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Dance goes digital in an impressive Barak Ballet premiere

Dance goes digital in an impressive Barak Ballet premiere
Barak Ballet premieres "E/Space," a collaboration by choreographer Melissa Barak, artist Refik Anadol and composer David Lawrence. (Dave Friedman)

In the premiere of “E/Space,” Los Angeles choreographer Melissa Barak and her terrific dance ensemble took the Broad Stage audience on an ecstatic and mind-blowing 30-minute ride Saturday in the closing number on Barak Ballet’s three-piece program.

“E/Space” is a delightful melding of music, visual design and choreography. The work of Barak, media artist Refik Anadol and composer David Lawrence (this is their third collaboration), the ballet looks and feels like a living kaleidoscope. The nine dancers skitter about, regrouping and forming new patterns and shapes to a musical score that delivers its driving heartbeat, while Anadol’s digital imagery of lines and shooting stars is sometimes a catalyst for action, other times a decorative frame for the dancers.

We start by “falling” down a rabbit hole of sorts, like Alice, into a glowing white rectangle projected on a front scrim, its four sides growing larger to swallow us into a perspective-shifting helix. It dumps us mid-stage with a dancer waiting expectantly for us. Barak takes over with crisply energetic allegro dancing, adding a lively three dimensions to the digital drawings. A centrifugal cone of whirling lines matches the dancers spinning quickly in chaîné and piqué turns. Barak gives her dancers oversize movements so they aren’t overwhelmed by the ever-changing scenery around them; soloist Brian Gephart and lead couple Julia Erickson and Thomas Brown in particular excelled, but the whole cast galloped through this work with eagerness.

Two slow sections were slightly less engaging, and it felt unnecessary to have Anadol end the piece the way it began, with the audience rising out of the helix and spit from the rectangle to another dimension. But that’s quibbling. Lighting designer Nathan Scheuer made it easy for us to see the dancers through the scrim and amid all the squiggles. Costume designer Holly Hynes added the icing, dressing the women in sleek, pale blue leotards and shimmery skirts and the men, who danced without tops, in matching tights. “E/Space” could become a signature work.

Barak Ballet's "Eos Chasma."
Barak Ballet's "Eos Chasma." (Dave Friedman)

Barak’s “Eos Chasma,” originally made for Richmond Ballet of Virginia in 2014, immediately preceded “E/Space.” It too is otherworldly, the choreographer inspired by the landing of unmanned vehicles on Mars. The ballet is no spaceman story, thank goodness. Rather, Barak has five women and three men exploring an abstract emotional terrain, and we can provide our own interpretations.

Dancers hurriedly cross the stage one by one, facing front, on half point and knees deeply bent and turned out, their legs forming diamond shapes. Looking vulnerable, they eventually group together, the better to be on the lookout and stay safe, this atmosphere of wariness enhanced by Julia Wolfe’s music (“Cruel Sister”). The dance ends with a striking duet for Stephanie Kim and Ryan Camou, who shift their weight and tension back and forth from one to the other. They conclude by calmly walking together upstage and, perhaps, into the unknown — not an original ending, but poignant nonetheless.

"Tableaux Vivants."
"Tableaux Vivants." (Dave Friedman)

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The evening began with Nicholas Blanc’s handsome “Tableaux Vivants” (“Living Pictures”), a romantic piece of flowing gestures and spectacular lifts. Allynne Noelle, always a stunner, is especially well suited to Blanc’s style, because of her innate emotionality and expressive head, neck and shoulders. Evan Swenson was her stirring partner. The rest of the cast— Lucia Connolly, Sadie Black, Kate Kadow, Gephart, Brown and Zachary Guthier — has grown confidently into this 2016 piece, which Blanc made to Jonny Greenwood’s music for “There Will Be Blood.”

Barak started her company in 2013 and has presented the group every year, a financial burden. Next June the Broad Stage is picking up the tab — and this concert showed that Barak Ballet is more than ready.

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