Dark skirts swirled across the stage of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts last Wednesday night in Los Angeles, California. At the back of the stage hung a moon, or an orb of light I took for one. It hung in a recessed area of the back curtain that was used as an entrance and exit throughout. Storminess characterized the work, If At All, choreographed by Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company’s Artistic Director Rami Be’er. Movement, lighting, sound and costumes came together as a tightly integrated presentation, the result of Be’er’s singular vision (a collaboration on the work’s sound and costume designs with Alex Claude and Maor Zabar, respectively, being the exception).
The work opened to a female soloist wearing a loose hooded shirt and shorts. The dancer gesticulated with her entire body, but she remained in place within an enclosed circle of light. In a sudden shift, the stage flashed yellow-white. Jarring music switched on as the company of 17 entered in a circular sprint. Wearing full skirts without shirts, the men seemed unleashed and especially visible, demanding more space and attention than the women, who throughout gave off an aura of clarity and introspection. The separation of genders in the work’s different sections contributed to my understanding of their roles in Be’er’s world.
For instance, in one men’s section near the beginning, the dancers lined up along the front of the stage, each directly behind floor lights that illuminated their actions. They performed a unison phrase in a bent-forward, kneeling position, heaving and pounding the floor rhythmically. One by one, the men broke off from this line, with the group at once shifting towards stage right to fill the space left behind. Then each soloist rejoined the line, swept into the repetitive phrasework it demanded from them. The solos themselves took place upstage of this hemmed-in choreographic structure and were in contrast uplifting, large, and attuned to the accents of the music, while the front men kept the beat.
A women’s section that followed seemed more fragmented than the preceding ones, although it also utilized unison movement. A square of light appeared on the floor in which one woman began a phrase. Then a second square appeared, and a second woman joined her. By the end of the section, seven distinct squares with seven women filled the space. They did not seem to know or observe each other; they were separated by lines of darkness.
While the lighting definitely enhanced the work, some of the sound engineering fell flat, even when shifts in the music accurately corresponded to transitions in the choreography. At times the music felt clichéd: gunshots and sirens sounded when the men and women together repeated a low, stiff waltz step in interweaving patterns, all in black brocade waistcoats that constricted their flowing skirts and shirts. Other times, the scaffolding of the work showed through. Lyrics seemed not to add much to the overall sweep of things, revealing the mismatch of many pieces of music strung together.
The work had a certain dark otherworldliness to it, which carried the audience nearly to its end, but my search for a narrative proved futile despite recognizable scenes. A female dancer dressed in a nude, form-fitting dress was partnered by several men in a scene that left the impression of rape–her long, black hair covered her face, and she was manipulated carelessly. She later partnered with a male dancer who’d also stripped down to nude underwear. This section seemed gentler, an apology, perhaps, or shared sorrow. From there, If At All dissolved into some lightness, even goofiness, which I’m not sure made sense, given its first half. The black fabric was exchanged for checked gingham skirts and light floral waistcoats. One duet in particular stood out for being slapsticky. The two dancers bounced in time with string music that made me think of line dancing. It felt out of place.
Coordinations in light, movement, sound, and costume design contributed to a sense of surprise and certain successful moments; still, the score, a mixture of recordings, didn’t lend specific meaning. Similarly, the costumes changes seemed to bear significance, but an exact or literal reading of the progression was difficult to determine and a feeling of disconnection diminished the work’s transportive power. Instead, it was the theme of darkness introduced at the beginning, subtly, with those flowing, wheeling skirts, that moved me somewhere past my seat.