Monday, October 24, 2022

Douglas Messerli | "Training the Body to Be Free" (on BODYTRAFFIC's "An Exploration of Identity Through Dance")

training the body to be free

by Douglas Messerli


Tina Finkelman Berkett (director) BODYTRAFFIC / An Exploration of Identity Through Dance / performance at The Wallis, Bram Goldstein Theater, October 22, 2022 / I attended this performance with Thérèse Bachand


It was three years and a month since I last saw this company, and of course since then everything has happened—or perhaps more specifically nothing has happened. But in a dancer’s life a closing down of the theaters for a disease such as COVID can mean a radical loss of years in a limited career. And indeed a younger troupe has replaced several of the major dancers of the company.

      But they continue in the company tradition as they explored in this afternoon performance several new works, beginning with the world premiere of choreographer Micaela Taylor’s “LOVE.LOST.FLY” which explores the problems of identity when two vastly different cultures meet up, in this signified by elements in the narrative of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

Photo: Rob Latour   

     In this instance Jordyn Santiago performs a graceful but somewhat disjunctive dance alone, surrounded by the friends of her community until she meets up with the handsome outsider Joan Rodriguez with whom she quite quickly falls in love as the two move into a beautiful pas de deux that represents nearly all the traditions of this dance company, the absolutely fluid shifts of bodies as they climb over and under one another, transforming into almost a coil of lovers constantly in flux in alternation of dominance and passivity, breaking the more traditional modes of gender definition. Finally, they retreat to the side of the stage to play out their mutual reveries as a member of her clan and perhaps a would-be lover (Pedro Garcia), spying the pair, is outraged for her behavior and does everything in his power to bring her back into the community, with Tiare Keeno also trying to tempt the outsider away from the butterfly figure.

      From there on, with brilliant company maneuvers the dancers flow as a group to push and pull the butterfly figure away time and again from the grasp of Rodriguez, Garcia leading the group in a constantly shifting serpentine entwinement away from her lover. Finally, it appears that Rodriguez has no choice but to give into the wiles of Keeno’s green-dressed jealous female, but at that very moment Santiago reappears, each of the women demanding his attention and love. As for the operatic butterfly things do not end well for the woman who dared to cross cultural boundaries. The edgy darkly electronic sounds of the score by SHOCKEY and Eric Bosso add to the endless tension of the piece.


Photo: Rob Latour

    This is the third time I have seen the company’s popular “A Million Voices,” but, as I even commented to director Tina Finkelman Berkett in the intermission, it seems somehow like a somewhat changed work; had they altered some of the choreography, I pondered. I recalled most of the jointed parts of this celebration of the singing of Peggy Lee, but had somehow forgotten how comically cynical it all was, each of the various sections involving in different ways in a throwing of cold water over lovers, dreamers, and finally the dancers who keep on dancing despite the disappointments of their lives. Berkett suggested that the piece simply seems different after the long quietude of COVID, and that may be true to a certain degree. Obviously a work such as the penultimate “The Freedom Train” by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen with Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman, Margaret Whiting, and Paul West and Orchestra, sounds different after the Trump years:


                      Here comes the freedom train,

                      you better hurry down

                      Just like a Paul Revere

                      it’s coming into your hometown.


                      Inside the freedom train

                      you’ll find a precious freight.

                      Those words of liberty’

                      the documents which made us great.


The ebullient engine of the company members Katie Garcia, Pedro Garcia, Alana Jones, Tiare Keeno, Ty Morrison, Joan Rodriguez, Guzmán Rosado, and Jordyn Santiago make you want to join their line dance of pure energy. But even then, it rains of their parade, which they play out in another wonderful lark of a dance.

      I had more difficulty with the company's new work “The One to Stay With,” choreographed by Baye & Asa, this representing the loss of identity and life itself by the millions who bought into the “Empire of Pain” of the Sackler drug companies' opioids.

      A large lit glass bowl on the lip of the stage represented the “source” of the pills which clearly helped to alleviate the jerky ticks and cricks of the dancer’s pain-ridden bodies. And indeed the work alternates between the frenetic twists and turns of the wrack of aches with almost balletic leaps, arabesques, and even moments of grand battement, and jetés during their "cured" moments. Yet each of the dancers settles back into his or her disjunctive movements, and finally falls flat on the floor into death. The frenzy before the fall, however, reveals this company’s startling level of energy.

      But despite the remarkable dancing, this dark work leaves one winded and finally somewhat emotionless. Perhaps the anger it emotes works against their brilliant display of the bodies’ remarkable abilities to hurl itself into motion, despite the inevitable strains of the muscles.


Photo: Rob Latour

     The final piece, however, as Berkett herself had mentioned returned to the signature athleticism and light camp of the company’s most memorable pieces. Against songs sung by the macho alcoholic Dean Martin (Deano), the very heterosexual numbers “Memories Are Made of This,” “In the Chapel by the Moonlight,” and “That’s Amoré,” three almost nude males Joan Rodriguez, Ty Morrison, and the company’s associate artistic director, the great dancer Guzman Rosado perform bodily workouts that reveal every muscle of their highly-toned bodies in terpsichorean exercises that reveal all the facets of the body from face, neck, shoulders, arms, torso, legs, and wag of their butts in highly homoerotic gestures that transform Dino’s lovely warbles into campy hoots. Each of the three males was absolutely splendid but I am certain that Rosado had the most fun in his final flight, with even the other two dancers momentarily swinging in from stage wings to for moment of mockery. This work “Pacopepepluto” is pure dance, pure grace, and pure fun.

      It’s good to have BODYTRAFFIC back where they belong!


Los Angeles, October 24, 2022