Monday, August 23, 2010

Jazz and Dance at the Hollywood Bowl

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on August 22, 2010.

I imagine the artists who had the Hollywood Bowl stomping and shaking on Aug. 18 were booked well before April 20, when an explosion aboard BP’s Deepwater Horizon precipitated the unthinkable. But Wednesday’s lineup of New Orleans music legends — the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the Neville Brothers — paid tribute to a city that’s taken blow upon blow. And lending awe-inspiring physical form to a history of grief, endurance and vibrant spirit, dancers from the Trey McIntyre Project shared the stage with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in their electrifying 2008 collaboration, Ma Maison.

“If you hear that beat …” In raspy barks that sound like the blasts from his trumpet, Efrem Towns of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band calls, “Get up outta your seat,” and we gladly obey. The DDBB plays the music of a fading New Orleans institution: brass bands that perform dirges for funerals, and swinging dance tunes once the somber processions pass by. Here, rattling ragtime syncopations, martial marching band rat-a-tats, and racing, trilling, squealing horns keep us clapping and chanting “My feet … can’t … fail me now” along with “ET,” and we see mostly the mirthful side of the tradition. But in the bright choruses — “No matter what you heard, everythin’s alright and we gonna be alright” — throbs a mix of pain and fierce pride, hopeful mourning within the merriment.

After intermission, lights come up on the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and picnickers around me sit up and take notice. In black and white formal wear, arranged in neat, seated formation, with band name printed on drum and tuba, they play classic New Orleans jazz in old school style — standing in unison when tinny banjo and grunting trombone rev to a climax, and gesturing theatrically to show us how “everybody lookin’” at the “Short Dress Gal” in their song. The slightly stiff, choreographed feel is such a deliberate and welcome departure from today’s performance conventions that I find myself smiling through the set.

A high steppin’, jelly-legged, rag-tag bunch of skeletons joins the suits on stage for Ma Maison, and together, with Sister Gertrude Morgan via recording, they generate an otherworldly energy. A skeleton in a jaunty green vest tosses white hands and feet out with the percussive hits of Carl LeBlanc’s strong banjo strumming in “Heebie Jeebies,” until a limb locks straight and he hobbles peg-legged in silly circles. The revelry feels mostly like joyful hilarity, but when one bag o’ bones keeps collapsing into his partner we smell death and feel frantic fear creep into the group’s sideways scurries and crazed kicks.

Morbid references lurk in all corners of this house — in the spidery shadows cast by spindly skeleton arms, in the bowed heads and softly prancing feet that sometimes turn the perpetual Mardi Gras parade into a solemn procession, and in the quick group exits with one merrymaker held stiff, aloft. But this crew parties in the face of death, hitching up legs, pumping arms, and leapfrogging over one another while the band sings, “Life is complicated … Oh, life is overrated.”

McIntyre works masterfully with the music, and he builds a movement vocabulary that draws on his dancers’ balletic virtuosity while transforming them into shaking, shimmying Lindy Hoppers who get down more convincingly than any ballet company I’ve seen.

The skeletons take their party into the wings, but New Orleans’ first family of R&B, the Neville Brothers, keeps our celebration of the Big Easy going strong. Cyril slaps the drums and throws out fiery vocals in choppy bursts. Art’s fingers find funky up accents at the organ, while he sings, smirking, “Me oh my oh … gonna catch all the fish on the bayou.” Charles releases great swelling waves from the sax, then pulls back with a gentle turn to reveal Aaron’s voice — clear and shivering with soul. With eyes squeezed shut and shoulders hunched, he sings, “Long time comin’, change gonna come,” and I hear a wail rising under the soft, sweet sound.

Catch the conclusion of Jazz at the Bowl 2010 on Sept. 1, when Herbie Hancock celebrates his 70th birthday with help from a host of special musical guests.

Photo: Trey McIntyre Project courtesy of LA Phil

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

UCLA Live’s Must-See Dance

This article was first published at Culture Spot LA on August 9, 2010.

David Sefton, director of the UCLA Live performance series for a decade, resigned in May. And the reason for his departure – program “restructuring” due to budget constraints – along with the elimination of the International Theatre Festival from the 2010-11 schedule, has triggered some very legitimate concerns about LA’s access to the national and international arts scene. The 2010-11 dance series that Sefton leaves behind, however, continues the program’s tradition of curatorial excellence. If fiscal limitations motivated the inclusion of more domestic artists than usual, Sefton made good use of his reduced funds – bringing artists and works that LA has not seen, and needs to.

Feb. 25-26: Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM

Foremost is Canadian Crystal Pite’s company, Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM. Founded in 2001, Kidd Pivot’s international appearances have met with consistent critical acclaim, and in July The Observer called Pite’s Lost Action “the best dance work to visit London last year.” Superfast, impossibly fluid, almost inhuman manipulations reference Pite’s background as dancer with William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt. But it’s Pite’s own choreographic vision that’s recently landed her the position of Associate Choreographer for the prestigious Nederlands Dans Theater. Kidd Pivot makes its LA debut with Lost Action at UCLA Live Feb. 25-26, and look for another Pite work in March when NDT comes to the Music Center.

UCLA Live facilitates another long-overdue Los Angeles visit with the arrival of American Lucinda Childs’ Dance, a revival of the 1979 minimalist classic, May 6-7. Member of the postmodern breakaway collective Judson Dance Theater in the ’60s, Childs choreographed Dance as her first large-scale collaboration, working with minimalist icon and composer Philip Glass and visual artist Sol LeWitt. With tripping, skipping steps, dancers skim the stage in continuous crossings. And like the repeated notes in Glass’s score, these simple movements combine in space and time to weave patterns of tremendous complexity. In the revival, dancers leap and bound in front of LeWitt’s original film – the 1979 company performing Dance – so we see in side-by-side action dancers usually separated by decades.

March 11-12: Stephen Petronio Dance Company

Stephen Petronio came of choreographic age in Manhattan in the ’80s and ’90s, and his signature style – fast and furious, sexy and leggy, hip and restless – conveys the urban energy of his home base. His company, now an established international presence, celebrates its 25th anniversary with the stormy new work I Drink the Air Before Me and performs the West Coast premiere at Royce Hall March 11-12.

April 15-16: Barak Marshall

Barak Marshall, born physically in LA but choreographically in Israel, brings Monger (2008) home for its West Coast debut April 15-16. Marshall draws movement and music from diverse cultural traditions (including his own – American, Yemeni, Israeli) to build this charging, driving exploration of power, free will, and survival.

Oct. 23: Helios Dance Theater

And with local and national critical acclaim for The Lotus Eaters (2008) under her belt, LA dancemaker Laura Gorenstein Miller and her company Helios Dance Theater open the dance season at UCLA Live with a one-night-only world-premiere performance of Beautiful Monsters on Oct. 23. For this work, Gorenstein Miller teams up with leading artists in the entertainment industry to craft a dreamscape inspired by childhood nightmares, and if The Lotus Eaters is any indication, it will be a world of physical daring, sensory thrills and riveting storytelling that we enter in October.

Photo: UCLA Live presents the world premiere of Helios Dance Theater's "Beautiful Monsters." / Photo courtesy of UCLA Live and Helios Dance Theater

Monday, August 9, 2010

NOW Festival at REDCAT

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on August 7, 2010.

REDCAT’s annual New Original Works (NOW) Festival draws to a close tonight (Aug. 7), but the three live performances included in this week’s show raise more than enough questions to fuel another year of artistic investigation. And as Thursday’s show sold out long before show time, get your tickets NOW and read on after.

Alexandro Segade’s Replicant VS Separatist, a play framed as a budget movie shoot complete with directorial “cuts” and actors who switch between roles, couldn’t be more timely, premiering hot on the heels of the decision to overturn California’s ban on gay marriage. The movie inside the play depicts a dystopian LA where marriage has become a state-mandated instrument of government control over gay relationships. The clones who comply: Replicants (Reps). The boy-band renegades who love outside the law and fight to establish a state beyond the new governator’s reach: Separatists (Seps).

