Emerging from the global pandemic, which brought isolation, fear and, most tragically, death to so many, has indeed given us new reasons to enjoy simple things—the human connection, a hug, embracing hope again. And so it was with dancer/choreographer Danielle Agami’s world premiere, “Joy.” Performed by her Los Angeles-based Ate9 troupe at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (a special shout-out to the Wallis’ artistic director Paul Crewes, who departs his position at the end of the year but who has given local dance a position of prominence over his tenure), the work lived up to its name last weekend.
Agami, who was born in Israel in 1984 and was a member of the Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company from 2002 to 2010 before founding Ate9 in 2012, is also a purveyor of Ohad Naharin’s hugely popular Gaga. A technique Naharin created and developed more than two decades ago, Gaga is a physically daring movement language that trains the body while correspondingly connecting to pleasure. Integrating her own movement practice she now calls Oomi with other dance styles, including Gaga, Agami spread out the pleasure over three acts in the 80-minute intermissionless piece.
Beginning with Act I, “Now,” the dance was accompanied throughout the evening by cellist/composer Isaiah Gage, who performed live (how great was that!), also making use of electronic effects. While lines of text were projected behind Gage (“Grateful for your willingness to try,” “When the word NOW appears on this screen, you will practice 1 minute of being completely passive”), dancers moved in Gaga-esque fashion: wriggling, strutting à la runway models, while clad, at times, in, er, cardboard boxes in what would become an extended metaphor for being buried, courtesy of Amazon Prime.
There was even a gal (Bronte Mayo) driving a toy car in a sparkly gold top (costume design, which included a mash of street, cocktail and layered looks, by dancer Jobel Medina).
Enter, then, Agami, bouncing a ball and followed by George the dog. Hers, as it turns out, with the creator’s bio including this line: “I feel extremely emotional about animals and nature.” These circus-type antics also included the dancers wearing plastic protective pet collars during part of this scenario (the inverse of face shields some folks donned as extra safeguards during Covid), plenty of convulsive-like moves, whether solitary or in a group, and assorted leaps, crouches and crawling.
Culminating with the dancers being pelted from above with plants and dirt, Gage, meanwhile, played on, sometimes plucking his instrument like a guitar in a score that expressed the urgency of our time. As the act’s finale drew near, the notion of Amazon Prime returned, courtesy of the dancers bringing in stuffed garbage bags. It was this detritus—the stuff that so much of the population accumulated during massive deliveries of goods during lockdown—that was the embodiment of being entombed by our materialistic desires.
After a pause, Act II, “Then,” began, those bulbous bags perched on the lip of the stage. But the monetization of emotions through the acquisition of possessions is no substitute for love, and this dance exemplified that in compelling ways. What looked to be a faux ballet class, replete with pliés and fifth position arms, smoothly transitioned to the performers skittering and quivering around the stage, their admiration, nevertheless, for the art form, always in evidence.
Paige Amicon’s solo had her moving as if she were swimming above ground, while eight dancers looked on, seated in a circle, silently clapping. As Gage’s music accelerated, so, too did Amicon’s mad twirling, her pirouettes resembling a spinning dreidel. Evan Sagadencky, clad in a skirt, deployed rubbery moves, even offering a handstand, when he wasn’t slicing the air with sinewy arms; his duet with Cacia LaCount a display of athleticism and rigor.
And while much of this scene felt improvised, a jitterbuggy move here, an arched back/cum violent make-believe spasm/splits there, when Agami entered the stage, she became the warrior—or peacemaker, as it were—her charges falling into line after miming fist-jabbing and executing backward steps.
“When,” the third act, featured more text (“I used to talk a lot as a kid so dance class was the only solution”), with the company again in a circle, the dancers, including Agami, akin to reveling in a terpsichorean campfire.
One-legged poses proliferated, as well, the dance again giving a circus vibe—if, that is, this was “Circus of the (Dancing) Stars.” Agile back-bends and a short but swift break-dancing bit by Chris Hahn contributed to the jam session quality. Other cast members, including Montay Romero, Jordyn Santiago, Nat Wilson and Medina, were also ferocious movers, giving the impression of a collective carpal tunnel syndrome of the body: a jamboree of squiggly shoulders, somersaults and swiveled hips, with Gage still playing the hell out of his cello, shades of Bach occasionally filling the theater.
The circle of dancers, joining arms this time, ruled, recalling the denouement of the Nijinsky/Stravinsky work, “The Rite of Spring.” And when looking skyward, the performers had an air of defiance, as if to proclaim a victory—yes—over coronavirus. With the music building to fortissimo, George the dog returned and the company members began throwing pies (!) in each other’s faces. A first in contemporary dance? Probably, but slapstick, no doubt, is a kind of joy—for hurler, recipient and, in this case, the audience, as well.
Agami, once hailed by this writer as “choreography’s It girl,” has continued to live up to that, and the City of Angels is lucky to have her. Long may she create.