Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Play House Lets Dance Loose in Long Beach

Up some gray wooden stairs, across a floor caked in splotchy layers of blue, white and pink paint, and around a crumbling corner in the abandoned Expo Furniture Warehouse in Long Beach Saturday night, I came upon some of the best dance I’ve seen since arriving in L.A. Aptly named Play House, the multimedia performance integrates installations and live music with surprising bits of movement and full dance works in a loosely but cleverly structured evening that encourages each viewer to watch in her own way. Information about the show was not easy to come by (no programs, only names and titles posted on brown paper in a dark corner), but my sleuthing confirms that many of these gifted artists emerged from Cal State Long Beach. Joining forces with independent art makers from around the world, they form Alive Theatre, Invertigo Dance Theatre and Domino Affect Dance Company, producing their own concerts and collaborating on projects like this one. Conceived by Invertigo Dance Theatre member and CSLB dance alum Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh, Play House demonstrates an understanding of audience engagement that gives me renewed hope in a future for dance.

The upstairs gallery opens a little after eight, and some of us serious (read: uptight) dance fans who’d been parked on couches leftover from the building’s warehouse days head right up. More low-key guests continue to arrive, sip red wine and munch on pizza from the bar until deciding to encounter some art, thanks to the show’s soft start time – a brilliant idea in a city where traffic makes an eight o’clock arrival uncertain at best. Upstairs, works that mostly sit still approach themes of home, family, and the everyday: 1940’s-era portraits overlaid with block letters telling the subjects’ stories, a sandbox of red paper poppies bobbing in the breeze from a nearby fan, a family outing restaged with beach chairs and projected photographs. Excited chatter bubbles up from a game of bowling, but curiosity leads me on, and the flow of foot traffic pulls my focus out into the next dimly lit room.

Here, people play house. In the bedroom, Tara McArthur stuffs laundry in drawers, dropping socks and underwear absentmindedly. She tries on a pair of tight jeans, checking herself out in a mirror, and I feel more like a voyeur than a viewer. Peering around walls, furniture, and other audience members, I glimpse a scuffle over a liquor bottle at the dining room table and a woman in a flouncy apron busy at the sink and stove. Andrew Merrell enters the bedroom, and while the couple prepares for bed, self-consciousness prods me to crane, tilt and rise on tiptoe to catch parts of the drinking game turned mad musical chairs in the next room. Urgent and repeated kicking from the bed pulls me back to watch the pair on a sleepwalking stroll, treading lightly over backs, along wall and ceiling. They slump and drag into dreamy, slow motion death scenes – crossing back and forth over the line between hilarious and disturbing – but then a blaring alarm clock sends everyone into a panicked scramble over chairs, under tables, and out of the house. Several of us linger to watch the few remaining homebodies continue, apparently prolonging their performance with our presence.

Downstairs in semi-darkness, we take seats on risers and, based on the brown paper program I found after the show, I think we await the start of Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh’s “The Green Movement.” Ebrahimzadeh’s piece revs to include the most innovative partnering and thrillingly off-balance, risky dancing I’ve seen in a while. A disoriented, ever-falling trio lurches side to side, arches, and turns, cutting horizontally through the space. A man in blue – Sam Propersi? – jabs a knee out toward a distant point, and hips, rib cage, shoulders, head trail along in perfectly passive sequence, unstilted by tension or competing impulse. Erin Butkevitch(?) joins him and they dance a duet full of violence and tenderness; their rolling, shifting, clutching, shoving connection conveys the complexity of human relationships with a veracity rarely achieved in movement.

We aren’t sure if there’ll be more dancing after the applause dies, but the ambiguity gives us permission to get up and return to the bar for more snacks, and many do. Viviana Alcazar’s mellifluous “Unbroken Ties” eventually follows, a gentle duet danced by women with wonderfully unaffected stage presence and beautifully spontaneous smiles when they bound through space together. They establish such a clear and close bond that moments of unison bring delicious satisfaction. A preview of Invertigo Dance Theatre’s November show, Reeling, gets me hooked on their funky, free-spirited style. Goofing off – jerking, tripping, and flopping each other around – to Wanda Jackson’s 1961 rockabilly “Funnel of Love,” they switch from silly to strange in a second, legs contorting around shoulders in backbends and laughs bursting nonsensically from intensely focused looks. Dancers slingshot each other across the stage, run and dive at the audience, but then darkness interrupts . . . until November.

