ARTS & CULTURE
Review

At Cal State L.A., Pennington group delivers modern dance with a message

Los Angeles, which underappreciates its dance artists, owes a debt to John Pennington. He is one of the city’s treasures.

Performer, choreographer, teacher and legacy-keeper of the late Bella Lewitzky (hope you remember her, another jewel), Pennington makes modern dance vibrant and relevant, in all its splendid weightiness and dramatic vocabulary.

This weekend, he celebrated the 15th anniversary of his Pennington Dance Group with two concerts at Cal State L.A.’s State Playhouse, an old-fashioned auditorium that once was a primary dance venue. On Saturday night, the group performed three premieres and two historic pieces, in keeping with Pennington’s self-appointed roles as archivist and contemporary art-maker.

Pennington, the dancer, at 56 may be better than he was in his so-called prime. Or, let’s say he’s a more sensitive mover now, able to pull out, like taffy, all the sticky nuances, subtleties and quirks of Lewitzky’s layered pieces.

In the grand dame’s 1969 solo, “On the Brink of Time,” Pennington became the embodiment of the percussive gurgles and tweets of Morton Subotnick’s groundbreaking synthesizer score. Starting slowly, with an isolated peek-a-boo fist-flex at stage left, the dance becomes a full-body exercise in controlled explosions. This is where Pennington’s maturity comes to the fore: He can stretch his torso and limbs at a continuously measured pace, until the final finger wiggling -- Pop! -- of arrival.

The viewer feels the energy ratchet up, in the music and movement. It was a mesmerizing performance. Its one anachronism is the brief use of a strobe light, which Lewitzky failed to use to its potential. David Parsons would do that 15 years later in “Caught.”

The evening’s other iconic piece, “The Beloved,” debuted in 1948, a collaboration between Lewitzky and her mentor, Lester Horton, with ladder-back chairs created by Lewizky’s husband,  architect Newell Taylor Reynolds. This is a creepy indictment of religious zealotry, a brief sketch of murderous American gothic. Pennington and longtime company member Li Chang Rothermich portrayed this couple with strength and dread.

Of Pennington’s three debuts, the most accomplished was “Orbs,” the evening’s finale. The stage was topped by 10 hanging circular lavender lights (reportedly salvaged from a trash bin at Pomona College, where Pennington teaches). Pennington delves in circular lines and spinning. But he also indulges in bouts of lighthearted playfulness, as when Rothermich emerges with two orbs for arms. Rothermich, Tom Tsai, Danae McWatt, Edwin Siguenza, Michael Szanyi and Annalee Traylor excelled in the episodic scenes of jaunty joy, to a recorded score by William Duckworth.

In “Skins and Screens,” the movement almost seems to trigger Edgar Rothermich’s clanging sound collage. The “skins” of the title are the crinkled sheets manipulated by the first threesome; the “screens” are portable frames used by a second trio. These Pennington-designed elements are symbols. Our discomfort in our own skins twists and warps the dancers’ bodies, and internal barriers divide them. By the end, though, connection appears possible.

“Ungoverned Spaces,” another premiere, is a study of chaos and order, mirrored in Tom Peter’s annoying schizophrenic score. Montay Romero and Traylor shifted between choreographic themes; Pennington’s movement choices, though lively, are rather ordinary.

“Hearing Change,” from 2004, is a rambling solo, but McWatt held our attention with her determined power. Pennington brings out the best in his well-trained veteran dancers, exploiting their individuality.

He dedicated the program to Lewitzky, who would have been 100 this year. Right now, he alone performs “On the Brink of Time.” How about a grant so he can teach it to a new generation? It deserves to live on. 

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