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Mountain High

A virulent new strain of Covid is on the rise; democracy is in peril; and the war still rages on in Ukraine. But relief of the highest order came in the form of, “The Missing Mountain.” Created by the current choreographic “it” couple, the husband-and-wife team of Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber, both Batsheva Dance Company veterans, the 70-minute world premiere was seen last week at the intimate L.A. Dance Project studio. (After selling out six performances, three more have been added, November 16-18, with thanks to the Van Cleef & Arpels Fund for L.A. Dance Project.)

Performance

L.A. Dance Project: “The Missing Mountain,” choreography by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber

Place

L.A. Dance Project Studios, Los Angeles, California, September 14-16, September 28-30, 2023; November 16-18 

Words

Victoria Looseleaf

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

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Having been choreographic artists-in-residence with LADP since 2020, the duo made the work on a sextet of that troupe’s movement gods and goddesses. Both mind and body-boggling, the dancers brought heat to the opus that, according to the program notes, “contains elements, themes and moments danced or dreamed in the companion pieces, “Lost Mountain” and “Caldera.”” (The former premiered at La MaMa in 2019 with 10 artists, the latter was created on Corpus of the Royal Danish Ballet with five dancers, also in 2019.)

But back to the present: Playing out on a red-carpeted, Smith-designed set that could have been an arty loft or semi-classy brothel, replete with couch, upright piano, a long table and a ladder, the work began with Daphne Fernberger walking slowly on the balls of her feet and brandishing a bunch of long-twigged gladiolus. 

Set to a score by Yonatan Daskal—his original ambient/trance-like music was interspersed with tunes by Bach, including a Chaconne as performed by violinist Kier GoGwilt—singer Asaf Avidan, Tom Waits, and others, the piece ebbed and flowed rhythmically, the dancers taking their cues individually, in pairs and in an array of compelling groupings. 

Fernberger, sans fleurs but decked out in a rose-hued silk slip, then coupled with Lorin Brubaker in an achingly beautiful pas de deux, her back and side bends supremely supple, before their bodies began moving as one in a gorgeous, slo-mo, Wilsonesque mating dance. A noble partner —when he wasn’t deploying his own deep pliés—he carried her aloft, spinning his precious cargo with ease to the sounds of Bach’s “Actus Tragicus,” arranged by György Kurtág and performed by cellist Coleman Itzkoff. 

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

Continuing their duet, Brubaker, mostly expressionless, also balanced her on one leg before the couple began a kind of skewed fox trot, in this case, a dance of devotion. If this is love, please count this writer in.

Cut to black (lighting design by Christine Ferriter), before a spotlight shone on a tuxedo-clad Shu Kinouchi (costumes designed by Smith, Lauryn Terciera and Stephanie Sleeper; shopped and styled by Terciera). Assuming the role of emcee, the firebrand began with a manic weather report, his heavily accented English occasionally lapsing into Japanese phrases. 

And then he soared, his red socks appearing to ignite his leaps, his quasi-fouettés a source of awe and seemingly melding him with the accompanying snippets of Bach. 

This exhibition was cause for a languorous, long-limbed Courtney Conovan, clad in a red-and-black flocked velvet dress that was a sonnet to her sleek sensuality—and who had been draping herself over the side of the sofa—to rise up and deliver her dancerly goods. And what goods they were: From articulated footwork to delicious slithery moves, this gal had it going on! 

Of course, Gaga, a technique and movement language developed by Batsheva’s Ohad Naharin, wherein actions train the body and aid one’s self-awareness in response to verbal prompts, was on full display: Distorted, exaggerated motions never looked so beautiful, as each dancer held nothing back, including spastic arms, pelvic contractions and fleshy floor flittings.

Shu Kinouchi and Daphne Fernberger in “The Missing Mountain” by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber. Photograph by Josh S Rose

Then there was Jeremy Coachman, who seemed to embody angst and ecstasy simultaneously, until he became a grand inquisitor, asking seemingly banal questions as well as instructing Conovan to obey a series of commands: “Come closer;” “Cross your legs;” “Jump;” which she dutifully did, bouncing as if she were on an invisible trampoline. Several final Coachman asks—beseeching is more like it—included, “Be a ship,” “be an anchor,” “become a mountain,” a thrilling move in which Conovan looked as if she were morphing into a mound.

But who are these enigmatic people in this dreamy dance drama? Hope Spears, who’d been perched on that ladder, made herself known in a big way, darting across the room and leaping on the table like an Olympian. Ditto for Kinouchi, before all six gathered round the sturdy prop in a game akin to musical chairs. This reviewer was, at times, reminded of Kurt Jooss’s 1932 anti-war masterpiece, “The Green Table,” but without the masks and, er, fascistic posse.

Still, the scene made for some fascinating interactions as the dancers created tabletop tableaux that segued from tango to taverna-type Greek wedding folk dance moves. There was also a nod to “The Last Supper,” minus the food but not the white napkins, which were waved about in mini-flag-surrender mode. 

But these über-movers were not about to concede anything. Indeed, their pow-wow proved invincible, none more so than when joining hands, joining forces, this cadre of questers, even when walking backwards in unison. 

Shu Kinouchi in “The Magic Mountain” by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber. Photograph by Josh S. Rose

What, though were they seeking? Their relationships, fractured one moment, healed the next, ran the gamut: from pleasure/pain, and isolation/companionship to intensity/apathy.

Perhaps the question was answered in another vignette featuring Kinouchi. Again positioned at the microphone, he displayed a large paper sign that read “Love.” A worthy rallying cry, to be sure, until he ultimately crumpled it in a pique of disgust.    

Not to worry, though, as this fun house of moves also offered a Gaga-esque conga line, and a big reveal when a curtain was unveiled and there it was on the wall: a placid mountain scene in shades of pink, gray and red, a metaphor denoting that everything would be okay, that it hadn’t been missing after all. 

Perhaps Beckett said it best in his 1953 novel, The Unnamable, whose last lines are, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

This missing mountain was decidedly found in each of the dancers’ bodies, souls and hearts, a replenishing lifeforce that refuses to quit. Happily for us—mere mortals—these corpus crusaders do go on.    

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.

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