What a fabulous show – over by 9:30, and the cast ready to start it all again at 10:00. Thanks to all for modeling a concert for today’s viewers. This is how we build an audience.

Friday, September 25, 2009

When It’s Not Forever

A dim pool of light reveals only form: two bodies leaning, tilted in parallel; then rolled apart, remote, withdrawn; the two connected by hands; suddenly one all tangled up; now two distinct bodies again. The opening of Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher’s Maybe Forever distills their journey – the remembering, processing, reliving of a love and its ending – to its essence. They come together and tear apart.

The room brightens and we see it is an eerily safe sort of place, where sound and action are muted by grey carpet and black curtains, and where a photograph of dandelions losing their fluff in the wind and melodious love songs crooned by a man in a shiny blue coat make us think pleasant thoughts. As with memory, here time passes achronologically – moments of intimacy mixed with and suddenly transformed into isolation. He beckons, laughing, backing up, and she launches into a running, jumping, full-body embrace. The impact knocks them to the floor where they scurry desperately and self-protectively apart, crumpled, clutching at their own arms and legs. He smiles shyly and reaches around her waist, then breaks off, stumbling, forearms stiffly outstretched and soft hands trembling.

From behind a microphone, Stuart reflects on the love lost: “You know when I said it’s useless to be romantic these days? I take it back.” Action interrupts as shoulders rise and arms shoot up, find a particular twist, bend around her head, and stay, stuck. The sequence repeats, builds, disappears and resurfaces through her broken monologue, while plastic-y creaks from her pleather jacket amplify the intense self-awareness of going over and over things said and done.

For a work (and a relationship) filled with pain, there’s a noticeable absence of blame, or even determined search for answers to the question “Why did it end?” It seems that’s not why we’re here, but that’s what I want to know. Not the immediate reason – Stuart offers a strong possibility when she quietly, almost meekly, takes back her pledge to always be faithful – but the reason for that unfaithfulness or whatever it was that led them to give up. Speaking from the past, her recorded voice asks, “What’s wrong with saying forever?” and we know at some point, like most of us, that’s what they hoped for.

Niko Hafkenscheid sings in a spare, simple waltz, “Your dreams, will come true, in a promised land, with me, but I won’t insist, at all.” First they play, staggering and circling their arms until a fall brings his head sweetly to her lap. Sitting up and holding her from behind, he makes her fingers dance and chase and duel. But moments later they insist. She grabs around his neck and thrusts his body, face-down, to the floor. He frantically folds her arms, wraps up her legs, and relocates her lifeless body. I have to think songs like Hafkenscheid’s are partly to blame for filling us with hopes and desires and visions of fake love – love that doesn’t exist and makes us dissatisfied with the love we find.

I read in one review that the work should have ended at 60 minutes. This is when I got tired, too. I had seen all the gestures before and I didn’t want to watch them anymore. But this is the pain, revisiting what’s happened again and again. And moments of revelation – when we understand that a repeated reaching is actually half of an embrace, or a trailing arm is a remnant of hands held – sustain us through the repetition. We examine the wreckage with them, seeing how their bodies have been changed, molded, and disabled by their union with and separation from each other.

Gehmacher enters at the end and speaks for the first time between dramatic organ chords. After all his physical incoherence, he forces a formal stolidity and recites the “moving on” rhetoric we’ve heard from friends and shrinks and talk show hosts in a letter to his lover: "I need to accept the situation . . . I cherish the times we had . . . You gave me a beginning . . . Now I’m ready. . . ." His speech is pretty convincing, but I don’t think he believes it. He takes a lurching step and lifts his hands, fingers dancing and chasing, until they cover his eyes.

Performances of Maybe Forever continue at REDCAT tonight and Saturday at 8:30 pm. For tickets visit http://www.redcat.org/. General admission is $25, students $20, and CalArts $12.

