For awhile there, things were looking bad. We seemed to be losing the female voice in the contemporary dance space, as men, holding the reins of most operating companies, naturally meted out sparse commissions and jobs to guy-pals. Female dance leaders, critics and scholars sounded the alarm. Foundations, universities, and commissioning repertory dance companies responded by giving extra support to deserving young women in dance. The results are coming in. Among the most interesting voices in Los Angeles dance, Macaela Taylor and Danielle Agami, both had showcases at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts this November. So I am pleased to include this writing with my coverage of woman artists.
“Aren’t we all drifting?” posits the opening voiceover of Macaela Taylor‘s “Drift” (2019) performed by a tight posse of five unisex dancers clad in “men”‘s suits — and is that white face? This first of three works opened a fun, hopeful, and impressive evening. The excellent members of TL Collective, Taylor’s well-oiled troupe, danced alongside their leggy leader. Popping, locking and otherwise percolating as stringless puppets, they responded to the anxiety-ridden voiceover messages Ms. Taylor likes to use to fuel her dances. “Maybe we shouldn’t stress if our plans aren’t working,” intones the invisible voice, immediately giving rise to anxiety in audience members attempting to escape our plans not working by attending a dance concert. (But that’s okay!) On went Taylor’s beat-by-beat choreography (her soundscore includes a thumping heartbeat), a nearly cartoony dance spiel that suggested strong influences of the Israelis — especially, Los Angeles’s Barak Marshall came to mind. Taylor, her elegant small head topping a string bean, yet womanly body, will never quite meld with the group — but neither does she purposefully take the spotlight. Let’s split the difference, and agree that that this dancing choreographer is an arresting, fluid performer you need try to see live in person. In what seems like four beats of music, she takes her skyscraper-vertical frame down to the floor in a six-foot split then devilishly reverts to standing. She melts into liquid backbends that somehow flip to belly-down on the floor grasping feet and rocking like that. In short, the work is filled with physical tongue twisters and dance challenges. Bring it! Hip-hop liberally peppered therein keeps all body parts occupied, and she choreographs unerringly for bobbling heads. Repeat, they dance with their heads. Minor penalty points, for example her use of literal music like the great Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” are much offset by unearthing kooky funk-nuggets like “Hollywood Swinging” by Kool and the Gang. I very much enjoyed Taylor’s wacky homage to growing up in the ’90s, replete with humorous movement for dancers resembling Gumbys. Taylor has a spot-on work for her former company, Bodytraffic, set to, and inspired by, James Brown.
Danielle Agami brings more mystery, and less literalness, in “Joy,” her impressive triptych of a full-evening work. As performed, again, at the Wallis, glory be, by yet another klatch of excellent Los Angeles dancers, Ate9 Dance Company (I counted nine on stage at one point, and, hey! that fits the company name). Agami, too, makes use of text, this time a projected panel of it on one side of the stage, a distraction that I admit is not my absolute favorite.
Now at mid-career, Agami, who too is a great dancer, seems interested in theatrical staging, that is, deploying dance within mise-en-scene, often with props and devices. (I enjoyed seeing a dog on stage and I’m no dog person. But, hey, the dog was a good dancer.) The human variety bring their slithering sensual bods to what opened as a fashion-show catwalk of a dance, entering and exiting the stage in circumscribed columns dressed in a ragtag disassembly of costumes, not one in particular relation to the other. (A stunner was a gold chain top over bright red bottom; I recall powder-blue chiffon trousers as well). No backbones are allowed in this dance company — key words are slithering, weirdo, offbeat and fascinating. That fits with Agami’s deep-movement background working not just as a dancer but as dance assistant to choreographer Ohad Naharin at Batseheva Dance Company.
“Joy” scored very strongly in its second of its three sections. Despite disparate, often absurd and random choreography, a distinctive theatrical mood gave overarching cohesion. I remember a crouching walk, backs hunched over, steps on the downbeat; I saw arms out-of-joint, and a repeating sideways walk with a little hiccup. It was all very queer and idiosyncratic, then a definite theme did emerge as Agami in a skirt stood before the group like a cult leader. In response, the company rose to tippy-toes and obeyed. One had the rare feeling of an audience tracking quite closely and finding the journey meaningful. But these early “post-COVID” (the “post” is supposed) shows have been so special, as audiences, let’s face it, arrive pretty beat up spiritually, gas tanks on empty, just starved for the sound of live music and the sight of live dance. That has given a purity to the performances that I have found so precious.
There were weak spots. A downstage “A Chorus Line” arrangement of dancers is a choreographer’s cliche to be avoided. Junky stuff falling from the sky just makes you wonder who has to clean it up. It felt immature, as did the garbage bags cluttering the downstage area. But the biggest boo! goes to the treatment of Isaiah Gage, the composer/accompanist of excellent moody cello music through the full-evening work, who, while plucking, bowing, and putting out the Agami vibe — sat in the dark!
Kudos go to Paul Crewes, for the past six years the artistic director at The Wallis. Crewes will soon return to his homeland in the U.K. His was the hiding-in-plain-sight idea for an all-Los Angeles dance company season — for dance fans, his particularly wonderful swansong. Thank you, Paul and best of luck to you in your future.
Dance critic Debra Levine is founder/editor/publisher of arts●meme.