Backhausdance plugs in a little Dwight Rhoden for an electric premiere
Who knew that adding a little Dwight Rhoden to the Backhausdance repertory could have such an electrifying effect on the spunky Orange County dance company?
Rhoden, co-founder and artistic director of Complexions, is all about showing off his dancers and revealing their mojo. He does that with flashy, body-beautiful technique. His aesthetic is almost the opposite of Jenny Backhaus, whose beautifully crafted but placid — and sometimes timid — dances constitute most of the repertory.
Shaking things up was apparently just what Backhaus’ group needed. The dancers seemed to grow bigger before our eyes Wednesday during a three-part performance at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
When the curtain rose for Rhoden’s premiere, “Scene Unseen,” we were greeted dramatically by 13 women and men at attention, lined up across the front. Spotlights washed the stage behind them, outlining their silhouettes. That was a rare moment of stasis. To a succession of recorded musical selections (Bach, Glass, Nyman), they were off and running — arms pumping, knees high.
The phrases in “Scene Unseen” unfolded with crisp timing and angular formations, high kicks and targeted leaps. They popped into splits. When dancers hit the ground, they parted successively, falling like dominoes, allowing for Santiago Villarreal to gallop over their legs to the front of the stage. Soloist Samuel DeAngelo looked transformed, bristling with electricity. Christine Darch’s tight, glittering costumes incited the viewer to pay attention.
“Scene Unseen,” on the surface at least, heralded ballet’s physical superiority, and Rhoden got the required discipline from the ensemble. We could see some effort, but that happens on opening night. If the moves get cleaner and bigger, and if the group’s look-proud style pervades everything else Backhausdance does, that will be a bonus.
Backhaus’ new work, the evening-opener “One Continuous Line,” celebrates the women in her troupe and the company’s 16-year history that runs from veteran Amanda Kay White, who is a founding member, to apprentices McKell Lemon and Sammi Waugh.
The choreographer achieves this through an engaging use of body configuration, geometric shapes and supportive partnering. A single overhead arm is the impulse for a line that squiggles all the way to each dancer’s feet. The women take hands to form a pinwheel. The 10 dancers break into two equal groups, each lifting a soloist overhead; everyone has a hand in the assist. Backhausdance has always had more women than guys, and though that’s not outlawed, there’s sometimes an imbalance. “One Continuous Line” sidesteps the issue while also being a fitting salute.
If only the piece registered more of a jolt. Even quiet moves need purpose. Performed to musical selections from Robert Honstein and Christopher Cerrone, “One Continuous Line” has an awful lot of walking about lifelessly. It becomes meandering, like thumb twiddling. Rachael Lorenzetti’s orange jumpsuits are baggy and blah.
The middle work, Walter Matteini’s “Beyond the Noise” (from 2018, made with Ina Broeckx) is an athletically compelling but dour essay in human relationships. Backhaus explained from the stage that Matteini’s subject matter was what humans choose to reveal of themselves to others. What jumps out at me from repeated viewings are the men dragging and pushing the women and the ladies fighting back. The overall atmosphere is dispirited.
Michael Korsch’s new lighting design has improved visibility. And Ellen Akashi, Katie Natwick, Kaitlin Regan and Tawny Chapman also shined, in this piece and all night long.
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