BACKHAUSDANCE and Los Angeles Dance Project performed on Southland stages last weekend in programs including old and new works. Both are accomplished chamber companies with reputations for excellent work. LADP’s repertory program (works by Millepied, Larbi Cherkaoui, and Peck) stuck with its brand of short contemporary works from trendy, in-demand dance makers, while BACKHAUSDANCE dug in with two weighty, odyssey-sized works by the company’s artistic director and sole choreographer, Jennifer Backhaus.
Backhaus has worked with opaque non narrative titles in some of her recent works: ‘The Elasticity of the Almost’, ‘Incandescent’, and now, ‘Drift’. ‘Elasticity’ and the premiére of ‘Drift’ were on the Saturday program; both works showed BACKHAUSDANCE as a muscular, first rate company with a fierce on stage presence. ‘Drift’ assays both literal and figurative domains. Ben Tusher’s set and lighting designs, which display a long slicing and gradually disappearing diagonal of light as a back drop, may be an actual drift, or simply a metaphor for time running out. With nine dancers on stage for the entire nearly hour-long work, Backhaus manages rich and inventive groups of smaller ensembles as well as beautifully precise ensemble sections for the full company. There are solo moments for each dancer (Becca Newton and David Bagley were standouts) as well as sections for the men and women alone, but they are integrated into the action while the whole company remains engaged on stage. Another long section with ritual undercurrents seems to reference action from ‘Rite of Spring’. The variously cut monochrome costumes (Rhonda Erick) effectively reinforced the tribal appeal of the choreography and dancers.
The piece plays out against a terrific original electronic score by Fol Chen. Ultimately, ‘Drift’ proceeds on its own terms. Backhaus challenges herself by excluding recycled or borrowed movement. Evolving contexts and elusive destinations are what count.
I reviewed “Elasticity of the Almost’ previously in a program at the Carpenter Center in Long Beach. ‘Elasticity’ is more of a dance theater concoction about how we manage complexity. It has improved since I saw it three years ago, especially in the timing for the drawn out, comedic ending. That part was covered with nervous humor by Chihiro Sano on Saturday’s program. It is laced with everyday movement (walking, running, etc.) but it also leaves room for explosive moments of actual dancing. If ‘Drift’ is the ultimate ensemble work, then ‘Elasticity’ might be about what dance looks like when everyone is in it for themselves. The slow burn of the opening gradually gives way to the frustrations of an ending in which the dancers share the stage with hundreds of red balls. They are never quite where you want them to be, and eventually overwhelm the movement both with physical obstruction and visual overload. It turns out that the complexities of keeping those balls in the air, a losing battle after all.
The best of the LADP evening was Larbi Cherkaoui’s ‘Harbor Me’ which overflowed with organic counter weighted movement. It made intense physical connections among the work’s three male dancers with complex, emotional partnering. Set to three moody nocturnes by Korean composer Park Woojae, the piece targeted both literal and figurative references to the title. The casting alternates with all male or all female trios. Sail-like back drops and hackneyed costuming that made the dancers look a little too much like shipwrecked sailors overstated the nautical theme, still, it felt more genuine than the other two works on the program.
Peck’s ‘Murder Ballads’ is more gloss than substance. The real power and sense of place behind the work, which is based on American folksong and the shootings at Sandy Hook and Aurora, belong to composer Bryce Dessner’s clever and imaginative take on American folk music. Dessner takes the piece’s six sections played by the alt-classical music ensemble eighth blackbird, and frails them like an old-time banjo producing a hybrid sound somewhere between a quartet and a string band. And while the music’s dark melancholy and bleak moods could conjure up a bygone world of love gone bad, Peck’s mostly sunny duos and pretty neoclassical steps did not. Peck alternated ensemble sections and duos with well-made design but ultimately delivered weak connections to the bare-knuckled title. The company’s first rate dancers, especially Julia Eichten and Rachelle Rafailedes, burned far brighter than the dancemaking.
The final work, Millepied’s ‘Hearts and Arrows’ comes tricked out with a bare industrial stage, film lighting paraphernalia for set decor, dancers in fashionable checkered costumes and high top jazz boots, and music from the ever-popular Philip Glass. It reprised some of the same design and dance elements from Millepied’s anodyne 2012 work, ‘Moving Parts’. It seemed little more than an attractive essay in mixing neoclassical and contemporary dance genres. Despite one very good section set to the last movement from the 3rd String Quartet, it was slight on content, and at less than 20 minutes, it was over before it had built any real momentum.
(The performances: LA Dance Project at the Wallis in Beverly Hills Friday January 29, 2016. Backhausdance at Irvine Barclay in Irvine on Saturday January 30, 2016. Follow the highlighted links for more information on the music, choreography, and previous reviews.)