Wednesday, September 16, 2009

TriArt Festival Brings LA Dance to San Pedro

Eager for the rare opportunity to see several acclaimed local dance companies – Kenneth Walker Dance Project, La Danserie, Louise Reichlin & Dancers, and Creations Dance Theatre – in one free concert, I attended the third annual TriArt Festival in San Pedro this past Sunday afternoon. The festival is one of many recent, encouraging efforts to breathe new life into the downtown area near Port Los Angeles, and this year the scope of the two-day event broadened to include dance for the first time. I left delighted, and I can only imagine that the performance secured a return engagement for dance at TriArt.

I didn’t catch a title for the first piece on the program – Kenneth Walker’s sparse study of beautifully orchestrated body geometries interrupted by quirky gestures. Cool, collected leg extensions are joined by kneading, fluttering hands and shaking hips, and I can’t help but think of Merce Cunningham. In this world all actions – virtuosic and pedestrian alike – are deliberate, restrained, executed with precision and the noble carriage of an upright torso. A gorgeous female duet presses against the limits of the downstage space, finely-articulated legs swiveling and slicing through intersecting planes in complementary timings. The Cagean soundtrack (complete with passing train) blends well with the city noise of San Pedro, but I would love to see this work clarified against the dark scrim of a proscenium stage and set loose to run and fall with freedom in a larger space.

La Danserie follows with three pieces, including excerpts from Judy Pisarro-Grant’s trio, “Fun and Games.” The title leads us to see hints of jumping rope, hopscotching, hula hooping and folk dancing within the buoyant petit allegros and between the controlled pirouettes of this fresh work. Candice Sanchez’s openly playful perches and ecstatic backbends contrast with the sly, reserved calm of Meagen Mendoza’s impossibly sustained balances, adding dimension to what initially seems a straightforward music visualization. The dancing also resists the energy and drive of Mozart’s Symphony no. 25 in G minor to a surprising degree; Sanchez, Mendoza and Mary Wilson enjoy unwavering command and composure throughout. These intriguing performance qualities, along with movements like the wide hip swivel into classical rond de jambe, recall the teasing and entertaining twists on the ballet vocabulary of Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove. With a cool flick of the wrist, Sanchez catches the other two up in the swirling motion of an arabesque en tournant and sweeps them along with her. Near the end of the selection, the dancers’ control grows a bit stale in contrast to the frequent, radical musical shifts, and I want to see the trio pushed out of comfort, poise and formality toward effort and exhaustion. I will be curious to see how things resolve in the full piece.

Louise Reichlin & Dancers’ “Grounding,” a short excerpt from The Better to Bite You With, is perfectly situated on the program, after several contemporary ballet works, for maximum impact. In Linda Borough’s wonderfully bizarre spandex suits – magenta, teal and animal prints, with enlarged antelope horns and globby frog fingers – dancers lunge, scratch, and straddle low to the ground, watching warily, until their actions accelerate into exhilarating leaps and enthusiastic handstands. Although peppered with some conventional jazz moves, the strength and curious vitality of this glimpse (and especially in Sung-Yun Park’s dancing) will lead me to seek out a performance of the complete work.

True to the company’s educational mission, Reichlin opens their final selection with a pithy discussion of the elements of dance and the role of tennis rackets as props in her signature work, The Tennis Dances. Premiered in 1979 and here performed in excerpts, the piece echoes for me some of the uncomfortable cultural representations of The Nutcracker, but most sections charm with spirited dancing and inventive choreography – allowing tennis rackets to create new partnering relationships, weight distributions, body timings and shapes. The opening duet kicks off the suite with a wonderful sense of play, as Park tumbles over Steven Nielsen’s back and the two twirl with dizzying momentum. As extensions of their limbs, the rackets allow them to connect from twisted, inverted, distant positions and unravel miraculously with one swift pull. Then a wave of dancers, clad in the white blouses and skirts of the 1920s leisure class at play, catches Park and Nielsen up in a carefree tennis waltz, and they’re off!

In another momentous shift, Kenneth Walker company member Felicia Guzman returns with Creations Dance Theatre to perform “Kitri’s Desafio,” a variation from Marius Petipa’s highly classical ballet Don Quixote, with majesty, heat, and metallic sharpness. The choreography demands instantaneous shifts of direction and impeccably accurate arrivals, all of which Guzman achieves with a power communicated through confident Ă©paulement and a direct, challenging gaze. Guzman’s co-director, Raquel Cordova, demonstrates talents as choreographer and dancer in the show-closer, “Creations.” Joined by fellow CDT dancers, Cordova breaks into complex polyrhythms and strong, grounded movement influenced by African and Latin dance traditions – rib cage, hips, shoulders articulated freely and independently in mesmerizing coordinations. The work radiates with the energy of gifted young dancers striking out to create on their own and ends much too soon. I’m sure it’s only a taste of more to come.

Many thanks to these four fertile companies and TriArt Festival director Joe Caccavalla for making dance happen in San Pedro; the marriage of tangible community support and excellent dancing on this afternoon was thrilling.

Photo: Meagen Mendoza performing "Fun and Games" by Judy Pisarro-Grant

Used with permission, © 2009 Eric Pisarro-Grant. All rights reserved.

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