It wasn’t exactly Coachella, but the crowds—if not all of the performances—were inspired. Most inspired of all, perhaps, was the producer and champion of dance in Los Angeles, Deborah Brockus. An unsung hero who is not only a choreographer, artistic director and teacher, the fiery redhead is also an indefatigable impresario who continues to make sure that local dance troupes are seen on stages throughout L.A.
Now in its seventh year, this edition of the Los Angeles Dance Festival was Brockus’ most ambitious yet. With performances spread over two weekends (upcoming: Fringe, April 26-28) and two venues—with a tasting menu of up to seven different companies on each night—it was impossible to see everything. This reviewer opted to attend the Saturday evening concert, where the standout performances were presented by two veteran companies, Rosanna Gamson/World Wide and Sarah Elgart|Arrogant Elbow, and whose eponymous directors each have a choreographic vision coupled with taste, maturity and the ability to contextualize movement in ways both profound and resonant.
RGWW, founded in 1998, opened the performance with a premiere, “Quartet for the End of Time,” choreographed by Gamson with the performers and set to a section of Olivier Messiaen’s eight-part score of the same name. With four dancers in clown whiteface that suggested a Weimar cabaret, the work had a mysterious and hauntingly deliberate quality, a nod, conceivably, to Messiaen’s 1941 chamber piece, which was composed after he was captured as a French soldier during the German invasion of 1940.
Beginning in silence, Spenser Theberge was assured in his spins and jumps, after which Cody Potter-Brunelle, Bret Easterling and Stephanie Zalatel joined him to the sound of a mournful solo clarinet. Male-male partnering, unisons and articulated footwork gave the work a sense of hope while futility seemed to permeate the mostly dark stage, as well. (Evan Nie was credited with the evening’s lighting designs).
Ballet training was also evident in the brief work, with fleeting entrechats added to the mix, but as these chalky, lipstick-smeared faces, occasionally mouthing silent screams, peered into the abyss, an all too familiar uneasiness prevailed.
Also somewhat disquieting: Sarah Elgart’s “Confessions.” A goddess of site specific dance, Elgart is additionally an award-winning choreographer, producer and filmmaker (her short film Ghost Story has been racking up prizes since its 2017 debut). Having helmed various companies over the years, her latest iteration features dancers that are provocative, cool and committed.
Performed during intermission on the Luckman’s splendid mandala-like patio—one ringed by tall, ochre-colored pillars— “Confessions,” a kind of Martha Graham “Lamentation” meets “Giselle,” is set to the music of Odd Cephalopod and Holly Herndon. Elgart’s charges, encased mummy-like in stretchy fabric that bound them to pillars before they emerged to revel in their bodies, were like chrysalises turning into butterflies. Sam McReynolds, Carissa Songorian and Elizabeth Finfgeld writhed against the colonnades, while Lavinia Findikoglu rolled Butoh-like, but not nearly as slowly, down a wide flight of near-by steps.
Viewers ambled around the area to gaze upon the dancers, who, after freeing themselves from fabric/pillar bondage, seemed, nevertheless, to embody angst. Repeatedly slapping their own knees and heads, dipping their bodies while moving through the area, they danced out their hostilities as if trapped in an endless circle of dread.
But “Giselle?” Well, yes! After Findikoglu descended the steps, she situated herself in front of a whirring fan. Brandishing her Rei Kawakubo-ish long, flowy sleeves, she also trifled with what appeared to be a veil. Here then was the jilted Giselle, a Wili intent upon flaunting her wedding vestments that fluttered in the night air as her corporeal comrades moved with a ferocity fit for our tempestuous times. Confessions—or secrets? Only those bodies—and Elgart—know for sure.
On a decidedly different note: Seda Aybay’s upbeat premiere, “DediKodu” (loosely translated as “gossip” in Turkish), featured her Kybele Dance Theater, founded in 2003. The Turkish-born Aybay led her octet of performers in a groovy romp to none other than the music of Boléro, as performed by Pink Martini in a truncated version of Ravel’s original 1928 score. This was a jazzy, albeit frenzied, take on the classic tune, with lots of jumps, syncopated walks and floor-rolling, culminating with the dancers tossing Aybay up in the air.
Other companies proved less successful: Backhausdance, founded by Jennifer Backhaus in 2003, performed an excerpt from “Beyond the Noise,” choreographed by Italian dancemaker Walter Matteini with Ina Broeckx. Set to a mélange of tunes, including Bach and Max Richter, the work, which featured eight hard-working and technically adroit dancers, seemed to go nowhere. There were the usual running/sliding motifs and the alteration of allegro/adagio passages, as well as much feverish flailing about, but the dance, unfortunately, proved that sometimes more is less.
That was also the case with BrockusRED’s “As Memory Fades to Whisper.” Choreographed by festival director Brockus, who noted that it was inspired by Jiří Kylián and Ulysses Dove, the opus unspooled to a mix of music, including Urban Tribe and William Orbit. Featuring eight performers in serious So You Think You Can Dance mode—lots of split-leg jumps, unisons and Cirque du Soleil-style handstands, planks and back bends—there were also many ‘boy meets girl,’ ‘boy lifts girl’ and ‘girl poses’ moments. Throw in several false endings and the result is an overly long presentation in need of editing. On the plus side, however, the dancers were gorgeous, hard-working and well-trained.
Invertigo Dance Theatre, founded in 2007 by Laura Karlin, performed a section of its new “Snow White & Eve,” a gender romp upending and subverting the two tales/myths. Created and directed by Karlin, with choreography by her and eight dancers, the work, thankfully, featured some humor: Six performers (four males and two females) entered whistling and wearing heels, and at various points proudly walked with—what else—apples on their heads. Fine female-female partnering was refreshing, with Jessica Dunn and Hyosun Choi ably comporting themselves in their respective titular roles.
Completing the program was HD Theater, Haley Heckethorn and Joseph Davis, dancing a tango-esque duet with predictable moves, although their vertical spooning occasionally intrigued. The marathon-like evening began with a pre-show number held in a nearby theater, with seven smiling Chapman University students executing cheerleader-type moves, while a photography exhibit featured sumptuous dance photos by local artists, including Cheryl Mann, Ginger Sole and Denise Leitner.
All told, dance is alive and well in Los Angeles, with its ever-growing presence undeniable, and for that we can be proud. Again, kudos to Brockus for her unstinting vision, although a stronger curatorial hand would make the festival that much better.