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Best of Dance 2023

Astonish me,” said impresario Serge Diaghilev to choreographers, composers and collaborators of his famed Ballets Russes, the bespoke company that reigned supreme from 1909 through 1929. And so it was that during this year—with two wars raging and Covid strains still running rampant amid a world seemingly going mad—there was a boatload of fabulous dance in the City of Angels that managed to, well, astonish this writer.

Courtney Conovan in “The Missing Mountain” by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber. Photograph by Josh S. Rose

High on a list of highs was, “The Missing Mountain.” Created by the in-demand husband-and-wife team Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber (both erstwhile members of Batsheva Dance Company, they’ve even choreographed the off-Broadway revival of John Patrick Shanley’s “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” with Aubrey Plaza making her stage debut), the 70-minute world premiere proved a foray into an elegant and unpredictable dance drama.         

Featuring a sextet of L.A. Dance Project members at the company’s intimate studio, the work, set to an intriguing score by Yonatan Daskal, gave new meaning to the words ‘angst,’ and ‘ecstasy,’ its various tableaux seeded with a movement vocabulary in which dancers held nothing back. Notable were the firebrand Shu Kinouchi, a languid Courtney Conovan and an über supple Daphne Fernberger. Merci, as well, to the Van Cleef & Arpels Fund for LADP, the jewelry maison supporting dance around the world. More, s’il vous plait!

Dutch National Ballet in “Frida” by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Photograph by Hans Gerritsen

Then there was Frida (Kahlo) mania, also part of the arts’ landscape this year in Los Angeles, with audiences treated to two memorable visions of the tortured painter’s life: L.A. Opera’s “El último sueño de Frida y Diego (The last dream of Frida and Diego”), was composed by Gabriela Lena Frank and featured a libretto by Nilo Cruz, while Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s brilliant two-act, “Frida,” performed by the esteemed Dutch National Ballet in their Music Center debut, needed no words to express the beauty, heartbreak and unending imagination of the woman who died in 1954 at age 47. 

The Colombian-Belgian choreographer, who premiered her two-act, 18-scene work in Amsterdam in 2020, created a story ballet for the ages: Boasting some 16 Kahlo incarnations, including 10 male Fridas, the dance, which also featured Peter Salem’s Mexican-flavored score—performed live, a rarity these days—was also populated with an array of phantasmagorical birds, trees and flowers. 

As the main Frida, an exuberant Maia Makhateli, who wasn’t shy about deploying sky-high extensions, proved the perfect foil/partner to James Stout’s portly egoist, painter Diego Rivera. And yes, the DNB veteran—even in a fat suit—moved with grace, agility and conviction. With its industrious cast of nearly 50, Lopez Ochoa’s “Frida” is a must-see for anyone interested in dance, theater, new music, high art, or the human condition.

Oguri in “Flower of the Season.”’ Photograph by Denise Leitner

Another terpsichore mining the art form with astounding results, is shape-shifter Oguri, whose “dance comes out of time,” the 20th iteration of Body Weather Laboratory’s ongoing series, “Flower of the Season,” was mounted at Venice’s Electric Lodge. Collaborating with composer Paul Chavez, whose offstage musical machinations provided sonic textures for Oguri’s 45-minute solo, the one-named wonder exhibited seemingly impossible control over his body.

Whether in business attire or nearly nude but for a flesh-colored thong, Oguri vacillated between Sufi-like spinning and executing tiny bourrées before morphing into a rubbery-limbed mass of perfect matter. In the process, he managed, once again, to take the audience on a journey to another realm, a much-needed panacea for these very troubling times.

Also going to—or coming from—a different dance planet, was Paris-based, French Algerian Nacera Belaza, whose 2021 triumphant “L’Onde (The Wave),” was a stunning, 50-minute tour de force seen for three nights at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in its L.A. premiere. Performed in a near-blackout environment and accompanied by high decibel music (on tape), with lighting and sounds both credited to Belaza, the work featured the choreographer and three of her dancers in an awesome display of virtuosity. 

Rooted to the floor, the quartet assumed a variety of stances—angled knees, a bending at the waist, their torsos moving and arms flailing—as they went through their paces, occupying different areas of the stage, each performer in his or her own pool of the dimmest of lights. Ritualistic, the work challenged our visual and auditory senses, and, in the process, transformed an ordinary evening into a truly unforgettable experience.

Alonzo King's Lines Ballet in “Deep River.” Photograph by Elaina Francis

As far as abstract works go, Alonzo King Lines Ballet brought the achingly beautiful “Deep River,” to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts for two performances. The 65-minute number was pure King: elongated and oblique moves accentuated with filigreed arms and deft, highly articulated footwork. 

