L.A. Dance Project celebrates female choreographers

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L.A. Dance Project celebrates female choreographers
In an image provided by Steven Pisano, the L.A. Dance Project performers Daisy Jacobson and Nayomi Van Brunt in Janie Taylor’s “Night Bloom,” set to Stravinsky. The company has returned to New York’s Joyce Theater with two programs, both featuring dances by women. Steven Pisano via The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

LOS ANGELES, CA.- When Benjamin Millepied created L.A. Dance Project 10 years ago, the company ran hot and cold. The new works, mainly by Millepied, were neither lasting nor particularly vivid, but his eye for older dances, by choreographers like Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe, showed impeccable taste. He was delivering on part of his mission: to bring quality dance to Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, the company returned to the Joyce Theater with two programs, both featuring dances by women. The excellent opener brought back an important, forgotten voice, Los Angeles choreographer Bella Lewitzky, whose “Kinaesonata” (1970) had not been seen in New York since 1971. A force in California for decades, Lewitzky died in 2004; sadly, much of her work — like that of so many choreographers — has not survived.

Staged by former Lewitzky dancer Walter Kennedy, “Kinaesonata,” a visceral and highly technical response to Alberto Ginastera’s Piano Sonata No. 1 (played here by Adam Tendler), is insistent in its rhythms and grounded power. It is a classic work of modern dance, yet it doesn’t feel like a relic from another time. It has quirks as it breathes and morphs, radiating a kind of undulating coolness as dancers transform seemingly still, two-dimensional silhouettes — some reminiscent of yoga poses — into full-blown motion.

Here and in other works, the L.A. Dance Project dancers show not just strength, but generosity for one another. In “Kinaesonata,” their positions are angular and, at times, austere, but as they ripple along, tilting and bending, there is joy in their unity, whether crossing the stage single file, popping into the air in animated jumps or scaling one another’s bodies. Daisy Jacobson, effortlessly daring as her limbs stretch taut, propels Lewitzky’s shapes into lucid motion; Daphne Fernberger, in a solo toward the end, is more inward — quiet, reflective, sensitive to the air around her.

The production uses new scenery and costumes; instead of unitards, there are Charles Gaines’ tight shorts and tops in a rainbow palette. While they lend a cheerful edge to Lewitzky’s precise, geometric movement, his too-obvious backdrop is grating: an enlarged musical score covering the back of the stage and even the wings.

“5 Live Calibrations,” a New York premiere by Madeline Hollander, also delivers a splash of color courtesy of its flowing pants — each leg, front and back, sports different colors. In this dance, the performers play a game: In each of its five movements, there is a set of challenges involving elements like stamina, control and balance; to mark the end of the sections, the curtain lowers, with the cast still in motion. Since the outcome of each challenge shifts the structure of the choreography, the dancers have a task: to continually recalibrate as a group. This ensures that no two performances are alike.

You don’t have to understand the game to appreciate the arresting results. The cast of eight converge and splinter off while weaving in and out of patterns with canny efficiency. They count out loud, showing their focus, their collective tension. In one section, dancers glide lithely in a row to the front of the stage, lightly jumping with crossing feet, and then walk quickly to the back, repeating the action as others arrange themselves sculpturally on the floor. An experiment both sleek and precarious, “5 Live Calibrations,” set to an electronic score by Celia Hollander, the choreographer’s sister, reveals more than the dancers’ bodies, which quiver with effort; all the while, you’re aware of their minds.

The remaining two New York premieres were by Janie Taylor, a former New York City Ballet principal whose creative life can be encapsulated in a word: overflowing. A line on her website is both revealing and an understatement: “Sometimes I make things.” Over the years, she’s designed costumes, constructed stop-motion films, made delicate, whimsical drawings, curated a periodical and, back in the day, produced a photo blog, “Ballet, Cats and Other Things,” with Wendy Whelan. Recently Taylor also started to choreograph, at Millepied’s astute suggestion.

In both “Adagio in B Minor,” a duet set to Mozart, and “Night Bloom,” set to Stravinsky’s Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, the texture of her dancing — so rich with feral abandon, yet icily precise — figures into her choreographic forms. But she also leaves much room for her dancers. No one moves like Taylor; and she seems to want to showcase the individual qualities of others in L.A. Dance Project. (She is still a member of the company and will perform in the second program, possibly for the last time.)

“Adagio,” performed Tuesday by Jacobson and David Adrian Freeland Jr., feels a little like the missing fourth dance in Jerome Robbins’ “In the Night” — it’s the playful sort that happens at the end of an evening when a weary couple is fueled by a final wave of euphoria. They clutch at each other and pull away; they echo postures from ballroom dance, but only briefly. Soon, their bodies dissolve into other shapes — shoulders shake, heads nod briskly. In the final moment, they face each other and raise an opposite pointed foot, clinking them together like a toast — or Taylor’s casual reinterpretation of a curtsy.

Just as unsentimental and sweet, and with a measure of Taylor’s goofy humor, is “Night Bloom,” in which Taylor’s scenery — a movable set of geometric blocks — continually reconfigures the stage, giving it a modernist feel as dancers dart in and around the blocks with fleet footwork, sometimes hiding behind them, sometimes popping their heads up to watch the dancers in front. A highlight is a breezy, musical duet featuring the riveting pair of Nayomi Van Brunt and Freeland that displays Taylor’s Balanchine lineage — it glides along, deftly stringing together off-balance hips with radiant spins — but always imbued with her own twist.

That was the way each dance on this program felt — singular, rigorous, imaginative. By the end of the night, the all-female part of the equation slipped my mind. What set this evening apart was simple: L.A. Dance Project, not just another repertory company, has grown up and with it, Millepied, mission or not, flipped the way it’s usually done — all the way from California, he brought quality dance to New York.

L.A. Dance Project

Through May 15 at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; joyce.org.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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