Dallas — The final debut of TITAS’ thrilling 2017-2018 season proves that there’s yet another concert dance company from the City of Angels willing to tread through the thick waters of the entertainment industry. Benjamin Millipied (Black Swan choreographer) founded L.A. Dance Project in 2012 with a desire for collaborations and an interdisciplinary approach to making dance relevant in our media-saturated culture. Their Dallas debut at Moody Performance Hall highlights an emphasis on diversity of style, while the dancers’ ballet backgrounds lend continuity to the choreography.
Two contrasting short works comprise the first section, and they nicely demonstrate the journey ballet and modern dance have taken throughout the 20th century and beyond.
I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I read Martha Graham Duets as the first work. Three duets from mid-century Graham ballets comprise the eight-minute work set to music by Cameron McCosh from his 1957 documentary on the iconic choreographer. Signature movements such as hinges and pleadings bring a wonderful sense of nostalgia, but the most striking elements are the deliberate transitions and controlled partnering.
Granted, the performers don’t quite exhibit the delicate precision and nuances that a heavily Graham-trained dancer would, and it seems to take a bit of time for them to find that level of ease as the choreography progresses, but the reaction I hear across the aisle after the first duet sums up the whole work, which ends way too early.
Rarely do we see dancers move like that these days, delivering that kind of distinct vocabulary. The second work is more akin to what current audiences are accustomed to. If the holds and suspensions of the Graham work make us hold our breath in anticipation, then the lightning-fast maneuvers of Justin Peck’s Helix has the opposite effect. Exquisite contemporary ballet vocabulary rebounds and flows from one movement immediately into the next, with little time for the audience to breathe.
Set to a dramatic score by Esa-Pekka Solonen, the dancers execute extreme timing dynamics with a satisfying precision, yet the choreography seldom connects with the music. The whirlwind finds a brief reprieve later in the work with vivid tableaus, then it continues with the quality from earlier. Like much of the contemporary choreography out there, it tries to fit as much movement as possible into every minutia of a second. Despite the formidable athleticism involved, the dancers move with ease.
On the same night that Kyle Abraham’s company is announced as part of TITAS’ 2018-2019 season, his collaboration with LADP Ritalin Requiem (co-commissioned by TITAS) premieres. The resulting work conjures mixed reactions, which could depend on whether one reads the program notes. With the varied music lineup and phrases in the description such as “constantly shifting vignettes,” “disrupt…juxtapose,” and “sonic experience,” a wide range of movement qualities, choreography, and moods are to be expected.
Stark lighting changes that bounce off the white backdrop with vertical rips reflect the diversity in the sound score, which jumps from Philip Glass to Kendrick Lamar, then briefly switches to Barbra Streisand before returning to the hip-hop genre with Outkast. The electronic sounds of IOTDXI and contemporary classical of Nils Frahm provide a welcomed reprieve when the tone grows more serious towards the end.
Forget trying to categorize the overall movement language, as Abraham proves his versatility by including ballet, contemporary, Afro-Caribbean, voguing, animation, and other hip-hop elements, with some traditional modern dance sprinkled in. The various genres appear in unexpected places (as the program note explains), but the movement and music pairings elicit quite a bit of cognitive dissonance, as does the overall progression. It’s as if anything and everything is thrown onto the choreographic table with no editing process.
Some elements Abraham crafts astonishingly well, though, are timing dynamics and musicality. He’s not afraid to add stillness and silence or slow down the vibe before abruptly shifting course. Even though the vocabulary might not match the music genre in many places, its timing certainly does, which makes the viewing process a little more accessible. The dancers execute it mostly well, although, an area of fuzzy ensemble precision is the one exception.
The dancers absolutely deserve the applause at the end, especially Nathan Makolandra for his virtuosic yet honest solo at the end. The deafening cheers from only a selection of patrons, however, illustrate the vastly different reactions among audience members, who still buzzed about it during the second intermission.
The final work, Millipied’s On the Other Side, scales back the intensity, offering a variety of moods and pictures against a ballet vocabulary that hops between contemporary and neo-classical with ease and whimsy. A large colorfully-painted abstract backdrop by Mark Bradford provides a nice visual, but it’s the lighting design by Lucy Carter, with its various tones and shadow effects, that bring it to life.
It’s a long one to sit through, clocking in at 43 minutes as the last work of the evening, but it’s the most cohesive and seems to be the one the dancers are most comfortable with. Fantastic technical execution is a bonus (with Patricia Zhou and David Adrian Freeland, Jr. especially shining), but the connections between the dancers prove the real draw. Their various pairings and ensembles evoke happiness, uncertainty, heartache, intimacy, and support.
Overall, the program admirably delivers something everyone can enjoy, a lovely sampler of styles to taste and savor.