Other responses to Maybe Forever:

The New York Times

The Columbus Dispatch

The Portland Mercury

Reading the Dance

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Luminario Ballet Receives a Warm Welcome

Luminario Ballet’s Friday evening performance at the El Portal Theater in NoHo clearly delighted audience members – many of whom expressed their appreciation with a standing ovation as the ensemble bowed and excited chatter in pauses throughout the show. Friday kicked off the new company’s second and final weekend of premiere concerts, and the audience’s enthusiasm bodes well for Luminario’s future in Los Angeles. Envisioned by managing director Judith Flex Helle as a high caliber ballet company dedicated to and reflecting the unique qualities of Los Angeles, Luminario offered an impressive variety of works that indicate ties to the entertainment industry, the wider world of contemporary ballet, the aerial dance movement, the acrobatic traditions of Cirque du Soleil, and LA’s own rich modern dance heritage.

“If the Walls Could Scream,” Jamal Story’s slick and often dark look at the emotional turmoil of male-female relationships, opens the show. Women in lingerie (including some distractingly minimal briefs) stalk on bent legs, stooped forward. Tight embraces and quick manipulations with male partners turn rough as they are thrown up onto shoulders, spun at dizzying speeds, and dropped down again. A showdown of the sexes ensues, and in terms of memorable dancing the men win, hands-down. Melting into the floor on shins and rolling up out of it over shoulders, they lean and counterbalance and snake through their bodies without transition between upright and otherwise. The men’s malleability actually highlights the restrictive clunkiness of their partners’ point shoes, even though the women thrust limbs into extreme extension with definite power and strength.

Luminario offers a special gift with “Recuerdo,” translated “I remember,” by LA modern dance treasure Bella Lewitzky. First presented at UC Irvine in 1990, and here performed five years after Ms. Lewitzky’s death, the work is a magnificently potent and enduringly relevant example of expressionistic modern dance. Although joined at times by a stoic female chorus or tender lover (Stevan Novakovich), Brianna Haynes journeys through memories of love and loss alone. Her red dress emphasizes Haynes’ isolation from the black-clad chorus of dancers who place and embrace her with indifference until a scrim descends between them and she continues on her own. Larry Attaway’s minimal, dissonant piano shifts to flowing arpeggios while the woman in red waltzes and pivots, sliding flat bare feet to inscribe soft circles. Novakovich joins her for a time by moving in close complement; her drop to the floor hinges his arms and waist, and he hovers close by. When some kind of death pulls him up and away from a seated embrace, she struggles to stay in his lap and, clutching his waist, walks with him – her feet glued to his knees. While Haynes demonstrates great ability throughout the evening, she does not quite achieve the recklessness that the “Recuerdo” solos require. The choreography is hardly diminished, however, and Lewitzky’s work ends in stark silence as the woman who remembers takes her place with those in her past, forming an eerie family portrait.

Delphine Perroud lies alone in a pool of white light, the outline of her arching body drawn clearly in shadow. Alex Stabler happens upon her and, enraptured, they dance the late Michael Smuin’s liquid, luminous duet, “Bouquet,” first performed by the San Francisco Ballet in 1981. With abandon made possible by complete trust and intimacy, Perroud falls forward toward her partner, and he meets her at precisely the right moment to accelerate the movement sideways; they slide off together and Perroud magically tumbles into an ecstatic, reaching lift. Although technically danced quite beautifully, I found Perroud and Stabler’s performance too light and showy for Smuin’s passionate movement; the lovers often seem oriented more toward their audience than each other, racing perfunctorily through some of the work’s most tender caresses.

