Last night’s boffo showcase by the 15-year-old Blue13 Dance Company brought great pleasure, including a former secret now in plain sight thanks to presentation by The Wallis: the presence of a real choreographer in our midst. Achinta McDaniel, American-born of Indian descent, along with her handsome dance troupe, displayed the right stuff in Friday’s fulsome dance program in Beverly Hills. It’s the kind of melding of ideas and entertainment that can return dance to the mainstream of cultural and political expression — a space the art form long occupied, but in recent decades dance has stumbled.
For reasons mostly economic but also due to a dearth of talent, the American dance landscape is the bastion of the ‘repertory’-company model, where disparate works are curated from choreographer guns-for-hire. Blue13, last night, was the exception. Here was 90 minutes of the real deal: a rich evening of variegated works created by a single artist. And it was something to behold. The voice is female, it is strong, it is wildly theatrical, and it has dance bursting at every seam. McDaniel, previously championed in Los Angeles by the Ford Amphitheatre and a guest instructor at the USC Kaufman School of Dance, came through for The Wallis with the type of high-impact, high-quality dance concert that has my heart.
The engine behind McDaniel’s forceful grasp on movement, and the source of her obvious passion for it, is her grounding in the Indian dance form, kathak, and her expanding that classical form into realms of pop, commercial, and modern-dance. Similar to the great jazz choreographer, Jack Cole (1911 – 1974), McDaniel steeps her work in wide-legged, ground-hugging, foot-stomping, body-syncopated, armwork-precise, infectiously rhythmic Indian dance. Working from that base, she erupts easily into fillips like head squiggles, torso shimmies, and leg flicks. She is a most fluid, and fluent, inventor, dotting her dance message with embellishments like a fine orator. She is unafraid to employ metaphor and narrative. She fluctuates her tempi, modulates her dynamics; at times she screams dance; at others her dance speaks sotto voce. Sometimes, she just tells it straight like a brave artist.
The program opened in silence and smoke, with “How to/not be Adequately Indian,” a modern-dance work to electro-trance music, performed before a backdrop first a purple band then a pink one. A motif of dancers holding the fabric of their costumes beautifully integrated dance with costume. (That was the case the entire evening. A simple touch had dancers moving with hands tucked in pockets.) The wide-reaching program then moved to “Diya au Toofan,” a raucous throwdown of randy Bollywood boogieing in bright oranges and purples.
The evening’s main event was its politically charged world premiere, Terpsichore in Ghungroos, a three-chaptered escapade (but I counted four?) and a cri de couer of a modern multicultural woman. In a clear evocation of colonial India, McDaniel made brilliant use of a dance-friendly prop — the undergarment that literally gave 19th century women of a certain social class their form, the hoop skirt, with its overlying petticoat. This hidden feminine gear, outed by McDaniel, the choreographer explored with finesse, as the hoops dropped from overhead like nasty little white cages. Then they appeared as sketches on an artful backdrop; then the dancers wore them; then they toyed skillfully with the white petticoats, tossing them around.
In a strong ending, the dancers, their brown-spotted unitards echoing their brown skin, cowered in subservient positions to the ‘mastering’ skirt hoops. The work needs tightening (the bit in sweatpants feels redundant although its use of lifts was interesting), but, hey, put it on the road! Bringing the work alive was fantastic original music from the pit: Enrique Lara on percussion, Alma Cielo on violin and sarangi, and Paul Livingstone on upright bass and goobgoobi.
Backdrops, indicate consideration for presentation and stagecraft. Costumes added color and shape. Fabulous drummers popped onstage and off, upping the energy. What dancer could not kill him or herself with this thumping noise nearby? Wonderful dancers, a tribe of them! The level of preparedness was exceptional. The cadre of men rocked my world to Mumbai and back. They anchor the program. Hang onto them!
As a Cole aficionado, I enjoyed the ankle bells and while I get the addiction to that sound, perhaps not in every piece? Similar to Cole, whose weakness was finishing his works, McDaniel needs stronger endings (her premiere excepted from this critique). She needs to tighten; who doesn’t?
The volume of pure dance — joyous, raucous — was off the charts, if that’s what you like, and I do, then go. McDaniel and Blue13 are putting the dance back into dance.
Blue13 Dance Company | The Wallis | Feb 21-22