Segade’s choice to build a story full of wonderfully classic sci-fi illusions – like hovercars and teleportation – within a deliberately anti-illusionistic frame at first heightens the humor by playing up the falseness. But then his droning directorial comments lose their deadpan comedy and, in combination with ever-shortening, increasingly perfunctory scenes, deaden the energy. Maybe we need these breaks to keep us from getting so swept up in the onstage antics that we forget to consider their broader implications. But at the end, I wonder if we’ve been distanced so successfully that instead of dispassionately considering the issues raised, we move on too easily to the next new work.

Hana van der Kolk mouths something from behind a microphone. She releases a vowel sound, then others in steady rhythm, and when she adds consonants the chorus from the 1987 classic “Lost in Emotion” gradually emerges in a robust chant. Watching Once More, Again, One, we whisper and chuckle softly when we get it, and sharing the joke connects us to her and each other through the darkness. Later on, van der Kolk transfers her weight side to side with an easy bounce, punctuating some drops with a spoken “yes.” The bounces morph to jazzy jogs, then hunched boxing footwork, then ecstatic Richard Simmons-style reaches, and she says “yes” to each with complete investment and unequivocal assent.

I struggle to engage through some of the work’s slower progressions and stillnesses, but the spaces make Once More feel like a relaxed conversation and invite us to take part. Van der Kolk makes a formal and completely unthreatening invitation when she holds up a sign that reads “I need a volunteer.” Although the physical tasks they complete don’t seem quite worth the trouble, the exchanges we witness while she whispers her plans to each volunteer are thrillingly real and beautifully human. They smile shyly, giggle and shake out shoulders nervously, register polite unwillingness with side-to-side tilts of the head, and as we imagine ourselves doing these things we feel welcomed by van der Kolk too.

Oh, if only all evenings could end as magically as this show does. A woman’s rounded silhouette wanders through an ever-blossoming, ever-changing world in Miwa Matreyek’s Myth and Infrastructure. Interacting with her animations from behind a screen, Matreyek casts a shadow that steps lightly and fingers tenderly, exploring blinking cityscapes like a gentle King Kong, or forming an island paradise with her softly sloping back.

The images that result suggest creation stories, as lands materialize with a breath or a tap, or apocalypses, as tiny planes crash down around her head and buildings collapse at her feet. Her powers to create and transform intrigue as she encounters other beings with agency – a bear that lumbers onto her back, fish that rush and swirl about her, a tiny person who climbs into her mouth and down her throat. Toward the end I find myself hoping for more variation in Matreyek’s physical interactions with these creatures and their world, but the work is mesmerizing throughout and exciting in the rich possibilities it suggests for future incarnations.

Segade, van der Kolk and Matreyek present these works in the final performance of the NOW Festival tonight, Aug. 7, at 8:30 p.m.

Photo: Miwa Matreyek's Myth and Infrastructure / photo by Scott Groller

Monday, July 26, 2010

City Ballet of Los Angeles’ ‘Concerto Project’

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on July 25, 2010.

On July 22, City Ballet of Los Angeles performed the final installation of its three-week summer series, Concerto Project, against a magnificent backdrop. In front of a wall of windows in a cavernous loft space overlooking City National Plaza on South Flower Street, dancers sidled up next to office buildings gilded by the sun’s slanting rays and slid past the smooth façade of the public library – washed a warm golden beige in the fading daylight. It was a glorious setting for dance, and a fitting one for a company so devoted and connected to its city.

Founded by former American Ballet Theatre dancer and Los Angeles native Robyn Gardenhire as a school in 2000 and then as a professional company in 2003, City Ballet of Los Angeles has worked since its inception to become a dance institution of and for Los Angeles: offering training at low or no cost to children from the economically depressed Pico Union District, introducing ballet to thousands of elementary school students throughout LA, and developing a company that reflects the diversity of its city and brings ballet to new audiences.

Envisioned as a platform for the dancers’ choreography in the rich architectural environment of downtown LA, the Concerto Project series featured different works each week, and Thursday’s mixed bill included eight pieces in various stages of progress. While some rushed endings and not-quite-believable dramatic shifts pointed to areas for further development, captivating concepts, inventive movement, superior dancing, and the most racially diverse audience I’ve seen at a ballet concert all affirmed that LA needs its City Ballet.

Artistic Director Gardenhire’s “Salt” is a taut, restrained thriller (like Angelina Jolie’s new film?) that releases a fury of fiercely thrown limbs and then pulls back, tauntingly, at the height of the action – dancers strutting coolly and eyeing each other warily. Perris McCracken strikes through the space with charging chassés and biting lunges, torso at an aggressive forward pitch. Jessie Taylor joins her in a throwing, flicking face-off center stage, while Felicia Guzman, Genevieve Zander and Jin Cho build a circling, weaving, chasing counterpoint to their stationary standoff. I’m baffled when the dancers strip off their shirts at the end, but hopefully this piece is only a taste of more “Salt” to come, and maybe then all will become clear.

All is definitely not clear in CBLA dancer Mary Tarpley’s “Porcelain” – a love triangle that pulls me back and forth between confused and intrigued. Guzman and Zander are pushy, devoted sisters who dream about future love as they waltz wistfully in long tulle skirts. Zander’s prince shows up, but love’s not what she imagined, and being left out is definitely not what Guzman had in mind. Tarpley builds a funny, touching physical connection between the women, but it gets murky, or maybe just overly angsty, as Zander spends more time with Prince Juan Toledo-Espinoza and Guzman’s spirited dancing fades into vague reaching. The first and second sections feel disconnected, but the bond between the two women and the arresting partnering between Zander and Toledo-Espinoza clearly indicate an emerging choreographic talent.

Also promising is Rick Gonzales’ duet “Rabbit Hole,” where a shift in desire turns intense devotion to unwanted advances without warning. Here, Gonzales and McCracken join forces to let her fly and spin with superhuman height and speed, until she feels his assists as pushes and fights against them in dangerous collisions. Gonzales’ history with New York’s City Ballet surfaces in McCracken’s long-legged walks and contorted, bent-legged turns that look like Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, and these angular elements keep the tension building. In the end, I can’t quite buy the drama because it doesn’t emerge convincingly from the dancers’ physicality, but I’m still looking forward to Gonzales’ next work.

And I’ll seek out every opportunity to be inspired by City Ballet’s dancers – like Taylor, who embodies the lingering strains of the cello in Gardenhire’s “La Vie Ante’rieure” with supremely satisfying musicality.

Photo: City Ballet dancers Jose Reyes and Genevieve Zander / Photo by Julie Hopkins

Monday, July 19, 2010

American Ballet Theatre's 'Sleeping Beauty' at the Music Center

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on July 18, 2010.

There have been many versions of The Sleeping Beauty since the original premiere at St. Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theatre in 1890, each with its own vision of how best to honor Marius Petipa’s legendary choreography, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s masterful score and Ivan Vsevolozhsky’s groundbreaking direction. American Ballet Theatre has brought Beauty back in six different productions – the most recent reincarnation the result of executive decisions and choreographic additions by ABT Director Kevin McKenzie, 1970s prima ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, and dramaturge Michael Chernov. And since its 2007 premiere, this Beauty has been called “toddler-tailored,” “a mess,” and perhaps most damning of all, “Disney-esque,” by critics who know their Beauties.

But while the opening performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, as part of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center July 15-18, confirmed many of their criticisms, neither jarring omissions nor garish costumes could keep me from springing to my feet, propelled by the exhilaration that glorious art brings, when Princess Aurora (Gillian Murphy) and Prince Désiré (Marcelo Gomes) took their bows.

