UNCAGED aims to give us a profound glimpse of the human condition through performances by five more or less local choreographers working in the area of contemporary dance and ballet. The program was a shared bill produced by Erin Holt with her California Contemporary Ballet contributing the lion's share of the evening's new works. It was evident that Holt envisioned her five works on the program as a whole. Djanbazian with her premiere Life Concerto! based on the necessity of love and Hart Pulse with Unattainable stuck to the point with works examining elemental human emotion and need. Their pieces were the foil to Holt's choreography which proved more deft in courting a darker vision -- uncaged, but still not free. The music for the evening was all prerecorded.

Holt's choreography in UNCAGED is extreme and aggressive. Violent and raw gestures predominate as dancers handle one another roughly, are abused and tossed to the floor in what can seem an unrelenting push to the edge. I had seen Pierced, the program opener, earlier and was disturbed by the final tableau of five dancers crashing to the floor from self inflicted hurt. The two men, Ryan Morrison and Nicholas Zerman, sustained a dynamic ensemble with very athletic, driving movement and sure partnering with the four women, Alyssa Thompson, Jaclyn Stryker, Heather Toner and Laura Mauldin. In the end the piece seemed to rely on too many repeated gestures and movements which came back in other pieces on the program. The original music by David Lang was untitled but touched on a sound and generality of style reminiscent of Steve Reich's music used for choreography by John Forsythe.

Other Holt choreography that seemed to carry special weight was Cheating, Lying, Stealing, which also featured music by Lang. For me this was the stand-alone best conceived piece of the evening. The ensemble dancing was strong; the naturalness of simple costuming and the absence of pointe shoes for the women fit more readily with a real life theme. These were finally believable people working out their desperate subtexts, with rough hewn energy. In both pieces Jaclyn Stryker and Heather Toner shone with tough and precise movement that challenged the men to deliver an equal dose of refinement and expression. They seemed to weather the often very physical partnering to keep coming back for more. As the music finishes the movement continues in silence. It is a commentary that we are never free from our vices. Spirits of Valkyrie, Predea, and In Embla's Garden, the remaining Holt choreography, didn't hold up as well and somehow seemed less than their promising titles and hoped for intentions. There were interesting lighting effects designed by Bosco Flanagan but too often frequent, instant lighting changes were unsubtle ways to communicate to the audience an alteration of context. Rather than evolving lightscapes we got about faces that added little more than special effects which remained unelaborated or unclear in their intentions.

Dancers in pointe shoes climbing a caged fence.
California Contemporary Ballet

Kenneth Walker's Flesh and Blood seemed too reserved and without a clear purpose. The spoken voice over opening with individual dancers rising to introduce themselves in dance was a promising start but ultimately didn't develop into a full fledged position. There was a well made ensemble section for the four women, Candice Davis, Evyn Davis, Kara Fioretti and Felicia Guzman which provided the best sustained movement in this work. It was borne along on mostly simple and understated movement. The two men were not able to lift the dynamic level and supplied limited partnering.

The two pieces by Amanda Hart, Unattainable and Highland Clan, To America We Go struggled to align themselves with the evening's theme though Unattainable came closest in its boy wants girl story. In this plainly crafted piece of theater dance the girl finally relents after he has given up hope. Sometimes, hard to get is not really what you want as the end-game, that is, if you aim to be happy. Amy Highfill played her role as the unattainable with the conviction of one who has been there. Simple, cute costumes and a lowly chair played well in this sweetened pas de deux of last minute reversals. The composer and title of the aptly chosen music played by the Ahn Trio were unidentified.

Anna Djanbazian's Life Concerto!, with voiced over text and the counterpoint and rhythmic catchiness of the Piazzolla bandoneon concerto, featured girls in red - it's a tango of sorts - dancing solo and in ensemble. The opening tableau of intertwined dancers in a down pool of light felt like an apt starting point. You could have wished for some men in this piece though they were absent. The choreography featured a long solo danced with gusto by the fierce Talita Ghazanian who bounded and turned with genuine fervor throughout. I wanted to see a more integrated ensemble effect with changing groupings. It didn't always happen. Also excellent was Alex Crawford who danced with great affect and got the award for the evening's most expressive face. She was a natural in her role. Choreography and costumes were by Djanbazian; the lighting was uncredited.

The program played to a mostly full house. The companies were loudly received by their vocal constituencies. A friendly boosterism was in the house. An uncomfortably long wait preceded the group bow which seemed as if it might not happen at all. In the end, dancers and choreographers acknowledged a sustained applause.

(Saturday July 17, 2010 at the Glendale Auditorium New works from Kenneth Walker Dance Project, Djanbazian Dance Company, Hart Pulse Dance Company and California Contemporary Ballet)

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