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LA Dance Festival 2013 opened on Saturday evening with its second annual program of local companies in a two day festival co-produced by Brockus Project Studios and Diavolo Dance Theater at the Brewery’s Diavolo Theater. Borrowing a page from the club scene, each evening played with both an early and a late show. The eight companies represented showed stand- alone works as well as excerpts and works in progress. 

While the festival offers a potentially important platform for Los Angeles companies the results on Saturday were mixed. The production felt underprepared and uneven in the quality of its works. Other problems centered on diminished production values, excerpted works that lost impact in truncated versions, and programing that lacked thematic cohesion. The companies shared the theater’s limited lighting capabilities. It left each with only minimal effects that often left dancers in shadows or dancing against a dim, all-purpose wash of stage lighting. You could have hoped for a program of works tailored to Diavolo’s black box theater, which has supported dance productions to much better effect.

The best of the Saturday performances were its two large ensemble pieces, a lengthy excerpt from “Sally Meets Stu” by Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY and “Message from my peeps…” by the Lula Washington’s Dance Theater’s Apprentice Ensemble.  Both works effectively merged ensemble and solo sections which played against thoughtfully assembled sound scores. “Message from my peeps…”, choreographed by Tamica Washington-Miller, welds together a story of a society under stress from economic and social pressures. They search for a way to escape or heal themselves, ultimately deciding for a kind of disassociation and an attempt to find solace from within. That last image was conveyed poignantly as a young girl ascends a human staircase, walking across the backs of the dancers. It was, in the end, an ambiguous message: rescue can be either a group effort or a group sacrifice. The cast used apprentice dancers as well as dancers from the Lula Washington Dance Theatre professional company in an affecting piece of theater dance.

What stood out was the level of commitment from an earnest cast. They latched onto Ms Washington’s idea, making it believable. In the early performance on Saturday the role of the young girl was danced soulfully by Zenmarah Duruissea. Also remarkable was LWDT company member, Rachel McSween in her role as a guiding spirit. Her fleet, running movements as she protectively circled the dancers made something brilliant out pedestrian movement.

Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY is new to Los Angeles. They are directed by former BatSheva dancer Danielle Agami who has staged works in the Gaga dance aesthetic by BatSheva’s Artistic Director, Ohad Naharin. Dancing to a patched together score of a Bach keyboard concerto and a traditional, electric dance mix by the Lebanese percussionist Setrak Sarkassian, the company showed the kind of hyperkinetic and physically risky dance movement that has been the shared hallmark of Batsheva and its Euro Zone cousin, Nederlands Dans Theater.

Sally meets Stu is part of a full evening work. The movement is often explosive, driven by sometimes punishing floor work, and high velocity movements that collapse, or veer off in unexpected directions. That movement was accomplished with blistering virtuosity on Saturday by soloists Julia Stiefel, Julia Planine-Troiani, and Genna Moroni. But this choreography also gave equal time to simple rhythmic steps drawn from Middle Eastern dance traditions, skillfully blending the two idioms.

The audience on Saturday responded viscerally to Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY. Their dancing played with special force and urgency in the close up spaces of the Diavolo Theater where the audience is seated only a few feet from the stage. In the Echad Mi Yodea section of Naharin’s Minus 16 there is a recurring phrase where the dancers rocket out of their seats. Naharin explained “it should feel like a bomb went off underneath your chair”. Ate9 brought exactly that kind of take-no-prisoners intensity to everything they did on Saturday.

Also on the program: Luminario Ballet in an aerial excerpt from “LedZAerial”, ContemporaryModern Dance Cooperative in “te(I)am”,  Clairobscur Dance Company in an excerpt from “Bully” previously debuted in its entirety at the Diavolo Theater, Ptero Dance Theatre in “Nature Nurture”, Invertigo Dance Theatre in excerpts from “After It Happened”, and Regina Klenjoski Dance Company in an excerpt from a work in progress titled “Fracture”.

( Los Angeles audiences will have a chance to see “Minus 16” as part of the Ailey repertory programs at the music center this week, April 17 through 21. The work was staged for the company by Ms Agami and was performed on the Segerstrom Center for the Arts programming in 2012. The Ate9 photographs were from a 2012 performance of the work.)

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