Wednesday, May 18, 2022

L.A. Dance Project's Boldness Becomes the Norm

Solo at Dusk.
Photo: Josh S. Rose

By Susan Yung

“The ground was soft, and so were they. Flowers grew over their faces.”

      —Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber,
         Solo at Dusk

L.A. Dance Project, now a decade old, continues to be led by Benjamin Millepied, who returned after a brief stint at Paris Opera Ballet. Millepied was previously a principal at New York City Ballet, and several other alumni populate the LA staff, including the polymath Janie Taylor. At the Joyce recently, LADP presented two programs choreographed by women. I caught Program B; A included works by Bella Lewitsky and Madeline Hollander.

Bobbi Jene Smith’s Solo at Dusk (2020) captures the solitude and oppression of the pandemic, even while its seven performers cluster, interact, and dissipate on the Joyce stage. Each dancer wears a stunning baroque floral mask by Janie Taylor, who in addition to designing costumes, sets, and dancing, is also rehearsal director and choreographer for the company. As the lights go up, we see a table with a turntable and lamp, next to which sits a masked Taylor (unmistakable for her waist-length hair, a signature from her days with New York City Ballet). Dancers trickle in, performing a quirky, frenetic version of Gaga—hunched skipping, pelvis-first struts, bursting leaps between placid stances, big spins in attitude.

The movement is largely performed solo; in one scene, the other six dancers form columns to observe one another. Eventually, they form a circle, grunt, and chant, moving as an ensemble. Two “converse” through movements, and in a mock sparring match, a woman arches over a man’s back. Near the end, they each hold their heads and remain alone, distanced. The soundtrack, by Alex Somers, ranges from ambient sea sounds; a song delivered chanteuse-style; plangent, rhythmic vamping; to an instrumental reminiscent of Twin Peaks. The mood is consistently melancholic and the performers are committed, but it is an elegy to a time most of us would like to forget.

Daisy Jacobson, Nayomi Van Brunt in Night Bloom. Photo by Steven Pisano

Janie Taylor’s Night Bloom, in contrast, provides joy in vibrant, unfettered movement. The cast plays with her inventive set pieces—large geometric objects evoking ice cream sandwiches, moved around constantly like building blocks. Performed to Stravinsky’s Concerto For Two Solo Pianos (played live by Jessica Xylina Osborne and Adam Tendler), the dance mirrors the playful give and take of the music. Taylor’s costumes—short navy shifts for the women, light blue tees and shorts for the men—add to the youthful atmosphere, luminous with vanilla-hued lighting (Chu-Hsuan Chang). The choreography is a fresh mashup of balletic poses and structures with a sometimes relaxed attitude, dispensing with precise hands and arm positions, but also more technically demanding steps such as corkscrewing double tours en l’air, creating a tempestuous feel.

LADP is one of the few repertory companies in the US founded as such, and commissioning new work by a variety of choreographers. It sits alongside such titans as Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Paul Taylor’s companies, which in order to remain relevant, now commission premieres to be shown alongside their founders’ wares. Kudos to LA’s Millepied for ceding the lion’s share of stage time to innovative and/or historic women choreographers, now proving their talent.

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