Yes, the central struggle between good and evil loses potency where dancing that communicates one force or the other has been trimmed out of the production. When the evil fairy Carabosse (Nancy Raffa) exits in a pyrotechnic blast at the end of the Prologue, for example, the curtain falls almost immediately, but we need to see the benevolent Lilac Fairy (Michele Wiles) restore classical order, harmony and balance, even for just a few moments, to believe that goodness has prevailed, that she has indeed softened Carabosse’s curse, and Aurora will not die, but only sleep, from a prick of the finger. And yes, the trimming gets really out of hand in Act II, when Prince Désiré sails to Aurora’s castle, battles Carabosse, finds his sleeping princess and wakes her all in such a hurry that I actually miss the kiss. Harrumph.

But other directorial decisions work with Marcelo Gomes’ brilliant performance to bring us a more believable, more admirable and endearing Désiré than I’ve encountered elsewhere. Instead of a moody, melancholy youth, this Désiré cavorts with friends and flirts with a countess until the Lilac Fairy reveals to him a larger purpose he can serve and a truer, deeper kind of love he can know. In a vision sequence that features some of Petipa’s most exquisite choreography, the prince glimpses the gentle, forthright Aurora through scattering, shifting lines of fairies who keep her at a dream’s elusive distance. His speedy decision to marry her might raise some eyebrows, but when the vision fades, his dancing conveys such a determined and irrepressible desire to act on his love that we believe him. And the shy smiles that creep across his face while he leaps and jumps with calm, assured strength at his wedding celebration suggest that each tour is an outpouring of sincere joy.

Désiré’s world, the world Aurora finds when she wakes, is modeled on the court of Louis XIV – the birthplace of classical ballet. And while the original Sleeping Beauty looked to celebrate this time period and identify St. Petersburg with it, the enormous curling wigs, exaggerated shows of gentility, and coquettish scheming in ABT’s version seem to function as foils to Aurora’s direct, unadorned clarity, restraint and humility. Gillian Murphy’s remarkable performance draws the contrast in sharp relief, as her arabesques crystallize like a delicate frost and sweeping, turning ports de bras bloom with the gentle inevitability of silently bursting rosebuds. In the Grand Pas de Deux, we fall in love with the subtleties of her dancing: in her sissones, the delightful delay in her second leg and the precise care with which she draws that lagging foot into neat contact with the first; in her renversés, the way she wholly devotes her eyes and arms and heart to a particular bend and direction, while her leg floats around and carries her away in another.

Petipa’s choreography still has the power to make us fall in love with his ballerina, but somehow The Sleeping Beauty also makes us, with none of Murphy’s splendor to speak of, feel loved. When Aurora pricks her finger and falls asleep, all around her think she’s dead. They’ve been told this isn’t so, but when faced with the appearance of disaster they forget and despair. Ah, these are my people. But instead of giving up on them, the Lilac Fairy mercifully reminds them that she has saved the princess from that dismal fate. And with her back to us, she glides to and fro, fingers flowing and arms waving tenderly in a caress that comforts as they fall under her spell.

Photo: Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center welcomed the return of American Ballet Theatre to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, July 15-18, with 'The Sleeping Beauty' (pictured: Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes). / Photo by Gene Schiavone

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Lula Washington Dance Theatre at the Hollywood Bowl

This preview was first published at Culture Spot LA on July 9, 2010.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2010 Hollywood Bowl Jazz series kicked off on July 7 with performances celebrating the glorious tangle of influences that produced and continue to develop jazz music worldwide. The star-studded, soul-stirring lineup included Cameroonian bassist and vocalist Richard Bona, New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard in collaboration with LA’s own Lula Washington Dance Theatre, and Nigerian Afrobeat artist/activist Femi Kuti with his 13-man band, The Positive Force.

As Richard Bona and his six musicians layer hot, slippery, overlapping rhythms, the bright shades of bossa nova, jazz and funk burst into the gray twilight and seem to push the heavy cloud cover far from the Hollywood hillside. Bona and company fade out riffing on Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” while the stage rotates to deliver Terence Blanchard’s ensemble front and center. As the sky deepens to black, the bright, easy energy of Bona’s set now focuses to a single, searingly radiant point. In white spotlight, Blanchard’s Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan pulls what sounds like a rushing, hesitating farewell from the keys in Aaron Parks’ achingly beautiful “Ashé,” and Blanchard joins him with gently throbbing trumpet.

After such gripping intensity, the entrance of dancers in Choices – choreographed by Lula Washington to excerpts from Blanchard’s new album – initially feels disappointingly dissipated. Scattered thinly across the vast stage space, the dancers’ serpentine arms and languid poses don’t quite connect with Dr. Cornel West’s recorded reflections: “justice is what love looks like in public … braininess falls short of what it means to be human and making the right choices.”

But then a compelling conversation between movement and music emerges; dancers echo Blanchard’s running, trilling trumpeting with surging shakes side to side, and later on, a vertical throw of the arms ricochets through the group as unpredictably as the notes ring out in Almazan’s piano solos. In a setting that naturally overpowers the human form, Washington’s work resonates where she partners effectively with the surrounding forces to reach us through the distance. When a wave of twirls sweeps dancers across the stage in a blur of swirling white just as a gust of wind rolls off the hillside and through the Bowl, the effect is sublime.

West intensifies the choice of “what kina human being you gonna be” by asking in the same breath, “how do we prepare for death?” Our ultimate limitation heightens the significance of each decision, and Washington eloquently suggests this truth by distilling the action to a single, focused duet. Here, deliberate gestures – by turns passionate, fearful, and painstakingly careful – carry tremendous weight, and the couple periodically cracks under the pressure, circling their arms wildly to cast off the load.

Music, words and movement surge and crash together in a final collage evoking the “history of black people in America.” Dancers fly onstage with exuberant Lindy kicks, and a woman in turquoise responds to Blanchard’s rhythms with jumps like hiccups – bent forward at the waist and arms hanging loose in the West African style that lies at the root of American jazz, tap and modern dance. “Hope … Katrina … black bodies hanging from southern trees,” West’s deluge of words suggests endurance rather than resolution, and the dancers’ flapping, stomping, grooving exit and the band’s final blast testify to this spirit.

Headliners Femi Kuti & The Positive Force close out the evening with biting social commentary, friendly call and response song, raging horns, pulsating rhythms that accelerate and sustain at impossible speeds, and remarkable dancing that feeds off and fuels it all. All the band members dance, but the three women who sing backup dance incessantly – skittering on the balls of their feet, jumping into low turns, and miraculously producing contrasting, shifting rhythms in feet, knees, hips, rib cage, arms. The movement reveals musical qualities my ears can’t access, and I’m grateful for the chance to experience jazz as a fully embodied form.

Jazz at the Bowl 2010 continues July 14 with Smokey Robinson and Lizz Wright, and Lula Washington Dance Theatre next performs as part of the Grand Performances series, on July 30 at California Plaza in downtown LA.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Dance Camera West's Film Festival

This preview was first published at Culture Spot LA on May 24, 2010.

A couple in urgent physical conversation traces and re-traces a horizontal path through an industrial environment of hard surfaces and harsh light. The camera cuts in close so that heads dive and bare limbs slice through our field of vision. Then, when they quiet, we rest intimately in the tangle of her hair and against the contour of his cheek.

A peek at the trailer for the Dance Camera West Festival, which begins June 4, and you’ll quickly understand why Los Angeles has been clamoring for more since Lynette Kessler brought two evenings of dance films to the Getty in 2002. A dancer, choreographer and filmmaker herself, Kessler showed 14 works by various artists in that first Dance Camera West Festival. Audience members at the two sold-out screenings were incensed, Kessler recalls. “People said, ‘Why haven’t I seen this before? Where can I see more?’”

“Beguine,” one of the films appearing at the festival’s June 4 opening at REDCAT, feels like the raucous end of a wedding reception, when people can get ugly, and things can get strange. Through a fog, we see men in untucked shirts and women in rumpled dresses swing and jump and shake in slow motion, while the wooden floor creaks and rocks beneath us like a wave-tossed ship. A tilt finally tips one unsteady reveler out of the wedding party, and suddenly we’re tumbling, sliding, careening with him, triple-speed, down a rocky slope.

