In Search of Just Right

by Leigh Witchel

Watching BODYTRAFFIC felt like being Goldilocks: the triple bill the Los Angeles contemporary dance group brought to The Joyce ranged from dance theater to pure dance, and you had to sample each porridge to find the one that was just right for you.

The chamber-sized company offered a world premiere to start: “Private Games: Chapter One” by Anton Lachky, who danced with Akram Khan and went on to co-found Les SlovaKs Dance Collective. The opening was both pungent and cliché: in the same smoky haze and sidelighting 95% of all contemporary dance starts with, two women and a man stood in a striking tableau, stroking and feeling one another tentatively, like monkeys grooming. The music got louder and segued into Haydn at top speed. Predictably, the dancers flailed about: running and spasming in repeated motions. There’s got to be another way to express anxiety in movement.

Co-Artistic Director Lillian Barbeito came out in a filmy gown she must have picked up at the Wuppertal branch of the Pina Bausch Tanztheater Thrift Shop. She greeted us like a fatuous host and introduced Guzmán Rosado as her husband, announcing with pleasure that she could transform him into anything she wanted. “Dog!” and he was on the floor immediately, barking like mad, but then into a series of impossible to interpret personae – ripe avocado, bubble bath, strong espresso – that he embodied with illogical gusto.

The spoken parts were intentionally stilted, but also awkward unintentionally – the dancers were quite strong, but didn’t have the acting presence to hold the stage when they weren’t moving. Yet Rosado pulled the whole thing into focus with a tour de force performance of manic physical comedy. Babbling in gibberish, snapping into one absurd position after another, his face was putty and his body was a spring. He moved brilliantly and didn’t have to do what he wasn’t trained to do: speak.

“Private Games” continued with a series of breakneck solos to Bach, then a workout for drums and suddenly the same acting section, except with Matthew Rich pretending Rosado was his husband, much to the consternation of Joseph Kudra, who thought he was. Barbeito caught them in the act and asked Rich, “are you trying to be me?” before ending by addressing the audience: “Dear Public, How fortunate we are to be able to share our games with you.” If “Private Games” wasn’t particularly original, it borrowed from reputable tanztheater sources.

Richard Siegal’s “3 Preludes,” to the Gershwin piano miniatures, didn’t stray into conceptual territory at all. Siegal had three men and one woman moving from the outset with lofty jumps in place, sending their knees up as if sitting on a bicycle made of air. The atmosphere darkened for the adagio; Kudra and the company’s other co-director, Tina Finkelman Berkett, were left together, he kept her in the air in a long spiraling carry. Rosado broke in to show off before Kudra pushed him away, and gently carried Berkett offstage. The turned-in and turned-out steps, as well as the quick tempo of the third movement were the first reference to the Jazz age. Rosado, an alum of Miami City Ballet, finished off with neat multiple pirouettes to a double tour in retiré. “3 Preludes” let the dancers move, and BODYTRAFFIC is a company of good jumpers, but what felt missing in the abstract dance was a sense of Gershwin’s world of jazz and blues.

Joseph Kudra and the cast of “Death Defying Dances.” Photo © Yi-Chun Wu.

The music for Arthur Pita’s “Death Defying Dances,” songs from the “Queen of the Beatniks” Judy Henske, was a find in itself. Henske, who was active in the folk music scene in both Southern California and New York City in the 60s, introduced the songs in live recordings with deadpan humor, then attacked them with a strong, emotional, but rich voice that sometimes took on a Janis Joplin growl.

Henske’s songs, veering from murder ballads to gospel revival, mixed hope with misery with danger. “If that isn’t love, it’ll have to do until the real thing comes along,” and other times stories of young men and women killing their lovers. The lyrics of the murder ballads seemed to fixate more on what happened than why. Who knows what he was thinking; it’s enough to know George got Romy pregnant and drowned her.

As in his adaptation of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Pita’s choreography was fully in service to narrative. He didn’t create steps that stood on their own; he acted out the mood or the story, but with acid humor and intelligence.

“Death Defying Dances” put it simply: the cast pulled aside the lace floor covering to reveal these words writ large: “LOVE SUCKS.” The songs were illustrated in goofy, sophomoric ways but there was an off-kilter freshness in the silliness.

The décor was full-on camp: a fabric drop covering the back and floor of the stage in ugly, shocking yellow lace, costumes in similar chemical and neon tones, bright lawn animals littering the place, including two cute turtles in the front doing it doggy-style. The dancers and a picture of Henske all had oedipal makeup that looked like running mascara and bloody tears. A repeated motif throughout was a kiss that swept the recipient off his or her feet and to the floor . . . before being abandoned. All the love songs assumed heterosexual couples, but Pita didn’t. In the “Ballad of Little Romy,” the couple was played by a man and a woman. In “Love Henry,” it was two men.

The most disorienting moment wasn’t about sexuality; it was when Henske belted out “Wade in the Water.” Yes, the one from Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.” Pita used similar water imagery as Ailey; two men carried a woman high and low as if they were the ship she sailed on, but Pita concentrated on the uncertainty, not the baptismal nature of those waters. The three of them could have capsized at any moment.

The work switched mood once again to end with the gospel song “Saved.” The cast screamed and leapt in a crazy mix of jubilation and genderfuck ending in a kiss and a collapse. Greatest Hits compilations are often the hardest dances to hold together but somehow Pita did it. It showed there’s no magic formula for the balance between dance and theater: With a vivid concept, any mix is just right.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Private Games: Chapter One,” “3 Preludes,” “Death Defying Dances” – BODYTRAFFIC
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
January 22, 2017

Cover: Lindsay Matheis and Joseph Kudra (foreground) with Guzmán Rosado (being carried) and Joseph Davis in “Death Defying Dances.” Photo © Yi-Chun Wu.

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