Review: A Los Angeles Troupe in Search of Choreographic Vision

Bodytraffic was founded 15 years ago by two Juilliard graduates who had moved to Los Angeles and started commissioning choreographers they liked. In the years since, the troupe has attracted attention and a stream of well-trained, committed dancers. But those dancers need works to perform, and the ones on the program that the company brought to the Joyce Theater on Tuesday are dispiriting. They’re the kind that send you to program notes in vain hopes of clarification, the sort that might leave you wondering what’s wrong with contemporary dance.

“The One to Stay With” is a world premiere by Baye & Asa, a young choreographic team that has been getting some buzz. This is the first piece of theirs that I’ve seen. It starts with three dancers huddled around a glowing bowl. Russian and Slavic music kicks in, and an ensemble eats space with whiplash motion. Tiare Keeno, set apart, does a few impressive solos of spasmodic, frame-by-frame articulation. The ensemble eventually lines up at the lip of the stage for a semi-martial routine and seems to attack the bowl, which becomes a strobe light and has to be doused with water.

Are the original three dancers goofy acrobats or a sinister cabal? What is Keeno’s role? What does the bowl represent? An anticapitalist, anti-corporate program note about a company that’s “incentivized toward perpetual growth” doesn’t help with answers. And the choreography, pinned to the music and cool-looking in spots, doesn’t give much incentive to puzzle it out.

“(d)elusive minds,” by Fernando Hernando Magadan, goes to the other extreme: It’s comprehensible because it’s cartoonish.

Guzmán Rosado, the company’s lithe associate artistic director, sits in a chair, surrounded by paper. A plummy voice tells us of a writer who discovers that his characters are real, then of a woman who thinks she’s in the movies. Rosado and the woman — Bodytraffic’s artistic director, Tina Finkelman Berkett — proceed to act out and lip sync a series of similar voice-over scenarios (lovers who lose their memories or think they’re in a TV show) in increments of a few seconds. Periodically, some Schubert comes on and they dance and he tries to kill her.

Guzmán Rosado and Tina Finkelman Berkett in Fernando Hernando Magadan’s “(d)elusive minds.”Credit…Todd Burnsed

The work is based on the true story of a man who killed his wife, thinking she was an impostor, and then spent the rest of his life writing a letter to her every day. The story is like a case study out of an Oliver Sacks book, but instead of compassion and insight, the dance gives us weak jokes. “Nothing is what it seems,” the voice keeps saying. Unfortunately, the voice is wrong.

The most revealing thing about “(d)elusive minds” is that it wasn’t made for Bodytraffic. (It was a Korzo production for Nederlands Dans Theater in 2014.) Bodytraffic’s directors chose it. This is their taste.

Commissioning young choreographers is a nobler endeavor. But “Snap,” which another rising dance maker, Micaela Taylor, made for Bodytraffic in 2019, is also a confusing jumble. It begins promisingly enough, with James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’,” yet that feeling is soon displaced by a murky dystopia in which Brown’s music is chopped up and the dancers keep silently opening their mouths. At the end, an unaltered Brown track (“Super Bad”) allows for some funk and joy.

In this case, the program note speaks of snapping out of social pressures to conform. And a lip-synced scene in “Snap” suggests the pressures on Brown to perform certain roles. But I started imagining the work as a different allegory: one about the pressure to conform to shallow trends in contemporary dance.

Taylor, who has cited Crystal Pite and Hofesh Shechter as influences, calls her mix of ballet and hip-hop “expand practice,” but it hasn’t expanded enough beyond those models, which can be superficial to begin with and more so when imitated. In these three works, the message and medium are out of alignment, and the expressive power of dance is diminished, neglected. In the story I imagine, the music of Brown is the spirit of resistance, and I’m rooting for it.


Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater;

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