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Los Angeles-based BODYTRAFFIC returned to Penn Live Arts with three Philadelphia premieres and the world premiere of a piece by local choreographer Matthew Neenan. A contemporary dance company, BODYTRAFFIC does not define itself by one style of dance or choreography. Instead, the company approaches dance as a universal human language, and the program reflected this with four pieces that drew from ballet, modern, contemporary, and more.
This demonstrated the versatility of the company’s dancers and its repertory, as artistic director and founder Tina Finkelman Berkett noted before the show. Terrific lighting design by Michael Jarett, Clifton Taylor, Christopher Ash, and Matthew Miller contributed to a strong performance spanning multiple styles and themes.
Etta James meets Trey McIntyre
Blue Until June may be an older dance, but it is new to BODYTRAFFIC, having premiered with the company in 2023. This lovely piece sets sweeping, elegant movement to the music of legendary singer Etta James. Trey McIntyre’s choreography worked well with James’s famous bridging of diverse musical traditions and genres, drawing from ballet, contemporary, and other styles of dance. Additionally, the choreographer is skilled in translating music into fluid movements filled with scenes, humanity, and emotions. McIntyre and the dancers imbued Blue Until June’s vignettes with characters and feelings for a visually appealing and emotionally gratifying result.
Pairs and small groups of dancers interpreted the music with their movement, bringing to life themes suggested by James’s songs. The duet for “My Dearest Darling” (1960) portrayed a couple formed despite one partner’s initial reluctance, with the female dancer unreceptive to the male dancer’s invitations. Their roles reversed by the end of the scene so that the woman’s enthusiasm matched what the man’s had been while his eagerness dwindled. Pedro Garcia performed a standout solo to James’s version of “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” (1961). Garcia masterfully combined precise turns with acting and carefully controlled movement to portray a tipsy lonely heart with a sense of humor. Dancers ran gracefully across the stage between vignettes, keeping the momentum going.
A world premiere by Matthew Neenan
Blue Until June’s music, dancing, and swingy skirts lent a sense of timelessness, but Matthew Neenan’s I Forgot the Start had an of-the-minute feel that contributed to its punch. The set design by Ash was the most complex in the program, with video on a hanging backdrop behind the dancers and red poles and panels that moved in various formations. The result was visually layered and beautifully danced. I Forgot the Start explores “resilience in pursuit of connection, despite life’s uncertainties,” according to the program. This theme is relevant in turbulent times as we crave the comfort of human connection while facing obstacles that contribute to isolation.
Neenan dives into such complexities with utter sincerity, then adds touches of whimsy that cohere into a resonant work. The arresting opening scene arranged dancers in a single file as they performed repetitive, synchronized arm movements. Their bodies were partly in shadow, and light played off their moving arms, still faces, and sheer costumes over nude undergarments by Márion Talán de la Rosa and Victora Bek. I Forgot the Start unfolds more as a theme than a narrative. Constant movement, shifting formations, and seemingly disconnected sections led to the development of groups and finally a couple. The eclectic music included songs by Sinéad O’Connor, Ozzie Kotani and Daniel Ho, and Sufjan Stevens that—like the dance itself—convey a sensory meditation on disconnection, connection, and perseverance.
The Sacklers in dance
The One to Stay With (2022) from choreographic duo Baye & Asa also addressed contemporary themes. It is inspired by the 2021 book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe, which traces the Sacklers’ history with Purdue Pharma (maker of OxyContin) and their contributions to the opioid epidemic. The dance portrayed some actual characters in the true story, Berkett explained before the show, but The One to Stay With is largely abstract. Two-piece costumes by Oana Botez and Angela Manke were cut to resemble suits that aided the movement in depicting scenes of allegiance, power, shifting loyalties, and betrayal.
Dancers evoked fear and intimidation as one group scurried away from another that made threatening gestures. Clad in white, Tiare Keeno performed the role of the leader. The other dancers formed a tableau that melted to the floor upon her spotlit appearance. Baye & Asa incorporated elements of ballet, hip-hop, and contemporary. Dancers’ bodies formed a moving pyramid in one section, and they resembled a human accordion in another. Visually satisfying and exquisitely danced, The One to Stay With does not tell a clear story about the story of the Sackler family or the opioid crisis, but perhaps it does not aim to since the work was created as a response to Empire of Pain.
A stirring finish
BODYTRAFFIC concluded the program with a piece that Berkett described as something of a company signature. Set to music by “King of Cool” Dean Martin, Alejandro Cerrudo’s PACOPEPEPLUTO (2011) was an entertaining series of solos for Joan Rodriguez, Guzmán Rosado, and Garcia. The twist? PACOPEPEPLUTO creates the illusion of nudity with dancers performing in dim lighting wearing only dance belts.
If you haven’t seen one before, think of a jockstrap designed for support and privacy instead of protection from impact. Usually worn as undergarments, these dance belts bared nearly the entire body. Aided by Miller’s lighting design, which highlighted the dancers’ muscled physiques, the work effectively paired cleverness with spartan aesthetics. All five dancers were excellent, and Morrison and Garcia shone especially bright before Martin’s “That’s Amore” (1953) brought PACOPEPEPLUTO to its stirring finish.
Skillful lighting showed BODYTRAFFIC’s dancing at its best while creating distinct tones, moods, and settings for the different works and moments within them. The oldest and newest dances, McIntyre’s Blue Until June (2000) and Neenan’s I Forgot the Start (world premiere) particularly captivate. Fantastic and often athletic dancing elevated solid compositions by Baye & Asa and Cerrudo for an appealing program.
What, When, Where
Penn Live Arts presents BODYTRAFFIC. Choreography by Trey McIntyre, Matthew Neenan, Baye & Asa, and Alejandro Cerrudo. $40-$70. January 19 and 20, 2024, at the Annenberg Center’s Zellerbach Theatre, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-3900 or pennlivearts.org.
The Annenberg Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Call the box office with specific seating needs, including space for companions and service animals.
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