Strength and fragility

The Annen­berg Cen­ter and NextMove Dance present BODYTRAFFIC

In
4 minute read
Calling for help: BODYTRAFFIC’s Jessica Liu. (Photo by Rob Latour.)
Calling for help: BODYTRAFFIC’s Jessica Liu. (Photo by Rob Latour.)

Los Angeles-based BODYTRAFFIC is a contemporary dance company with a terrific range for its small size. The program at the Annenberg in April included five dances, one of them a world premiere. The first two pieces, Fragile Dwellings and Resolve, were particularly moving and impressive. Many of the works were physically demanding, and all of them were well danced.

Fragile Dwellings

Fragile Dwellings, choreographed by Stijn Celis, featured Erwin Redl’s striking set and lighting design. Long strings of lights hung over the stage like blue and white icicles. They blinked on and off as Joseph Davis walked slowly across the stage to sacred sounds composed by Arvo Pärt and Pierre Boulez. In the program notes, Celis dedicates the dance to people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, and his choreography suggested some of risk factors for homelessness.

Davis drew his fingers across the inside of his forearm in a gesture evoking intravenous drug injection, while Jessica Liu danced a woman out of control and calling for help. Her movement reflected mental illness with deep backbends and a beseeching hand opened to the audience. Natalie Leibert seemed to dance with an invisible, abusive partner. She sunk to the floor as if her legs collapsed beneath her, then curled on her side as if warding off blows. Liebert, Liu, Davis, and Jamal White danced alone, individuals with their own stories and experiences, until the final movement. The dancers formed shifting groups and pairs in this mesmerizing section as the string lights— now pink and blue—slowly lowered into snake-like coils on the stage. I found this effect distracting: the motion of the lights competed with the dancers.

Inventive and energetic

Resolve, the world premiere, was another highlight. Created by LA-based dance collective Wewolf, this energetic duet was set to DJ Tennis’s thumping beats. Davis and Guzmán Rosado danced alone and together, their movement mostly contained within a square of light that expanded, contracted, brightened, and faded. Palpable chemistry between the two dancers created an illusion of shared momentum as each seemed to catch movement from the other. Wewolf’s inventive choreography, drawing inspiration from ballet and urban dance, added to the strength of the paired sections. My companion made the astute observation that Resolve resembled a Keith Haring painting come to life, and it was as original and memorable as Haring’s iconic style.

Lee and Neenan

It was followed by Matthew Neenan’s A Million Voices, a dance inspired by the music of Peggy Lee. While I am not a fan of Neenan’s sometimes-gimmicky choreography, my love for Lee gave me hope for this dance, which aims to remind us of the importance of living fully when times are tough. Its opening captured joie de vivre with exuberant, full-company dances invoking the best of musical theater. Later sections were less effective: the unquestioning patriotic optimism of Lee’s World War II songs felt out of place in 2019, particularly when paired with a dancer’s apparently unironic salutes. A final section set to “Is That All There Is?” helped redeem A Million Voices by suggesting that we might as well dance in the face of life’s inevitable disappointments.

Lighting distracts from mesmerizing dance. (Photo by Karli Cadel.)
Lighting distracts from mesmerizing dance. (Photo by Karli Cadel.)

Poem and homage

After intermission, Tina Finkelman Berkett danced a difficult solo by experimental choreographer Ohad Naharin. George & Zalman was a kind of movement poem set to words written by Charles Bukowski and spoken by Bobby Smith. Bukowski’s poem “Making It” (from Love is a Dog from Hell, 1977) repeated over and over, starting with just a few lines and adding on each time as Finkleman Berkett added movement to the crass yet astute lyrics about social expectations. The pace increased as the dance added to itself, so that the dancer embodied the frenzied anxiety of racing to keep up and fit in. Conceptually interesting, George & Zalman was not necessarily interesting to watch.

Richard Siegal’s o2Joy, an homage to American jazz standards, was a welcome change of pace. It brought the program to a lively close with catchy music and fun dancing, such as a trio who spun one another like tops to Billie Holiday’s “Sunny Side of the Street.” Liebert shone in a solo demonstrating incredible precision and control of her feet and toes, and Davis hammed it up as he lip-synced to Ella Fitzgerald’s “All of Me.”

While we’re waiting

Each of the pieces in the program had strengths, but they all seemed overlong. This may be in part because compounded delays resulted in a later evening than I expected, which took away from my ability to enjoy it. The performance began more than 10 minutes after its scheduled start time, and while I begrudgingly expect this at the Kimmel Center, it was disappointing to experience at the Annenberg. An usher explained that the delay was to accommodate suburban ticket holders contending with thunderstorms and parking challenges related to the Penn Relays. But as I sat waiting, I wondered why venues give priority treatment to people who might show up instead of those already in their seats. After all, those present braved weather and parking to arrive on time. When the show began at last, BODYTRAFFIC’s dancers displayed their skill in a range of dance styles with both grace and strength.

What, When, Where

BODYTRAFFIC. Presented by Annenberg Center Live and NextMove Dance. April 26 and 27, 2019 at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 422-4580 or annenbergcenter.org.

The Annenberg Center accommodates the needs of individuals with physical disabilities. Details are available online. The Annenberg has a gender-neutral restroom.

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