LedZAerial (2003), an aerial ballet suite danced, flipped, climbed, hung and swung to the music of Led Zeppelin, follows intermission. The three dances of LedZAerial build in intensity, and in excellent theatrical form, choreographers Judith Flex Helle, Bianca Sapetto, Russ Stark and Dreya Weber unleash increasingly impressive effects as the suite continues. Suspended high above the stage in rings and curtains of cloth, dancers twist and flip with such speed and dexterity that I lose track of which limbs are arms, which legs, and whether heads are up or down, but see only morphing shapes, centrifugal motion, and perilous falls. In the last two sections, the uninterrupted symmetry of spatial design and movement dulls the visual impact of the three aerialists’ remarkable maneuvers. However, Brett Womack and Alex Stabler’s rolls, unwinding down the lengths of cloth to the stage, and Bianca Sapetto’s exhilarating abandon in swings and drops still alter my breathing as I think and write about them now.

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 épaulement 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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

El Colegio Del Cuerpo at California Plaza

Surrounded by the bounty of water in California Plaza this past Saturday evening – smelling its cool damp, hearing its lap and slap in pools and fountains – one could only feel the beauty and peace of this place in stark contrast to the fires blazing on the hills to the north. The Grand Performances free summer concert series gathers Los Angeles residents together in the heart of downtown to share in the performing arts, and it felt a special refuge in this place on this night. Such efforts to bring the arts to a wide population resonate with my own hopes for dance, and the origins and mission of El Colegio Del Cuerpo – a Colombian dance ensemble that trains children from the poorest barrios of Cartegena to become members of the company – are truly thrilling. The company is a testament to the power of art to combat poverty, and while great dancing and thoughtful, innovative choreography characterized much of the evening, aspects of the concert detracted and distracted from its strengths.

The opening work, introduced by the company’s co-director Álvaro Restrepo as a collage of excerpts from their repertoire, makes wonderful use of the particularities of the Watercourt stage and must have been shaped significantly for this particular venue. The entire company of dancers begins slowly, skimming the stage in diaphanous gowns glowing sapphire, emerald, gold, crimson. As their minimal gestures intensify to sharp, accented and unpredictable flexes, these percussive movements seem to throw columns of water upward, creating a mesmerizing relationship between human and fluvial action. The company’s investment in this particular performance communicates great respect for audience members; El Colegio Del Cuerpo recognizes the beauties and possibilities of our shared space and gives us the opportunity to celebrate them together.

As dancers repeat the subtle flexes and shifts of weight, I feel my attention wane and remember the challenge of performing in such a boundless space. The meditative energy of their deliberate, ritual-like movements dissipates not only under the night sky, but in the running of restless children, the pacing of latecomers in search of empty seats, and the casual comings and goings of a free, outdoor performance. Now gathering the folds of their gowns, they reveal strong legs and feet, stomping and scuffling in clear rhythm, and I enjoy this wonderful contrast to the softly flowing skirts. When they descend into the pool below, their arched torsos and odd flinches resemble the flutterings of water birds gliding along the green surface.

A quick dimming of the lights and, stripped from burkha-like robes down to briefs and bras, dancers enter the stage one at a time, performing leaps, turns and flips. Although generally impressive and well executed – like one woman’s miraculous, blind flying tumble over a partner’s shoulder – the solos and duets of this section lack craft and coordination. The movement also often needs more follow-through, but moments when finely articulated waves ripple through the dancers’ torsos enchant with precision and control.

Following intermission, Marie-France Delieuvin’s
The Other Apostle begins promisingly with an intriguing solo; the male dancer seems magically transported to each curious position, unbound by the human necessity of transitions. He fades, and as interlocking gears in a clock, two men place and replace each other, their ticking limbs creating dynamic exchanges and subtle weight shifts. These opening sections captivate, but recorded excerpts from Jóse Saramago’s novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ that identify individual dancers as Jesus or Thomas, and program notes infused with the sacred feminine lingo of pop lit warn of the heavy-handed, often maddeningly literal nature of the work.

Although well crafted, beautifully performed movement continues through much of
Apostle, the poorly written, poorly translated, or poorly read text so completely dominates the dancing and our minds that it eventually becomes impossible to appreciate any of it. Repetition of compositional forms, false endings, and the sheer length of the work don’t help either. Often functioning as straight narration, Saramago’s words limit Delieuvin’s work and our imaginative capabilities by telling us what to see on stage. I must admit that after enduring the overbearing text and trying hard to appreciate the dancing for at least an hour, I gave up and left early.