Review: ‘The Question’ makes dance out of ... a murder trial

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Memo to the dance world: Basing a work -- however well-intentioned -- on a murder trial or the death penalty is probably not the best idea. Even the late Gerald Arpino had little success at the Joffrey Ballet with his “I/DNA,” an oddity from 2003 whose main prop was a giant electric chair. And director-choreographer J.T. Horenstein doesn’t fare much better with his 65-minute work, “The Question,” which opened Monday for a six-performance run at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre.

Dubbed an “indie rock ballet,” with a cast of 26, “The Question” turns out to be not a ballet at all -- its myriad high kicks and crisp turns notwithstanding -- but a contemporary jazz work fashioned from Horenstein’s experiences serving on the jury of a first-degree murder trial. Set to a pastiche of songs from groups including Sigur Rós, Vampire Weekend and Death Cab for Cutie, the 15 scenes may be mini-dramas unto themselves but ultimately don’t add up to much.


In a milieu of beboppy exuberance and innocent cool, we first see Ellen (Jennifer Hamilton) dressing for a hot date (shades of Maria in “West Side Story”). The next scene finds Julius Rubio’s James, briefly naked, doing some pre-party posturing with a toothbrush while his buddy Chris (Kevin Stea) also preens as he prepares to pop the question to Ellen. Add to the mix Marianna (Melissa Emrico) and Lou the Pimp (Daniel Valentine), though, and trouble’s on tap -- after the nightclub scene.

The world’s smallest disco ball floats overhead, illuminating a male go-go dancer and a large ensemble number that features couples writhing and comely girls doing the splits. Waiters in tuxes make sure a good time is had by all -- until, that is, the action moves to the street. There, the Pimp accidentally shoots and kills Ellen, Chris mysteriously winds up with the gun, the dead Ellen dances her memories of Chris, and a trial ensues.

Demian Boergadine as the defense attorney has little to do save look swell in a suit; Carin Noland dances an anguished solo as Juror 4; and a convicted Chris is electrocuted and goes to heaven, where he is greeted by Donyelle Jones’ High Priestess, lots of dry ice and the full cast offering raised-arms deliverance. Denise Leitner contributed to Horenstein’s high-octane but oftentimes overwrought choreography.

“The Question” leaves no doubt that it’s well danced but presents another puzzle: Why bother?

-- Victoria Looseleaf

‘The Question,’ Ricardo Montalbán Theatre, 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Monday and March 18 and 19. $30-$50. (323) 962-7000, Ext. 19