Not everything is illuminated

Times Staff Writer

You’d probably expect something visceral or Jungian from a contemporary program titled “Unearthing Sleeping Beasts.” But the three-part, three-company evening of premieres, Friday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, mostly unearthed sleepy notions of theatrical novelty and a white elephant or two.

The talented Maria Gillespie, for instance, chose to focus “The Splendor of Gretel” on a large metal clothes rack on casters, asking the five members of her Oni Dance ensemble to roll it, hang from it and dance through the archway it presented. Outfitted with lights at the top, the clothes rack was ugly to look at, limited in creative uses and dangerous to manipulate: a triple threat. (It accidentally fell at one point, reportedly bruising Noellie Bordelet.)

As such, it belongs on the growing list of merchandise leading choreographers astray, along with Diavolo’s sofa, Hae Kyung Lee’s trapeze, the metal “Nemesis” insect arms and all those video rigs that require companies to give up full use of the stage and reasonable visibility.

A pity, since Gillespie had the advantage of a brooding score by Ginormous (with vocal passages by Rohner Segnitz) and an adventuresome design concept that dispensed with most of the stage lights in favor of the dim illumination from the clothes rack and one hand-held unit.


Making the wide, outdoor Ford stage feel claustrophobic is no small achievement, but -- despite the fine dancers working far too hard -- that’s all “The Splendor of Gretel” accomplished.

At the opposite extreme, Kate Hutter’s “Passion Plays” initially sent the members of L.A. Contemporary Dance Company scurrying to every corner of the Ford stage, side stage and hillside pathway to no evident purpose other than panoramic spectacle. Eventually, the lighting created an emphasis on Bahareh Ebrahimzadeh and Laura Karlin (in white) who linked a number of the ensuing smaller sections.

Those sections included innocent kiddie games; portentous, incomprehensible dance drama; abstract group dances with an intriguing angular vocabulary; and a finale involving bare-chested men painted white that Hutter staged as if it represented a climax or culmination. But only the presence of the two women in white and the dancers’ repeated covering of one another’s eyes with their hands made the components seem part of the same piece.

Otherwise “Passion Plays” appeared to be the choreographer’s equivalent of an actor’s promo reel: I can do this and I can do that. Maybe, but not make it matter.

Happily, Holly Johnston’s “Departures From Common” proved a tautly focused showcase for her Ledges and Bones Dance Project. Her women dressed in tight, revealing red and kept the men (in loose, white shirts over black skirtlets) subservient, using them roughly. Eventually, the men -- passive and even numb in their group interlude -- did become assertive enough to involve the women in elaborate partnering ploys. And it’s certainly a departure from common to see modern dance men (as opposed to their ballet colleagues) executing one-arm lifts.

Johnston also defied expectations with sudden bursts of flying bodies, eruptions of convulsive hand-jabbing, head-nodding and body-lashing, plus, occasionally, the eerie sense that we might be watching filmed movement with frames periodically spliced out. David Karagianis’ score did mire the dancers in an endless, oppressive rhythmic loop, but it’s more important that Johnston really unearthed a sleeping beast in her look at gender issues, along with plenty of creative dance.

Hero of the evening: Kevin Williamson, who managed to dance like a major artist even when smeared with paint or pushing that infernal clothes rack. Enlightened sponsor: the Target stores, which not only subsidized low ticket prices for children and students all season long but provided more extensive advertising than local dance usually enjoys -- and even left a complimentary blanket on every Ford seat Friday.

Creature comforts at L.A. dance? What’ll they think of next?