This is dance that speaks the language of today’s audiences, especially for residents of a city so steeped in film culture. Like Kessler says, “Everybody’s a film critic. Everybody’s been watching film their whole life, and they’re very invested in it, and they have something to say about it … so it’s engaging.”

Throughout the month of June, the ninth annual Dance Camera West Festival brings short films, documentaries, panel discussions and dance media installations from across the globe to REDCAT, the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk, UCLA’s Hammer Museum, the Screen Actors Guild, Cheviot Hills Rec Center, Timothy Yarger Fine Art of Beverly Hills, and the Grand Performances series at California Plaza. Kessler explains that festival events are “spread all over town” in order to build audience. DCW ticket prices don’t hurt either; admission for opening weekend screenings at REDCAT is only $10 to $15, and all other festival events are free.

“It really is fun to turn people on to it.” Kessler’s voice rises with excitement as she describes viewer responses to dance films she’s shown. “They come in and they’re just gasping and clapping and laughing and being involved in the kinesthetic experience. … With film you’re right there with [the dancers], sweating with them.”

As the festival has extended its reach to new populations and parts of the city over the past decade, the geographical scope of work presented has also exploded. “Burkina Faso, Iran, Estonia, Uruguay, Cuba …” Kessler rattles off a list of countries represented by recent DCW submissions. Advances in filmmaking technology – like the relatively affordable one-chip video camera – allow artists around the world to produce work in increasing numbers. But if it weren’t for Dance Camera West, Kessler shakes her head emphatically, “you would not see these films in Southern California.”

This year’s festival brings significant new works by established international choreographers, and introduces the most talented emerging artists and the latest dance film experiments to Los Angeles audiences. At the Hammer Museum’s Pina Bausch Symposium, two documentaries by celebrated German director Anne Linsel will have their West Coast premieres. The outdoor Local Makers screening at Cheviot Hills features films by 25 local artists, as well as works by budding filmmakers from LAUSD middle and high schools. And for Kessler, the experimental dance shorts included in the SurREEL Moves screening at the Hammer represent a particularly exciting “push forward into a new territory of work.”

Although it’s been a whirlwind nine years, Kessler insists, “I always get refreshed from looking at the work.” Come and be refreshed by Dance Camera West’s offerings this summer.

June 2010 Dance Camera West Festival Schedule

For complete information, please visit the festival website.

Dance Media Screen Innovations*

Three different programs of experimental dance media

Friday, June 4, at 8 p.m. ($15) and Saturday, June 5, at 6 and 8 p.m. ($10), REDCAT

Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk

Dance Media Installations

Thursday, June 10, 6-9 p.m.

A Weekend at the Hammer Museum

Pina Bausch Symposium

Saturday, June 12, 4:30 and 7 p.m.

SurREEL Moves: Weird & Wonderful Experimental Dance Shorts*

Sunday, June 13, 7 p.m.

Choreography in Media: A Panel Discussion

Wednesday, June 16, 7-9 p.m. at the Screen Actors Guild

Local Makers – LA Choreographers and Directors

Saturday, June 19, 8-10 p.m. at Cheviot Hills Recreation Center (behind the building)

Media and Choreography Installations

Saturday, June 26, 6 and 7:30 p.m. at Timothy Yarger Fine Art of Beverly Hills

Reservations required for this event. RSVP to (310) 278-4400 or

Dzi Croquettes*

Brazilian documentary of all-male cabaret group

Sunday, June 27, 8 p.m. at California Plaza

*contains nudity or adult content

Photo courtesy of Dance Camera West/Pina Bausch/Anne Linsel.

Lionel Popkin's 'Elephant' at REDCAT

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on May 22, 2010.

When Lionel Popkin’s There Is an Elephant in This Dance begins, an elephant suit lies scattered across the stage space, and the headpiece sits in an upstage corner, trunk askew, looking at us askance from under drooping lids. Popkin, son of a Jewish father and South Asian mother, grew up surrounded by images of Ganesh – the Hindu god revered as Remover of Obstacles and depicted with an elephant’s head – and in this work Popkin invokes the elephant and its attendant meanings to explore cultural identity. With appearances of the fuzzy gray suit in part or in whole, on performers and on screen, the choreographer builds unexpected physical relationships between and within bodies to raise questions about where our identities come from and where they reside. Popkin’s work gets its LA premiere at REDCAT May 20-23.

All members of the ensemble – a trio of musicians led by composer Robert Een and a quartet of movers – are deeply embedded in the work, but together the seven craft and unpack the portrait of only a single person. Popkin’s dancing collaborators intrigue but do not invite us to know them, and their wanderings into and out of the stage space and Popkin’s solos suggest that they’re here to reveal something about him.

Almost always at least part-pachyderm, Peggy Piacenza shuffles in the shadows behind Popkin, echoes his movements, and drifts offstage again – a specter of Valecia Philips’ surging, fading, otherworldly vocals within Een’s gorgeous score. She’s a comforting childhood memory with a plush elephant’s round tummy and saggy bum. With circling wrists and serpentine arms that sometimes look like Bharatanatyam, she dances calmly for us, occasionally stilling her inappropriately swinging trunk with one soft elephant foot.

We see Ishmael Houston-Jones in off-balanced struggle and earnest effort, but exaggerated facial expression and stiff formality keep him at a distance. With sudden, jerky shifts to maintain weight over his left foot, he circles and waves his right limbs in a strangely one-sided dance, juggling these competing physical identities until the right-sided undulations knock him into a high-stepping stumble to the left. But later on, a small triumph. His stomping and beckoning seems a weak approximation of an Indian classical dance until speed and intensity build to a focused frenzy, and his commitment makes us believe this dance – whatever it might be – is his.

Unlike his mysterious companions, Popkin meets us face-to-face in a downstage pool of light, and we get to know him as he breathes. First he blows gently, playfully, at us. Then internal gusts of air sweep him into deep backbends, and swirling currents course wildly through his body, forcing him to gulp and rebound, or choke and sputter. Sometimes his torso works like a bellows directing the flow, and sometimes he is a vessel filled and carried by this inner stream. And somewhere in the midst of the turmoil, I realize that his physical situation suggests tension and blurred boundaries between individual choice and environmental determination.

Moments of clarity like this one reveal the choreographer’s ability to speak powerfully through the body’s physical language. In Popkin’s duets with the long-limbed Carolyn Hall, his identity merges with and disappears into hers when he allows Hall to place one finger inside his mouth and direct their united action. Individual freedom is the obstacle to harmony here, and we feel his loss just as we enjoy the strange beauty of their single diving, falling, four-armed form – one that recalls images of Ganesh with so many arms.

In duets between Popkin and the on-screen elephant, the animal gains dignity with the mediated distance, and in its cheerful dances and thoughtful stillnesses, seems to watch over and encourage his partner. Facing away from the screen, Popkin sometimes joins his guardian in a simple sway, or swings a leg loosely like a trunk, and we feel the unconscious connection between them. And when Popkin, stripped to briefs so we can appreciate his very human legs, puts the headpiece on backwards, his strange form seems to hold the full possibilities of two identities simultaneously.

Lionel Popkin’s There Is an Elephant in This Dance continues at REDCAT at 8:30 p.m. on May 22 and at 3 p.m. on May 23. Tickets are $20 ($16 for students with current I.D.) and are available at or by calling (213) 237-2800.

Photo: Lionel Popkin; photo by Steven Gunther

Lester Horton Awards Celebrate LA's Dance Community

This article was first published at Culture Spot LA on May 17, 2010.

