Scott McCabe hops on one leg, his other limb elevated and tucked behind his ear at 6 o’clock (think Stephen Colbert dancing with the Rockettes to Daft Punk as part of his Colbchella week); David Maurice cuts a Nijinsky-esque swath as he leaps through the air; and Danielle Agami, clad in red-trimmed, high-waisted black satin boy shorts and a solitary stiletto boot, whip in hand, her breasts adorned with palm tree-like, er, pasties, could be a terpsichorean dominatrix—or a distant cousin to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
Welcome to the world of Ate9 Dance Company, one of Los Angeles’ hottest cultural commodities. Indeed, Agami, who founded the eight-member troupe in Seattle in 2012 before boldly decamping to the City of Angels a year later (a town not known for being overly dance-friendly), is decidedly having a moment. Racking up choreography awards and rave reviews (the company recently triumphed at Vancouver’s Chutzpah Festival and has a pair of upcoming performances, May 24 and 31, at New York’s Peridance Center), Ate9 is making modern dance, well, fun again.
And why not? Agami’s got fistfuls of cred: A member of Batsheva Dance Company for eight years (2002-2010), as well as that troupe’s rehearsal director from 2008 to 2010, the 29-year old Israeli-born choreographer is also a purveyor of Gaga. The movement language developed by Batsheva’s Ohad Naharin, its results have a distinct look on stage that was in full flower during this hour-long performance.
Set to Jodie Landau’s original score, performed live by members of Chris Rountree’s contemporary music ensemble, wild Up (the 22-year old composer also played vibraphone and occasionally offered meditative vocals), as well as recorded music (throaty Nina Simone, the alt-rock sounds of Radiohead and Puerto Muerto’s über-cool twanginess), the show had its share of silence, too. Danced on a white floor against a black backdrop that made for a welcoming, if quasi-alien planetary ambiance, “Mouth to Mouth” proved a showcase for Ate9 members, including a mesmerizing Agami, whose every move seems a corporeal journey. Featuring a plethora of solos, duets and trios, along with strong unison sections, the seriously kinetic opus ran riot with Agami’s iconoclastic choreography.
Opening the work, Ariana Daub, clad in a polka dot dress (costume design by Maurice and Daub), was not alone in Agamiland for long, as Rebecca Goldstone promptly began scissor-snipping the frock, her actions underscored by Ivan Johnson’s ostinato bass line. This dress-slashing business was then taken up by Maurice and Genna Moroni, after which Agami and McCabe, drawn to each other as if magnet to refrigerator, locked lips in what would become somewhat of a recurring motif. Finger-splayed hand gestures and knocked-knees morphed into full-throttle lunges that, in turn, transitioned into the most unlikely of arabesques.
Also unlikely: rapidly executed, if cartoonish-looking bourrées that gave way to neo-goose-stepping, with McCabe tossing off a solitary cartwheel before displaying a dollop of crab-walking. Adding to the mollusk/amphibian mode, Maurice gallantly leap-frogged across the floor, while equal opportunity solos had Sarah Lyman moving to Sam Kaufman-Skloff’s drumming, her spinning and jumping an impressive sight, and Goldstone displaying equally swoon-worthy back bends. There was also plenty of purposeful walking, with hearty foot-slapping sounds comforting, in a loony sort of way.
Somehow, though, it was all connected, with Jeff Forbes’ lighting design adding to the various milieus: whimsical, rough, eerie, sexy. Following a brilliant jazzy interlude that also included stellar playing by violinist Andrew Tholl, cellist Derek Stein, clarinetist Brian Walsh and bassoonist Archie Carey, a surreal scene unfolded, with the frenetic urbanite movers and shakers donning masks and wielding props, several wig stands among them: McCabe, sporting a respirator, recalled Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in “Breaking Bad”; Goldstone looked swell in a tutu; Maurice was pretty in pink; and Moroni could have been the bride of R2-D2, that lovable Star Wars droid.
As for mouth machinations, several women, sitting cross-legged, managed to manipulate their oral cavities with aplomb, screwing up and contorting their faces as if posing in an old-time photo booth. Literalization, however, is not part of Agami’s language, nor is narrative. But, as Balanchine once said, “Put a man and a girl on stage and there is already a story; a man and two girls, there’s already a plot.”
With Agami’s vision, the movement is the message; it alone tells the tale. And whether that tale be one of loneliness, love, grit, beauty, hope, satisfaction, yearning, estrangement, even lunacy—let the viewer choose—or all of these notions mashed-up and re-imagined in order to make sense of today’s sometimes nonsensical world, “Mouth to Mouth” is a dance work that lingers long after the stage goes dark.