Set to an original score by dance’s latest go-to dude, Jason Moran, “River” also featured Grammy Award-winning Lisa Fisher crooning live onstage. Dancers, including Shuaib Elhassan, Adji Cissoko and a very facile Babatunji proved standouts among the stellar Lines’ company. The work, like its title, “Deep River,” ebbed and flowed, carrying with it a tide of deeply-felt passions along the way.

Daniel Ramos in Vida Flamenca Cumbre Flamenca Festival. Photograph by Fritz Olenberger

Also soulful: The 12th edition of Vida Flamenca’s Cumbre Flamenca Festival, a two-plus hour event produced by Beth Nesbitt, gave new meaning to the term, “duende,” with Madrid-born Daniel Ramos making a remarkable Los Angeles debut. Indeed, along with cantaors Miguel Ángel Heredia and percussionist-singer Francisco “El Yiyi” Orozco, as well as the extraordinary guitarist Yerai Cortés, this was flamencan music and movement at its finest.  

Ramos, born in 1994 and formerly a member of the National Ballet of Spain, stalked the stage in an array of outfits, including sequin-festooned skintight pants and a billowing Reynolds wrap-type, well, skirt. Oozing magnetism along with virtuosic technique, he stole the show in solos that teemed with complex rhythms, as well as in a Spanish dance replete with castanets. 

In “Bulerías de Jerez,” Heredia also tossed off a dazzling array of beats before he was joined by Ramos in a swivel-hipped, finger-snapping duet. The pair, who are part of a movement that represents an exuberant presentation of queer identity within the concept of flamenco, proved a propitious match. In fact, the entire cast was testament to the fabulous art of flamenco, with big dollops of duende decidedly on the menu—along with pre-concert paella and tapas.

Food also flowed at Volta Collective’s “Salt,” an immersive theater work presented at 2220 Arts + Archive. With choreography and direction by Mamie Green and Megan Paradowski (the pair also danced), this reimagining of the Medea tale included live music and, yes, gourmet fare, including oysters, mochi daifuku and foraged loquats, courtesy of conceptual chef Heidi Rushforth. With six dancers slinking stealthily across a cement floor—and each character telling their side of the tale à la Rashomon—there was a Gesamtkunstwerk quality to the work that made for a stimulating addition to the local dance scene.

Alessio Crognale Roberts and Leslie Andrea Williams with Martha Graham Dance Company in “Rodeo” by Agnes de Mille. Photograph by Carla Lopez

The Soraya was the starting point for Martha Graham Dance Company’s 100th anniversary tour. And what a kick-off it was: Premiering Agnes de Mille’s 1942 masterpiece, “Rodeo,” with staging by Diana Gonzalez, de Mille’s assistant from 1987 to 1993, the work featured Aaron Copland’s beloved score, but with a twist: Performed live by Gabe Witcher (he also did the arrangement) as part of a six-piece bluegrass ensemble, this was the perfect accompaniment for the dancers in full cowboy mode.

The program also gave us unadulterated Graham with “Dark Meadow Suite” and “Maple Leaf Rag.” The latter, Graham’s last choreography, was her 181st work that premiered in 1990, a year before her death at age 96. Adding icing to this dancerly cake, was the fact that all pieces were performed to live music.

It was also cool having REDCAT back in full swing again, with the US premiere of the 65-minute “takemehome.” Featuring choreography by Dmitri Chamblas, with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon providing a ravishing, albeit earsplitting soundscape in the form of five electric guitars and five amps, the opus showcased nine dancers who seemed to inhabit an alien world, an inflatable zeppelin providing a kind of campy visual. 

The who, what, when, where, why of the work was, for the most part, left up to one’s imagination, yet still made for a must-see performance.

In this standout year of innovative creations, special shout-outs also go to: United Ukrainian Ballet, whose 60 elite dancers poured their hearts out in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Giselle” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts; Complexions Contemporary Ballet was seemingly everywhere in Southern California, delivering high-octane works in three different venues; Congress VIII, a panoply of commercial/cum/concert dance, rocked the LADP space; and, finally, kudos to producer/director Bridget Murnane, whose magnificent, multi-award winning documentary, Bella, beautifully brings back to life modern dancer/choreographer/teacher/activist Bella Lewitzky, with the film currently eligible for Oscar consideration. (Academy Members, please vote!) 

Seriously, as 2024 is a crucial election year, our ballot goes to . . . the exquisite, often surprising—and eternally vital—art form that is dance. Onward!

Victoria Looseleaf


Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.

comments

Wendy Perron

Thank you for this fun wrap-up. I always tell students to use colorful verbs to describe dance, and you’ve packed in the verbs. You’ve also given me a hit of all the things I missed on the other coast. Tnx much.

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