On May 16, LA’s usually far-flung dance community gathered together at the hip RecCen Studio in Echo Park for the 19th Annual Lester Horton Awards – this year subtitled “A Celebration of Community.” Hosted by the Dance Resource Center, an organization that has served and promoted dance in the Greater Los Angeles area for more than 20 years, the Lester Horton Awards honor the legacy of Southern California’s great modern dance pioneer. While Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey developed movement systems based on contraction and release and fall and recovery with their students in New York, Lester Horton drew from the movement traditions of various cultures to craft a training system that would foster fluidity and versatility in his Los Angeles dancers. Among Horton’s young pupils were dance legends Bella Lewitzky and Alvin Ailey.

As a former dancer with Ailey’s American Dance Theater, Ron Brown descends directly from this lineage and has developed his own fusion style over decades of teaching abroad and throughout LA, so it seems especially fitting that he should receive this year’s Horton Award for Excellence in Teaching. Special awards also went to Carol Zee – artistic director of the remarkable everybody dance! program – for service to the dance community, and to Jamie Nichols, producer of the tremendously successful Celebrate Dance festival, for furthering the visibility of dance. Founded in 2000, Carol Zee’s everybody dance! provides exceptional dance education – now more than 150 weekly classes – at little or no cost, for more than 1,300 ethnically diverse, economically disadvantaged young people in LA. And the impact of Jamie Nichols’ annual invitational evening of dance at Glendale’s Alex Theatre was evident last night as awardees thanked her for the opportunity to show their work. Since Nichols started the festival in 2006, numerous artists and companies have received Horton Awards based on their participation in Celebrate Dance.

Keith Johnson/Dancers was one such company, recognized for their small ensemble performance of The Presence of Absence in Celebrate Dance 2009. Viver Brasil, the 13-year-old company locally and nationally acclaimed for excellence in putting the Afro-Brazilian experience on stage, received the achievement in world dance award for Feet on the Ground/Aiye, an evening of performance presented at the Ford Amphitheatre in July of 2009. And David Roussève – choreographer, writer, director, performer and Professor in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures – received top honors of the evening. The award for outstanding achievement in long form choreography (longer than 15 minutes) went to Roussève for his dance theater work Saudade, described as a “fierce, poetic journey” by The Washington Post, while David Roussève/REALITY – the choreographer’s multidisciplinary, multicultural ensemble – was recognized for outstanding performance of this same work.

See below for the full list of very deserving honorees, and please take note: These are artists to watch.

2009 Lester Horton Awards

Outstanding Achievement in Performance – Company

David Roussève/REALITY, Saudade

Outstanding Achievement in Choreography – Long Form

David Roussève, Saudade, David Roussève/REALITY

Outstanding Achievement in Performance – Small Ensemble

Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh, Rogelio Lopez Garcia, Andrew Merrell and Jennifer Parra, The Presence of Absence, Keith Johnson/Dancers

Outstanding Achievement in Choreography – Short Form (shorter than 15 minutes)

Bradley Michaud, volenti non fit injuria, Method Contemporary Dance Company

Outstanding Achievement in World Dance

Viver Brasil, Feet on the Ground/Aiye, Linda Yudin and Luiz Badaró

Outstanding Achievement in Performance – Female

Marissa LaBog, Really All About Eve, Collage Dance Theater

Outstanding Achievement in Performance – Male

Kevin Williamson, Fruit, KDUB Dance

Outstanding Production of a Festival or Series

50th Annual LA County Holiday Celebration produced by Los Angeles County Arts Commission

Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Design

Eileen Cooley, The Crossings, Regina Klenjoski Dance Company

Outstanding Achievement in Set Design

Matt Scarpino, Silk or Cotton, Bare Dance Company

Outstanding Achievement in Music for Dance

Alexander Marchand, Say the Body Is Like This Lamp, Alyson Boell

Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design

Ryan Heffington, Really All About Eve, Collage Dance Theater

Special Honorees

Furthering the Visibility of Dance

Jamie Nichols

Excellence in Teaching

Ron Brown

Service to Our Dance Community

Carol Zee

Photo: Breakers Lauren LiBrandi and Josh Diorio entertain guests at last night's Lester Horton Awards. Photo by Chiabella James.

Cedar Lake at UCLA Live

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on May 9, 2010.

UCLA Live introduced New York’s Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet to Los Angeles Friday night in Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Orbo Novo (New World), and Saturday the company returned to Royce Hall in its final performance (for now) with works by Canadian Crystal Pite, Norway-based Jo Strømgren, and Dutch choreographer Didy Veldman. I caught Friday night’s show. Founded only seven years ago and directed for the past five by the French-born former Ailey dancer, Benoit-Swan Pouffer, Cedar Lake has quickly made a name for itself by building an impressive repertoire of works by renowned international choreographers and dancing them brilliantly. Thanks to UCLA Live, the company will return to LA for biannual performances and ongoing residency activities beginning in 2011.

“When you look at the brain, it’s obvious that the two hemispheres are separate.” Sitting side-by-side at the edge of the stage, two dancers explain left and right brain function with carefully measured words and calmly flowing gestures, all in perfect unison. Establishing a context for Orbo Novo, their words come from the book My Stroke of Insight, neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s account of the left brain stroke that altered her neurological functions for eight years. As the performers’ voices gradually pull apart, others join them on stage to relate Taylor’s experience of losing the sense of self, separateness from the world, and running inner monologue normally produced by the left brain. “And all that brain chatter went silent.”

In this silence a woman floats outside of time, following rolling impulses through belly, ribs, chest, shoulder, elbow, wrist, and long fingers that trail behind and seem to describe this New World in continuous, curving strokes. Voices interrupt the eloquent image with more of Taylor’s words: “The more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right brain hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world…. Which will you choose?” Here the text begins to feel redundant and overbearing, but then Cherkaoui catches us up in a swirling orchestra of falling, rising, reaching limbs propelled by Szymon Brzoska’s rushing arpeggios, and I think we glimpse Taylor’s self-described “nirvana” in a language-less, self-less, sensory-rich world.

We catch echoes of Taylor’s story – a paralyzed arm that juts out awkwardly from Jason Kittelberger’s tumbles, tremors that wrack Golan Yosef’s body, euphoric energy that swells through the group – and we recognize in the isolation, limitation, joy, and striving, elements of our own experience. Alexander Dodge’s towering wall of red gridwork – shifting, porous, but ever-present – becomes the boundary that defines left and right, inside and outside, captivity and freedom, past and future. Still, the people here seem to exist in past and future, wearing high-necked blouses, ruffled dresses, sleek bodysuits, plaid vests, and long, shiny coats. And their superhuman maneuvers on, up and through Dodge’s divider make us question its power to divide and the categories it creates. But when a duet emerges far upstage, behind the grid, my limited, fragmented visual access makes the dancing feel like a memory I can’t quite recall, and I’m frustrated by the separation. And when the wall morphs into twin cages that threaten and then swallow Ebony Williams’ flinging, thrashing form, we see the futility and danger of resisting the binaries.

Despite the darkness, determinedly physical, courageously vulnerable dancing carries a strain of hope through the evening. Solos of miraculously continuous rolling – where legs fly over heads and shoulders and torsos defy gravity to snake and peel up off the floor without support – surface again and again, suggesting the power of disorientation to engender possibilities. The elements of Cherkaoui’s Orbo Novo combine and recombine to weave a dense web of associations, one that captivates and entangles his viewers, compelling us to make sense of Taylor’s experience and to question assumptions about our own.

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

'Rendez-vous' with La Danserie

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on April 27, 2010.

LA-based choreographic collective, La Danserie, gathered talented artists – emerging, established, aspiring and professional – for Rendez-vous, an inspiring afternoon of dance at Cal State Northridge’s Plaza del Sol Performance Hall on April 25. The program reflected La Danserie’s 13-year mission to create new contemporary ballet for a broad audience and celebrated the creative community and web of influence that have grown from the company’s inception. La Danserie founder, Patrick R. Frantz, created “Decisive Movements” for young dance students from LA’s celebrated Colburn School; longtime La Danserie performer, Nicole Mathis, choreographed one of the afternoon’s highlights for fellow company members; Kathryn McCormick of So You Think You Can Dance fame performed with local Lester Horton Award winner Rei Aoo; and Ellen Rosa, Chair of Idyllwild Arts Academy’s Dance Department, shared both her gifted students and her own gifts as a performer.

