly rose, so by the end, the audience could see the dancers running back to the left side, where they’d start their zigzaging journey again. Jonas later revealed that this linear route was inspired by a heart monitor machine and a recent death in the family. I’m not sure I would have intuited his meaning. But it didn’t matter because the moving picture Jonas has choreographed has enough complexity and suggestions of narrative possibilities that it succeeds even without Jonas’ back story.

In “Obstacles,” on the other hand, Jonas was intent on  sharing with us his inspiration and source material. “Obstacles” is about a friend, Mallory Smith, who has cystic fibrosis, which is a life-threatening disease. Audio of Smith talking about her struggles punctuate the dance. Her stories are honest; the emotion in her voice suggesting stoicism. Meanwhile, petite Marissa Labong (a powerhouse artist and veteran of the L.A. dance scene) and Jonas stand in a long diagonal spotlight. Labong attempts throughout the piece to get ahead of Jonas—climbing over him, sneaking around him, running in front.

Jonas and Marissa Labog. Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

Jonas and Marissa Labog. Photo by Kevin Parry for The Wallis

But each time, Jonas firmly, forcefully, picks her up and places her back at the start, upstage left, and then places himself ahead of her, his back to her, his feet dug into the ground, as he waits for her next escape attempt. He’s her obstacle; he’s her disease. She has to live with him, whether she likes it or not. We watch her pass through various emotional states until she sits down cross-legged, giving up her battle. But he comes to her and they end up walking hand-in-hand to the starting point; it’s as if he’s encouraging her to keep trying, even though there’s nothing particularly kind about it.

Smith’s narrative was well-told and well-spoken, but it was superfluous; Jonas can trust his movement…although, I recognize that telling Smith’s story was a significant part of his intention. Still, he has created a universal piece about life. And he and Labog gave physically committed, emotionally memorable portrayals.

The program’s other premiere was a dance film called “Grey,” shot at the Getty Center. Jonas and cinematographer William Adashek captured the gorgeous contrasts of light and dark, curve and straight line in the iconic buildings, and beautifully matched dance to it.

The one stumble of the night was when the Wallis staff failed to alert the audience that the pause between the first two pieces was not an intermission. Nearly half the crowd left their seats–and no announcement was made to stay seated. As a result, “fly” was nearly half over before the streams of people returning to their chairs stopped. I’d like to see that piece again in better circumstances.

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.

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.

 

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.

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  

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.