I attended two performances during Laguna Dance Festival’s four-show run this past weekend, a feast which included three works danced by BodyTraffic, two by Complexions Contemporary Ballet, two by NYCB principal Gonzalo Garcia, two by husband-and-wife duo Lorena Feijóo and Vitor Luiz of San Francisco Ballet, and one by the highly regarded ABT soloist Misty Copeland.
The Festival’s single-company Friday evening program was the most powerful, with its presentation of the smart and fiery group, BodyTraffic. I’ve attended workshops and classes given by the company in Los Angeles, and I am always impressed by their selection of exciting choreographers, who teach open classes during the company’s creative periods. This program featured works by Barak Marshall, Kyle Abraham, and Richard Siegal, ranging from thought-provoking to darkly abstract to unbridled joy. Each study of humanity was beautifully self-contained, not effecting the other works; still, the dancers that brought each piece to life gained the audience’s trust for the whole ride. Their combination of clean technique and straightforward performance quality was incontestable.
In the evening’s first work, And at midnight, the green bride floated through the village square, the theme of women being mistreated hung heavy over whimsical, theatrical elements including a recurring, misogynistic interview about how certain types of meat should be prepared. A wooden bench first represented the men’s territory, where women tried to enter but were brutally rejected, and was later transformed into a cinema where the women sat, until, one by one, the men whisked them away. According to Marshall, the work was based on the true story of a neighboring family in his mother’s native Yemen.
Kollide exhibited the most intriguing dancing of the program, with Abraham’s curving trajectories moving through and beyond its classical framework. In the piece, the one-on-one relationships of each of the dance’s five cast members were examined. A lift in which a male dancer lay on the floor and twisted his female counterpart from a standing position to an awkwardly-aloft sideways one was striking; later, she bent into a deep parallel plié to accept his weight as he crawled up onto her hips. The way these moments were drawn out and held for a while was deeply satisfying.
The guts to move beyond just technique and into the realm of performance was the missive of BodyTraffic’s final work, o2Joy, Richard Siegal’s physicalized ode. All of the dancers executed virtuosity, but the spirit of the piece drew the eye away from its ballet vernacular and towards the quirky accents and expressions which gave it its character. The house came down when a male, hipster-looking dancer in a Hawaiian shirt and full beard flamboyantly lip-synched the entirety of Ella Fitzgerald’s All of Me, while sustaining a spirited petite allegro.
Big names are the LDF’S draw, and the enjoyment the “Stars of Dance” program provided was basically on par with what I expected: absolute professionalism, adequate production value, and skilled dancing. Side by side, though, as in their Sunday matinee, Garcia’s and Copeland’s performance of the pas de deux from Coppelia and a slithery, slippery-fast duet, choreographed by Dwight Rhoden and performed by Complexions dancers Kelly Sneddon and Terk Waters, were unhelpfully divergent from each other. What the classical piece left me with were a fluffy skirt and piqué turns, albeit perfectly executed ones; in the contemporary Testament, which was the more engaging, the dancers seemed to lack the maturity other guest soloists brought to the performance’s first half. My critique is not so much of the dancing, however, but rather of the works’ placement. I even began questioning the relevance of such pieces as the Coppelia pas at all, especially when Ms. Copeland is so powerfully capable. However, in a differently ordered program, or perhaps an all-classical one, I would hope to be convinced of its value.
The most successful works on that program were those performed by Feijóo and Luiz, No Other and Talk to Her (hable con ella). The two possessed a passion that transported me into my own little cave of imagination, memory, and emotion. Feijóo danced en pointe, and their two duets required hefty technical prowess, but they also walked the line between classical and contemporary well–using undulations of the upper body, holds and lifts that required diving and flipping in midair, and a dash of ballroom. She wore long skirts (designed by Diana Vandergriff in No Other) that moved beautifully with her. The lighting was also considered, especially in the latter work. At the beginning of Talk to Her, a light placed downstage center flashed and then slowly faded as the couple changed positions, revealing three striking images separately before the dance began to flow continuously.
This sort of disconnect seems to be the result of programming that is themed around whose dollars are being spent, which dancers are available, or the rote “who you know.” In the program notes, I noticed that several of the guests were brought in by the support of a single donor. Did their opinion or relationship influence which works were presented? Are the programs wholly dependent on these relationships and donations–or, to what’s available? (I assume to some extent they are–at the cost of selling their audiences short.) Arguably, founder Jodie Gates’ mission, to present the best in dance, was met. But in trying to deliver a comprehensive program, or at least a celebrity-studded one, cohesiveness was apparently overlooked. In their defense, the Festival may simply have catered to its ticket-buying audience. It should be noted that the “Stars of Dance” performances sold out well in advance.
As it moves into its second decade, LDF should continue to foster young, bright companies like BodyTraffic rather than relying on “stars” in less inspiring repertoire to sell tickets. The Festival’s mix of classical and contemporary presentations serves audiences by giving them a choice among the choicest in dance, but more thoughtful programming is required to make LDF a world class festival instead of just a So Cal treasure, and keep it closer to its mission.