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national choreographer's initiative

As we cruised down the 405 freeway, my husband and I were hit with an onslaught of horrible traffic just before the University of Irvine exit.  We joked that all of those people sitting impatiently in the cars around us must be going to the National Choreographers Initiative Performance. But as it turns out, a portion of them may actually have been. We arrived to find a sold out theater. The Barclay was packed from the orchestra to the balcony with patrons there to see something new. According to Molly Lynch, the director and innovator of the program, this happens every year.

No curtain had been drawn on the dimly lit stage, yet many of the dancers were on it going through their steps and warming up–paying no attention to the audience filling up the house. “Don’t they have anywhere else to warm up?” my husband remarked. “Well, this is normal behavior before a show,” I explained. “The dancers are always trying to run through things on the stage, but normally the curtain is drawn and we just don’t see it.” Right away, I felt the NCI showing had nothing to hide and wasn’t succumbing to any production pretensions. The costumes were minimal and the lighting design, expertly done by Monique L’Heureux, was complementary but never overbearing. This show was about the choreography – it was about the dancing and nothing else. 

The show kicked off with Darrell Grand Moultrie’s piece entitled “Moments.” Before each piece the choreographers gave a brief introduction.  Moultrie laughed as he looked out at the audience, commenting that this was the largest “informal showing” he had ever seen. And he was right, but the collective feeling that permeated the auditorium wasn’t one of judgment or a challenge – there was no feeling of “go ahead, impress me” but more a sense of excited support. Right away, the audience was on the choreographers’ sides.

Going along with the intention of the performance, I am not going to review the pieces per say. However, I enjoyed it so much, I feel compelled to share my reaction. “Moments,” was simply stunning. Set to the piano arrangements of Kenji Bunch, this piece kind of blew me away.  Beautifully composed, and impeccably structured, it was the kind of piece that I watch as a dancer and think, “ Oh I would love to dance that piece!”  The highlight was a duet between Isha Llyod and Molly Wagner that was expertly danced and incredibly moving.

Next was a trio of works choreographed by Wendy Seyb. “Something about Sundays” was an easy going piece that followed several couples, each at different stages of their relationships, through a lazy, Sunday afternoon. It was set to the crooner-esque music of Peter Cincotti. “Lovers,” – a charming pas de deux danced by Alessa Rogers and Preston Swovelin. These two were also paired up in Thang Dao’s piece later in the evening, and their their charismatic, comfortable partnering gave the illusion of a couple who had been working together for months rather than just three weeks. “Lovers,” comically played with the idea of a partnering rehearsal – the flirtation and the frustration. I can say unabashedly that it was simply adorable, and just as well acted as it was danced by Rogers and Swovelin. While all the dancers were extremely talented, Alessa Rogers stood out to me as one to watch in the future. Currently dancing with Atlanta Ballet, this petite dynamo has beautiful lines, incredible feet and such personality and versatility that it’s hard not to become a fan! Seyb closed with an untitled comedy piece set to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony that had the audience erupting with laughter.

After a brief intermission, we returned to watch Thang Dao’s piece, entitled “Cell” – an ensemble of movements set to the music of Chase Lott, Tomaso Akbinoni and Shakerleg. The concept of the piece was inspired by a story about a group of artists that were imprisoned. Dao explained that he was playing with the idea of artistry being imprisoned, trapped in a cell block. The movements were a delicious combination of languid and precise. The pieces set to the percussive  “Tank Drum” stood out as being the most compelling. And the final section, another pas de deux between Alessa Rogers and Preston Swovelin, proved to be the most engaging and clear example of the concept. Set to the music of Shakerleg, it felt as though, in that final movement, Dao had really begun to tap into the complicated emotions associated with human expression when it is forcefully silenced or controlled.

The evening ended with Melissa Barak’s piece “Lux Aeterna,” set to the music of Maria Newman. The abstract telling of an emotional narrative, Barak’s piece seemed to explore the concepts of mortality in a refreshingly unpretentious way. Beautifully danced by the seven couples, the piece finished the night off with a neo-classical tone that was pleasingly familiar and resoundingly fresh and new. There were a few moments and images-particularly the last-that literally took my breath away and left my mind reeling.

The Q&A that followed the performance wasn’t particularly ground breaking, but it was pleasant and rounded out the performance nicely.  One of the repeated remarks from the audience members was how thankful they were to the choreographers for their choice of music and the accessibility of their work. I have to agree that all the pieces were accessible without compromising any artistic integrity. There is something to be said for that, particularly in ballet. If we want to pack theaters with patrons, we do need to consider what they want to see – something artistic and engaging but not completely unapproachable. One of my old tap teachers used to harp about how important it is to “know your audience.” And there is some truth to that.

Overall, my feeling about what I witnessed this past weekend was one of sheer excitement and relief. There is really great, new work being produced for ballet dancers right now, and I just saw four pieces that prove it. Even more satisfying was seeing such work being supported and embraced by the public. The experience renewed my faith in the Southern California dance scene, which was no easy task. Keep an eye out for these new works from such compelling choreographers — I guarantee you’ll be glad you did!

Written by Heather Toner

Heather Toner

Heather danced with the Mandalone Company, Milwaukee Ballet, Ballet Austin and the California Contemporary Ballet before hanging up her pointe shoes to explore other ventures where eating was more encouraged and her hair need not be in a bun. She has an english degree from UCLA, and is the manager of social media and promotions for The Music Center; Los Angeles’ premier center for the performing arts. When not blogging, tweeting and instagramming about her passion for the arts, Heather enjoys making short films, all kinds of crafting and discovering new artists in the City of Angels.