Circling together with lilting skips or stepping, heel-toe, with contained style, Nicole Mathis’ three women – Ruth Fentroy, Meagen Mendoza and Ellen Rosa – suggest solemn community as “Sunken Ladder” begins. Their easy musicality shifts from grounded to ethereal as Gorecki’s driving beat gives way to Saint-Saens’ trilling runs, and dark hair and dresses swoop through space. Although breaks between pieces in the sound score are sometimes choppy, Mathis crafts a compelling journey from the earthly to the celestial through evocative musical choices and interactions between the dark ladies and their spirits – nymphs in white smocks who emerge and echo and leave the mournful three alone in darkness.

An excerpt from José Limón’s modern dance classic, A Choreographic Offering, performed by high school students from Southern California’s Idyllwild Arts Academy, testifies to the school’s excellence and closes the first act with an exhilarating rush of warm color, clear shape, and swirling energy. First presented by Limón in 1964 as a tribute to his mentor, Doris Humphrey, Offering references 14 of her works and is an invaluable window into the modern dance lineage that silently influences so much contemporary work. Always a joy to experience, here the masterpiece shines with the fresh spirit of youth.

Judy Pisarro-Grant, veteran resident choreographer with La Danserie, presents the curious “things fall apart” after intermission. The six dancers’ voluminous purple and orange tutus lead me to look for humor that does not surface, and the title prepares me for a striking shift or break-down that I don’t detect in the flow of contained, ordered movements. But unfulfilled expectations aside, Pisarro-Grant’s solos for Meagen Mendoza reveal the dancer at her best, folding her torso into dramatic bends and extending limbs with a control that suggests she moves the music at will. And the choreographer colors the work’s final section with a gentleness that intrigues as it slips between and seeps through the dancers’ movements. Hands brush together as dancers pass, and arms flick lightly with subtle musical accents. All six women bend at the waist, rock back on their heels, and lift their toes to sweep fingertips tenderly along balls of feet.

In her premiere, “The Sunset,” Rei Aoo is a lonely, aging clown slumped on a park bench instead of a jolly swagman camped by a billabong, but as the Australian popular anthem plays, its plea to “come a-Waltzing Matilda” sounds like the cry of her heart. Our clown makes unsuccessful (and apparently painful) attempts to dance, until Kathryn McCormick – in yellow dress and delightfully bright, folksy steps à la Oklahoma – appears and invites Aoo to join her joyful waltz. America didn’t vote McCormick into last season’s So You Think You Can Dance finals for nothing. She’s altogether captivating, and we share in Aoo’s sense of loss when she flits away as suddenly as she arrived.

Photo: Candice Sanchez, Ellen Rosa, Mary Wilson, and Tamara McCarty in Tatiana A’Viromond’s "Momentos" / photo by Eric Pisarro-Grant

John Jasperse Company at REDCAT

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on April 16, 2010.

Based on John Jasperse’s track record of innovation and influence in contemporary dance, and based on the title of his latest work, Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat-out Lies, I expected great things of the West Coast premiere at REDCAT on April 14. Truth purports to address the processes and results of belief by examining performance conventions that seek to create illusion or reveal reality – the kind of ambitious, relevant, and admirable undertaking one hopes for from such an artist. While its collaged scenes are generally clever, often laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes compelling, however, the show doesn’t quite add up to a satisfyingly meaty or messy investigation of this pressing, complex question. But, then, dissatisfaction may be an intended response. Truth is elusive, after all.

Act I plays mostly with the light, sexy, cool, and absurd, dipping into various performance traditions (vaudeville, porn, ballet, music videos) to present ever-shifting personas for Jasperse’s four performers. Erin Cornell and Eleanor Hullihan – vampy divas in charcoal sequins, red lipstick and bobbed hair – exude cool power as they twist and unfurl, calmly circling and slicing white legs through black space. In shiny, see-through tanks, the guys (Neal Beasley and Kayvon Pourazar) seem intentionally overshadowed by the femmes fatales, and their separate and secondary position through much of Truth recalls a problematic historical perspective and its result: discomfort with men in dance and their quite literal supporting role in classical ballet. When the women take center stage, Beasley and Pourazar crawl into their negative space, bizarrely nuzzling and supporting the starlets’ hands and behinds as they dance.

Jasperse inserts himself into the action now and then – first as a hopelessly uptight student of the pirouette whose frustration and microanalysis inevitably topple his wobbly turns. When a voice from the audience layers criticism over Jasperse’s own, I consider which perspective I tend to trust. Later on, I suspect that the creepy black figure lying against the back curtain might be the choreographer again, and when he springs to his feet and removes his dark mask with triumphant flourish, or performs pathetic vanishing acts with a persistently visible ball, we adore his efforts to dazzle us and his unwavering belief in his own success. His characters’ earnest energy and sincere emotion provide a much-needed element of humanity, as the other dancers reveal to us no consistent, knowable selves. Switching between drastically different performance states with detachment, they indulge in trance-like, modern dance noodling to pings and bings in Hahn Rowe’s score one minute, and offer their mostly naked bodies for sexual consumption with Ginuwine’s invitation to “ride it, my pony” the next.

At the close of Act I, I’m ready to see the aloof dabbles in all kinds of artifice intensify or expand to a vigorous, personal, urgent probing of the issues at hand. But it’s not my piece, and Act II definitely doesn’t deliver urgency, although it does offer live musical performance by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble. The second half strips away most of the theatricality, color, antics, humor, and action to reveal …very little. The bareness, whiteness, stillness, emptiness is just a new kind of mask, and truth seems no more in reach. Or maybe this is the sadly depleted, withered, sterile sort of understanding we’re left with if we work reductively toward truth. Or maybe I’m trying harder to make sense of the stillness and silence and strangeness and endless noodling than I ought. Maybe the work just doesn’t reach the depths I’d hoped it would.

Performances by the John Jasperse Company continue at REDCAT Friday and Saturday, April 16 and 17, at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20-$25 general admission, with discounts for students and those associated with CalArts. They may be purchased online, or by calling the REDCAT box office at (213) 237-2800.

Photo: John Jasperse Company dancers Erin Cornell and Kayvon Pourazar / photo by Steven Gunther

Hubbard Street at the Music Center

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on April 10, 2010.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago delighted audience members last night (April 9) at the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, and based on recent statements by the company’s new artistic director, Glenn Edgerton, this three-day run may be a sign of good things to come for LA dance fans. Before accepting his current position in Chicago, Edgerton directed the Colburn Dance Institute at LA’s Colburn School of Performing Arts, and it sounds like his SoCal ties could develop into a continued local presence for the 33-year-old, internationally renowned, repertory-based Hubbard Street company. This weekend’s program also reflects HSDC’s new direction, offering works by three artists Edgerton often presented during his decade-long leadership of Nederlands Dans Theater: Ohad Naharin, Jirí Kylián and Johan Inger. I can only imagine the opportunity to see works by these acclaimed choreographers in a single concert, danced with nuanced power by the versatile Hubbard Street dancers, will whet LA’s dance appetite and ensure that our arts organizations keep this company in town as much as possible.

The show opens with a beautiful trauma. In Ohad Naharin’s Tabula Rasa (1986), searing strings by Arvo Pärt send victims reeling into relentless waves of reckless, tumbling dives. Here we see the tearing loss, and then we see the aftershock. First they fling limbs and fall into each other with desperate abandon, and then they rock gently, stunned – an ever-growing procession of mourners. Created before Naharin joined Israel’s celebrated Batsheva Dance Company as director and began development of “gaga” – a technique that allows movement impulses to originate from palms and balls of feet and other unexpected places and to flow uninterrupted through the body – Tabula Rasa reveals the roots of his recent work in Naharin’s remarkable gift for fluid, free-flowing movement. When they perform this piece, the Hubbard Street dancers share his gift.

