Today, when democracy, some would say, is being attacked by various forces both large and small, it’s good to know that French choreographer Jérôme Bel is wholeheartedly embracing the democratization of dance. Or is it? In Bel’s 2015 work, “Gala,” which landed at the Theatre at Ace Hotel for one performance on a blustery and rainy Saturday night in Los Angeles, a mixed-ability cast of nineteen locals, including several professional dancers and together known as Company Company, performed a series of moves for some ninety minutes under a constantly leaky ceiling that provided an extra jolt of, well, weirdness.
Presented by CAP UCLA in association with Ford Theatres, “Gala” seemed a perfect fit for this Spanish Gothic edifice that was built in 1927 as the United Artists Theatre and was once inhabited by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and the like. But drips aside—and with crew intermittently mopping up the wet stage, including CAP UCLA artistic director Kristy Edmunds—it was a bit of synchronicity that 54-year old Bel, whose Judson Dance Theater influence is apparent, had once earned a Bessie Award for his 2004 non-dance opus “The Show Must Go On.”
And so did “Gala.” Beginning with a slide presentation of theaters—recognizable, formal and otherwise—the piece celebrates the space where we come to heighten our emotions, to escape the mundane, to leave our troubles behind. There’s also a hint of Judy’s and Mickey’s “Let’s put on a show” attitude, as this wildly disparate group of children and adults—all ages, skills, body types and colors—are put through their paces.
Ballet was initially on view, with musical motifs from “Giselle” and “Don Quixote” accompanying each performer doing his or her version of a pirouette and jeté. Clad in costumes of their own choosing, from leotards, spangles and leg warmers, to tights, tees and leather boots fit for a cavalier prince (Los Angeles Ballet principal Tigran Sargsyan looked sufficiently noble), this was ballet like no other.
And while the turns and leaps ran the gamut from graceful (LAB principal Petra Conti) and touching (actor Ken Salley moved slowly, albeit with determination and a cane), to drag queenie (a tall Ian Waters called to mind any one of Les Trocks), this was not your mother’s ballet, but your neighbor’s or distant cousin’s.
In essence, “Gala” pays tribute to amateurism, with Bel having said that he is interested in the novices’ fragility, and that “amateur practice is based on the principle of pleasure, of desire.” Joy was apparent on the performers’ faces as they then waltzed to Strauss (six-year old Olivia Ruiz and her mother Rachael Ruiz beamed), the couples, however, not at all reminiscent of the 18thcentury Viennese art form, but offering a way to experience humanity, their faux dips and off-kilter moves an invitation to be more open, more free.
There was also an “Improvisation in Silence – Three Minutes All,” which could have proven deadly, if not deadly ironic, after which the group got into Michael Jackson mode, each doing some, er, version of moonwalking to “Billie Jean.”
Here was actor/rapper John Tucker, not constrained by his Down syndrome, but getting huge applause at his MJ-like crotch-grabbing. (Admittedly, it was difficult to not think about West Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and his bizarre confession that he’d entered a dance contest as Jackson by putting shoe polish on his face and attempting to moonwalk some three decades ago—and supposedly winning!) Still, Ann Colby Stocking displayed dignity and decorum in her wheelchair, keeping time with head and arms, while eight-year old Moira MacCarthy rocked the house with a bent-kneed sauciness.
And what could be more integral to a performance than a bow? Each performer, all committed in their actions, then appeared front and center executing curtsies in myriad ways. After a short solo, which the cast then tried imitating, the troupe displayed unisons, quarter turns, balancing poses and hip-hop type moves. Differing, obviously, in degrees of execution, this examination of conventional and, in some cases, precision movement, was a journey that ultimately unlocked the dancing body, and, by turns, the inner crux of one’s self.
As the drip, drip, drip of Mother Nature continued unabated, the collective energy level rose. And when batons were handed out to a number of troupe members, an ebullient Mike Nakauchi, holder of 12 California state baton-twirling titles and nine national championships, displayed his prowess with the wand. Wowing the audience with sky-high tosses and nailing the catches, Nakauchi was clearly in his element, a departure, of sorts, from—according to the program—his Disneyland performances, as his back-up batoneers were, at times, flailing about but clearly having a blast.
In this exuberant finale, with Liza Minelli belting out “New York, New York” – and L.A. L.A., substituted, rather awkwardly, for the Big Apple—Bel’s foray into neophyte movement proved radical in its simplicity. What better way, then, to blur the lines between bombing and booming onstage than to have ordinary people let loose with a few seasoned pros, with the master of conceptual choreography, Jérôme Bel, calling for an equality that truly comes from a communal effort.
“Gala,” with its medley of micro-societal movers, is either genius or something akin to the exceedingly outré. Then again, when factoring in the unintended H2O drippings (deliberate use of water during performances include Tanztheater Wuppertal’s “Vollmond” and Pilobolus’s “Day Two”), it’s just another cultural night out in the magnificently diverse and sublimely quirky City of Angels.