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