Often hailed as one of the most influential choreographers of recent years, and described – like William Forsythe – as a deconstructivist of the classical ballet vocabulary, the Czech-born Jirí Kylián renders time and space unstable in 27’52” (2002). Named for the time it takes to dance, this pas de six heightens our attention to the passing of each moment as words and ticking gestures slip by, repeat, and play in reverse. One dancer arrests his partner’s flight in a series of in-between places. When he catches her in a horizontal hover, waist-high, instead of helping her launch into space, we get to grasp an exquisite moment of transition for several impossible seconds. But then others slide the sheets of marley flooring out from under them, and the duo has to scoot and chug just to stay on their feet. Last night marked the work’s West Coast premiere with Hubbard Street, and aside from a few spots where dramatic charge falls flat with flopping flooring, 27’52” distills our ever-off-balance existence to a richly insightful and potent physicality.

Walking Mad (2001), by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger, closes the evening with a crashing, hip-thrusting, heart-pounding, high-speed chase. A flock of grown men in party hats pursues women with adolescent energy; couples race toward and away from connection with insistent, heated grabs; and like Ravel’s “Boléro” that plays off and on throughout, the antics dance brilliantly around that illusive line between the slapstick and the serious. Inger’s work sings and bites with humor that darkens over time, and Hubbard Street is at its best.

Performances by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago continue tonight (April 10) at 7:30 p.m. and tomorrow (April 11) at 2 p.m. at the Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster Phone Charge at (800) 982-2787, at all Ticketmaster Outlets, online at, and at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Box Office. For groups of 15 or more, call CTG Group Sales at (213) 972-7231.

Celebrate Dance at the Alex Theatre

This preview was first published at Culture Spot LA on March 9, 2010.

Celebrate Dance
returns to the Alex Theatre in Glendale for its fifth-anniversary show this Saturday, March 13, at 8 p.m. The festival celebrates the vibrance and diversity of our local dance community by showcasing nine Southland companies in a single evening of performance that received the Lester Horton Award for Outstanding Achievement for a Festival in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and has sold out for the past two years.

Curious about the show’s tremendous success and unique scope, I recently spoke with executive producer, curator, arts advocate, and LA dance guru Jamie Nichols. Former director of the Pasadena-based dance company Fast Feet for 23 years, Nichols knows the LA dance community from the inside and celebrates its tenacity and resourcefulness in making excellent work with scarce funding and creating venues out of restaurants and warehouses when theater space is in short supply or beyond financial reach. Understanding these challenges firsthand, Nichols has, for each of the past five years, put up personal funds and sought out private donors in order to offer the area’s finest companies the opportunity to perform in a fully produced, beautifully lit, well-publicized concert at Glendale’s 1,400-seat Alex Theatre. And she even manages to pay everyone.

Nichols believes “a spirit of graciousness,” or support for one another’s work, can help the LA dance community thrive. And she sets a remarkable example by going to see performances by anyone who invites her. It’s this spirit that has led her to discover such remarkable artists as Esther Baker-Tarpaga and Olivier Tarpaga, the duo that thrilled audience members at Celebrate Dance 2008, and to offer the visibility that has helped propel their international career.

This year’s eclectic lineup features returning companies as well as new faces; premieres and award-winning, re-staged works; contemporary ballets, aerial dance, jazz, acrobatic encounters with moving sets, and moving explorations of relationship. Look for new additions including Catch Me Bird and Body Current Dance, directed by Lorin Johnson, former American Ballet Theatre dancer. Also, past Celebrate Dance favorites JazzAntiqua Dance and Music Ensemble and RhetOracle Dance Company will present new jazz works that promise to captivate.

If the last two years are any indication, you’d better get your tickets now. Visit Celebrate Dance on the Alex Theatre’s website for more information and a video sneak preview. Tickets range from $17 to $35, and discounts for seniors, students, Glendale residents and Dance Resource Center members are available with presentation of ID at the Alex Theatre box office. Discounted tickets for groups of 15 or more are available by calling the box office at (818) 243-2539.

Photo: RhetOracle Dance Company / photo copyright Tim Agler / Celebrate Dance 2009

Monday, March 29, 2010

'Bricklayers' in Santa Monica

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on March 9, 2010.

When Trisha Brown and her fellow dance rebels of the 1960s and ’70s began using movement “scores” – directions that require performers to solve problems in the moment of performance – in lieu of “set” choreography, the shift was both aesthetic and political. By redistributing the choreographer’s power of artistic decision to the dancers, scores encouraged audiences to see performers as thinking community members and to question the authority of the art establishment. In 2010, however, when the score is an established choreographic device and Brown represents, willy-nilly, the present dance establishment, it’s hard to imagine the revolutionary spirit this method once carried.

In Bricklayers With a Sense of Humor, performed this past Saturday (March 6th) at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, Arianne Hoffmann continues the work of this breakaway dance generation by challenging the authority of the now-conventional movement score, reinvigorating the form with political significance, and re-asserting the power and responsibility of the performer. Inside a series of scores that govern with varying degrees of control, Hoffmann and her fellow movers discover, struggle, delight, suffer, resist, obey, and rebel to thrilling and unsettling ends. While the most restrictive scores yield intriguing results – by giving the performers a clear force to push against – the success of even these sections depends on the movers’ individual decisions. The performers’ willingness to stretch or break out of each structure when necessary ensures both artistic interest and the well-being of the group.

From the very first score, the stakes are high and the problems are real. “It certainly is harder to breathe.” Hoffmann narrates her sensations from the bottom of an ever-growing pig pile, with understated humor and concern that builds with the number of bodies on her back. We chuckle nervously as she allows four movers to climb on before panic creeps into her voice: “I’m having trouble speaking, and it makes me think it’s too much … pressure.” The women immediately peel themselves off in response to her alarm, and our breathing deepens with hers.

Recalling Trisha Brown’s “line up” experiments, these bricklayers – in brown, red and powder blue polyester shirts tucked into high-waisted bell-bottoms – negotiate individual power as they seek to maintain their equidistant arrangement in a sideways-facing horizontal line. Steps taken by the women on the ends trigger a flurry of checking and correcting in the middle. But then Rebecca Pappas has had enough and holds her ground with a solid fist raised at Audrey Malone’s back. This resistance seems to fuel Malone’s fire, and she raises a fist to stop Angeline Shaka from invading her space. The battle of wills eventually rams them all into a heap against the wall … a much more glorious end than the initial calibrations suggested!

Tehya Baxter emerges from the wreckage, performing a regimented hand dance and parading through the space with clear paces and sharp quarter turns to the tubas and trumpets of the Ex-Post-Communist Community Brass and String Bands. Her focused, blank stare breaks now and then to flash us a wide, forced smile. Contrast this controlled march – disturbing in its lack of individual choice or expression – with Hoffmann’s sprawling solo danced with a microphone in her pants. This woman enjoys her personal freedoms.

At first it’s just a game: Ally Voye tries to stand her ground while Audrey Malone tries to push her over. But soon this score leads to the violation of individual freedoms and bodily rights. Malone’s efforts grow violent, and Voye’s pinched face and flailing arms betray real distress, until she collapses to the ground. Malone panics because this noncompliance keeps her from following the directions, and she yells at Voye’s lifeless body – trying insult, mockery, and coercion to get her up off the floor. When the others enter and conduct sound experiments on Voye’s insensible form, digging a microphone into her belly and manipulating her legs to produce muffled thumps, it’s awful to watch, and it looks like the decision to break from this score might fall to the audience. A performance has never brought me so close to taking action, and this might be the work’s greatest tribute to Hoffmann’s predecessors.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Alberta Ballet Performs Joni Mitchell's 'The Fiddle and the Drum'

This review was first published at Culture Spot LA on February 26, 2010.

