Walt Disney Concert Hall's front steps on this overcast afternoon are crawling with dancers. Dressed in sweats and sneakers for an outdoor rehearsal, the dozen or so performers descend the stone stairs in unison, their spindly frames reflected in the building's sweeping steel curves. As they slither under the handrails and twirl on the top landing, it's quiet but for the swooshing of their feet, the background chorus of rush-hour traffic and the pitter-patter of curious passersby.
Suddenly, a male dancer throws his arms in the air and shrieks: "The system is killing me!" Reggae-inspired hip-hop begins blasting from a nearby boom box. "How many planes are going to go missing?" yells another woman, referring to the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared last year.
Then all the dancers unleash furious statements in staccato rhythm: "What is the future?" "I gotta pay my student loans back!" "There's mass distraction!" "Save the planet!"
The piece, Lula Washington Dance Theatre's "Message for My Peeps," debuts Monday as part of the Music Center's new Moves After Dark program, which aims to eviscerate traditional theater walls and is as much about architecture as it is about contemporary dance. Staged for the next two weeks on Monday and Tuesday nights, when the Music Center would typically be dark, the program will feature four local dance companies performing simultaneous, site-specific works on and around the Grand Avenue campus. Choreographers chose their specific locations; dances were inspired by the space. The audience, in three groupings of 50 to 100, will travel from site to site, viewing 15- to 20-minute performances in succession.
The idea for the annual summer series grew out of planning for the Music Center's 50th-anniversary last year. Renae Williams Niles, the center's vice president of programming and an architecture buff, was trying to reconcile the institution's "illustrious past" with future programming that pushed boundaries.
"The Music Center and its architecture was really a part of the initial notion of downtown becoming a major cultural corridor," Williams Niles says. "So the idea was: How could we do something new that's less formal, that celebrates dance and illuminates the architecture, and could also be inspired by Los Angeles history, the history of downtown, history of the Music Center?"
All of the Moves After Dark dance companies are led by women. Ana María Alvarez's group of dancers will perform her "wade en el agua" around — and in — the Mark Taper Forum's pond. The socially and politically charged piece is part of the company's still developing larger work, "Agua Furiosa," which is inspired by Shakespeare's "The Tempest" as well as the goddess Oya. Blending elements of salsa and other Latin movement as well as street dance, Williams Niles says, the piece weaves in text from a 1966 Martin Luther King Jr. speech and addresses issues of race and water in the U.S.
For the record, 4:30 p.m. July 13: An earlier version of this post said the four performing troupes include Ana María Alvarez's Contra-Tiempo. Alvarez is artistic director of Contra-Tiempo, but the dancers she will be leading are not from her group.
Danielle Agami's relatively new Ate9 dance company, founded in 2012, will perform in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's majestic Founders' Room. The work, "Kelev Lavan," is a collage of sorts composed of seven short dances, each choreographed by one of the company's dancers, who also performs. The Israeli-born Agami also contributed to the choreography, created specifically for Moves After Dark. Williams Niles describes it as "earthy, gritty, visceral and physical, with some improvised elements."
At the end of the program, audiences will merge in the Music Center's plaza for Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett's group Bodytraffic, which will present "Restructure." The piece, co-commissioned by the Music Center with Dance Camera West and presented at the Music Center last year, is a hybrid of dance and visual art centered on a giant yellow abstract sculpture by L.A. artist Gustavo Godoy. Made of plywood and Plexiglas, the lighted sculpture consists of pieces recycled from the artist's "Fast-formal Object: Flayed White," originally installed at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio in 2010. Dancers will perform on the sculpture's custom ramps and platforms in what Williams Niles says "has nuances of street movement … but is also very contemporary."
That all four dance companies are female-led is a nod to the role women have played in the history of the L.A. dance scene, Williams Niles says, noting such early L.A. choreographers as Ruth St. Denis, who was a teacher of Martha Graham's, and Bella Lewitzky, who co-founded Dance Theater of Los Angeles, among others.
"We've certainly had male leadership," Williams Niles says. "But over the decades, women in L.A. have really created a grounding and infrastructure, and Dorothy Chandler was such a strong female leader as well."
In shaping the inaugural season, Williams Niles says that she aimed for varied dance aesthetics but that the cultural diversity among the companies — representing Cuban American, African American and Israeli points of view as well as various social justice passions — was simply an organic outgrowth of the Los Angeles dance world.
Instead, Williams Niles looked for binding similarities among the participants. All the "Moves After Dark" choreographers are midcareer artists. All four companies regularly tour nationally, and their work is generally performed on a traditional stage in a more formal theater. Nudging the artistic directors, choreographers and dancers out of their comfort zones and placing them in almost uncomfortable proximity to the audience in unusual spaces, was part of the goal, she says.
"It's not just a new challenge for the Music Center but for the artists as well," Williams Niles says.
Indeed, Tamica Washington-Miller, who choreographed "Message for My Peeps," says she had to reimagine the piece, initially created between 2008 and 2010 as an installation with three sections. The dance, which addresses war, greed, immigration, a flailing economy and environmental decay, among other things, is meant to be performed on a proscenium stage, with set pieces such as chairs and a static-y TV; the dancers are meant to be barefoot. The narrow, slippery marble steps of Disney Hall presented challenges.
"I didn't tone it down, though," Washington-Miller says of the new "Message for My Peeps," which, when it premieres Monday, will be accompanied by photojournalism and TV news footage projected onto glass panels above Disney Hall's entrance. "I just made it work for the space. We figured out how to do some things safer, let go of one or two things. But it's still strong. I'm still making a point."
Williams Niles will be leaving the Music Center at the end of this month to be director of advancement at USC's relatively new Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. But she will remain connected to Moves After Dark, she says, because it's part of a series that is closely aligned with Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center.
Moves After Dark may be one of her legacies at the Music Center, but Williams Niles also hopes it will evolve over time.
"There are so many possibilities," she says. "It could be more interdisciplinary — dance with films, dance with puppetry, dance with live music. It could be one company performing in multiple locations, or one company in one location. Selfishly, I'm hoping the Music Center will continue to work with and illuminate the greatness of our L.A.-based artists — we have so many — but it will undoubtedly look different year to year. It needs to continue to transform. This is just the beginning."
Moves After Dark
What: Lula Washington Dance Theatre, Ana María Alvarez's Contra-Tiempo, Ate9 and Bodytraffic
When: 8:30 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays, through July 21
Where: Four locations at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
Tickets: $25 (includes drink voucher)