Last night, modern dance company L.A. Dance Project made its Spoleto debut to a near full house. The troupe performed three stylistically different pieces in spite of a fire alarm interruption just after the first work and during the beginning of the second. (I suspect it had to do with the fog machine. In any case, audience members were told to evacuate the building, firemen came, and only after they discovered the culprit and that things were safe were we allowed to come back into the building to enjoy the remaining two thirds.) In spite of this strange mishap, the company (dancers Stephanie Amurao, Anthony Bryant, Aaron Carr, Julia Eichten, Morgan Lugo, Nathan Makolandra, Robbie Moore, and Rachelle Rafailedes) performed with skill and ease.
Modern dance is infamous for being rather subjective and abstract. “Murder Ballades,” choreographed by Justin Peck, is the title of the first piece, but unless you note that beforehand, you may not realize anything particularly violent is going on. (Some of the audience would need to see blood). There is lots of running on stage and suggestion of various group dynamics and courtship rituals happening; there’s also quite a bit of frantic, kinetic movement, but that was the case in other pieces as well.
The set, by Sterling Rugby, is an interesting six-paneled background with a color-splattered effect. Colors range from periwinkle to yellow, red, and shades of maroon. The dancers, three guys and three girls, wear casual shorts and shirts, sneakers and socks. (Shoes seem important; the numbers starts with dancers putting them on, and in perhaps a romantically suggestive moment, dancers take their shoes off.) Overall group movements were very much in sync and the dancers clearly have ballet as well as modern and jazz training. The movements during technically-difficult choreography are graceful and athletic, and the formations interesting, but overall I found the piece a bit monochromatic. Some around me were wondering (as many do in modern performances) what it all meant. One couple behind me mentioned it was much better than another Spoleto performance they’d seen recently. After this piece, while we were outside during the dreadful fire alarm evacuation, I heard a nearby man say, “I really like this choreography.”
The second work, “Harbor Me,” was my favorite. It opens with sea and fog horn sounds. In fact, when lights came on and fire alarm went off, some of the audience thought the sounds were part of the number. When we returned to our seats, “Harbor” took on new meaning.
“Harbor Me” features three male dancers. I fell in love with choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s piece and the excellent execution of the dancers, who were costumed as castaways, with bare feet and rolled-up brown pants. Though information I found about this piece claims the dancers embody “elements of fire water and air,” I interpreted the piece as being about exploring and inhabiting spaces and the self in those spaces, even about helping one another create spaces in which we all become freer, able to live more upright. It also seemed to explore the homoerotic. At times I was reminded of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers. Choreography was utterly fluid yet at times nearly acrobatic; the entire performance was magical, with bodies seemingly melting into one another—it was as if we were watching one unending movement, free of sharp edges. This poetic piece is modern dance at its best: full of emotion, showcasing bodies’ capabilities.
Some audience members left after the second intermission (again, because of the fire alarm, the show went a bit long).
The last piece, “Hearts and Arrows,” — choreographed by L.A. Dance Company founder Banjamin Millepied — was performed to “Mishima,” music by Philip Glass, and featured eight dancers in black tops and black and white window-pane-patterned shorts and skirts, with black shoes and socks.
The set is bare bones — a simple white scrim that lifts at the end of the piece to reveal the actual back of the stage housing random filing cabinets, chairs, old lights, etc. Movement included lots of circles in formations and with the arms, sometimes resembling the Matisse painting “Dance.” Perhaps this represented attempts at unity? It’s hard to say. The unsettling music and frantic movement suggests something darker is afoot, as if the dancers are trying to escape something or someone.
I interpreted the piece as being about what we do to one another — how we hurt, help, love, divide, or connect. Moments that surprise, like when movement starts with the group moving in and out of a circle before the music begins, are the best part of Millepied’s interesting choreography. The lighting on dancers at the end of the piece seems to represent a kind of illumination — what happens when you are a part of something greater than yourself
The dancers were all good, but some were more talented than others; however, if you love the beauty of movement for its own sake, you will probably enjoy this one. I did.