A man steps forward into bright light, and we are confronted with his flesh – tinted the sickly green of camouflage or radioactive glow. Joni Mitchell’s voice rings out a mournful melody: “And so once again … My dear Johnny my dear friend … And so once again you are fightin’ us all….” Dancers emerge like spirits, piling up behind the first soldier, and the body count rises. In Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum, performed by the Alberta Ballet last night (Feb. 25) at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, the intimate and fleshly physicality of live dance speaks in eloquent combination with Mitchell’s music.

Alberta Ballet Artistic Director Jean Grand-Maître, whose work as director of choreography for the Vancouver Olympics has recently brought the company international attention, collaborated with fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell on the creation of Fiddle in 2006 and 2007. Since its completion, the work has been performed throughout Canada and released on DVD, but last night’s sold-out performance marks only the second stop on the ballet’s first United States tour. The tour continues at UCLA’s Royce Hall tonight and Saturday, Feb. 26-27.

The Fiddle and the Drum derives its structure and inspiration from 13 of Mitchell’s songs that play back to back, mostly lesser-known works released in the ’80s and ’90s, and from Mitchell’s glowing green, apocalyptic artwork that appears projected on the scrim. The themes they suggest – warnings that we are hurrying our own destruction by waging war and abusing our planet, lamentations that rail against the exploitation and hypocrisy that facilitate this destruction – are ones that have concerned Mitchell throughout her career. But the rhythmic drive that pushes the action through much of the evening may surprise those expecting the sparser, solo guitar sound of her early work.

Out of the somber stillness of the opening, “Sex Kills” jolts the 29 dancers into sudden action, propelling them into superhuman postures with mechanical speed and precision. Here, silvery overhead light gilds the sharp edges of legs and arms as the lethal limbs slash and strike through shadows. As Mitchell sings, “And sex sells everything … sex kills,” we see human physicality as beautiful and dangerous; here we are the instruments of our own destruction.

Tension in the contrasts between songs, and sometimes in the jarring contrast between dark lyrics and bright sound and rhythms, affords opportunities for the dancers to embody the opposing human potentials for creation and destruction, tenderness and aggression, artifice and honesty. When a sensuous, gentle, ecstatic duet follows “Sex Kills,” for example, its deliciously unfurling limbs and curving spines counter that grim vision. And in “The Beat of Black Wings,” the ironic marriage of sickly sweet instrumentation with tragic story finds apt physical expression in the juxtaposition of a shiny-skirted, flag-waving chorus line with three young, fearful soldiers intent on the work of war.

The Fiddle and the Drum sometimes wanders into physical interpretations that seem forced, false, or glib – like the little girl who frolics among the grown-ups and offers a peace sign at the end. But with songs like “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Grand-Maître crafts a richly nuanced relationship between the people on stage and the cataclysm we hear approaching in the lyrics and sirens, and that we see in the bombers and skeletal faces of Mitchell’s images.

In this section, a parade of strong, straight legs thrusting out like bayonets seems to confirm the imminent danger, but swinging, leaping, exultant movement bolsters the feeble hope that the lyrics suggest. And moments of exquisite beauty – like the couples rotating in parallel onto an empty stage, women held aloft in a shaft of golden light, turning with the flowing waves of sweet guitar melody – resist the pattern of war with a defiantly peaceful physicality, and remind us of all we stand to lose.

Ticket information for tonight and Saturday’s (Feb. 26-27) performances of The Fiddle and the Drum is available at UCLA live.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Making the Familiar Foreign: Hip-Hop Displaced in H3

Bruno Beltrão takes hip-hop out of its natural habitat. He transplants street dance to contemporary dance stages around the world, stripping the movement of its defining music and driving beat, and abandoning its cool attitude in favor of openness and vulnerability. He stages battles and undermines them to reveal nuanced physical relationships, and he exaggerates, repeats and abstracts the movements of krumping, popping and breaking dance styles until they take on new expressive power. By making hip-hop strange, he allows us to see it anew and hear it speak.

I first experienced this revelatory work Tuesday night, when Beltrão’s all-male, nine-member Grupo de Rua brought their US debut tour to REDCAT with H3, but the Brazilian choreographer’s been at it for over a decade now – busting open street and contemporary dance conventions to international acclaim.

Two men in loose T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers stand at the edge of the stage space and look out at us. As they search our faces, eyes lingering where interest leads, they invite us to see them at their most vulnerable – in stillness and silence. The faint hum of a passing car reminds us of the dance we came to see, but like the shiny black floor that suggests wet pavement, or the exposed back wall that evokes an alley when the dancers lean against it, this passing reference to the street only makes us feel our distance from that environment. But I have a feeling this is part of Beltrão’s plan; contrast brings all elements into truer focus.

Except for another car or two, it’s quiet as one of the men begins to move – his limbs sliding along invisible surfaces until they click gently into unexpected places or catch in sideways suspensions. His focus is down and in, and without music to drive or dictate action, we see the halting flow of movement as manifestation of a stuttering stream of thoughts. So when, with birdlike head bobbing and insistent stomps, a knee pop throws his arms into wild circles, the intimacy of the silence intensifies the abandon and reveals reckless desire within the fierce krumping.

While sneaker squeaks and techie beeps are eventually sampled in a soundscape that supports the movement, sound never drives the action. Instead of relying on music to shift the mood or speed the pace, the dancers move us to new states by sweeping the space, sprinting backwards in intersecting curves, or spinning out in compact balls like tumbleweeds – head over hands over heels. One such exhilarating wave of receding runs leaves Filipi de Morais (in yellow) and Bruno Duarte (in black) alone on stage, and we feel a rumble coming on.

Duarte issues a challenge by hurling himself through the air past de Morais, who lunges after him in a falling, flying, horizontal counterattack. But when they come within striking distance, they stand close and still – sensing and observing each other with calm and inviting interest – and then flip into a seated freeze in sudden unison. Labored breathing intensifies the interplay, but it doesn’t seem like a fight anymore. And later on, when collisions fire them into awe-inspiring jumps and diving rolls, focus is on the interaction instead of individual prowess, so it doesn’t feel much like a battle either.

When the two group up with a third, a few exchanged glances morph into a bizarre dance of heads snapping, turning, tilting in intent and urgent conversation. Without the wry smiles or humorously vacant expressions that might cue a hip-hop audience to laugh, these strange actions live as committed behaviors. And without the reassurance of cool comment or joking, the untamed energy leaves us a little uneasy. But I think this is right where Beltrão wants us; from uncertainty and unfamiliarity we see more clearly with less assumption.

Throughout H3, fully embodied actions like these boldly convey candid interest, struggle or desire. And in the vocabulary of hip-hop – a language known for its displays of strength, virility, control and humor – these honest statements seem particularly striking and brave. Such is the case in an extended duet that develops between Augusta Eduardo Hermanson and Danilo Pereira toward the end of the piece. We’ve seen Hermanson sidle up to Pereira earlier with his tiny steps and quick, quirky ticks, and we’ve seen Pereira flop into Hermanson’s space, but here the two traverse the stage in determined, committed, complementary relationship.

To the sound of digital dings and bleeps, they adjust and calibrate, stepping their limbs in calculated, mechanical action – each jab of Hermanson’s elbow or flop of his wrist causing a distinct reaction in Pereira’s hip or shoulder or foot. And even when they flap their hands and peck at each other with almost ridiculous insistence, their sincere effort makes these actions part of a moving companionship.

Of course, Beltrão’s nine phenomena are remarkable virtuosos – pulling off dizzying head spins, impossibly sustained handstands, and downrock that would floor any b-boy. But it’s because these men also reveal themselves in moments of quiet, or in awkward, earnest action, that their feats become life-affirming and their physical range approaches the scope of human experience.