Thursday, October 6, 2016

Invertigo Dance Builds a New World in After It Happened

After it Happened ensemble: initial storm scene.

Invertigo Dance Theatre
John Anson Ford Ampitheatre, Hollywood

The "It" in the After It Happened project of the Invertigo Dance Theatre refers to a natural disaster that strikes an unidentified locale in Los Angeles. Staged in the al fresco setting of L.A.'s Ford Amphitheatre, in cooperation with the city's World Refugee Day activities and under the creative vision of Artistic Director Laura Karlin, the work synthesizes dance, drama, and music into a theatrical whole, with a lot more than mere entertainment on its mind.

Conceived in the tradition of the ritualistic festival plays of ancient Athens, the work's narrative has a flood disaster setting off panic, desperation and human conflict, where beleaguered survivors must learn anew how to harness disheveled energies to rebuild and transform their society. Trust and compassion compete with guile as they are propelled into an unknown and unnerving future.

Invertigo's multicultural cast acknowledges the issue of ethnic diversity only in a short sequence dealing with foreign language interpretation, but in general it avoids dwelling on ethnicity per se. This would seem an artistic decision to keep the focus on issues of universal humanity rather than inter-ethnic competition. That big-picture vision may be the signature identity of Invertigo. It is also harbinger of a new ethos of ethnic integration in the United States. Just beginning in Los Angeles, a blending of races has long characterized countries like Brazil, where everyone's origin seems at least some part European and African.

If Invertigo Dance Theatre sometimes strives for allegorical statements that can fall just shy of full clarity -- some set pieces seem arbitrarily motivated, for instance -- credit the company far more for tackling, with panache, issues that societies around the world face today.

The action on the newly reopened Ford Amphitheatre stage benefited from the backdrop of its natural ravine. Stretching up an Edenic infinity, that ragged ravine reinforced the magic realism of the work's storyline, giving context to its stylized dancing, large props of birds and trees, and colorful lighting effects. Propelling the rhythms of the evening's nine dancers was a colorful two-person band of guitar, electronic keyboard, and rhythms, augmented by an occasional cello solo. The band, perched on an elevated stage platform to the audience's right, was skillfully led by the artistic director's brother, Toby Karlin. The cellist, Hyosun Choi, is actually one of the dancers on temporary redeployment. Likewise one of the musicians, Diana Lynn, does a cameo as a politician late in the show.

Invertigo Dancer Jonathan Bryant
Act I introduces eight dancers, four male and four female, who explode on stage in twists, lifts and inversions that depict chaos and cataclysm. These "broken" people, with a shifty denizen or two entering among them later on, set out to rebuild their society. Bodies are buried, and a sapling is planted, fertilized by the decay of matter into nutrient. It grows into a palm tree. 

An attempt is made to put the infrastructure and habits of a community back together. A comedic element enters in the form of a plastic-helmeted, emergency-vested news reporter who asks, "How are you coping after the tragedy?" An interpreter's spin relays euphemistic distortions that would smooth over the harsher reality of depravity, broken families, and corruption. 

A Channel 7 News broadcast becomes the subject of one of the evening's larger set pieces, danced with twirls, squats, leaps, lifts, and ensemble formations. Arms fly over shoulders onto backs suggesting recovery is not easy. The stage goes black and a spotlight on a single male dancer finds him engaged in body spasms, a dose of bleak reality. Media interviews involve surreal dialogues: Q: "What is the going death rate?" A: "One per person."

Gathering together, "the people" forget how to carry on former traditions. A long stretch of music ends with a siren and a man (Jonathan Bryant) dancing in the crowded quarters of a bathtub. Organizing this society is depicted by the disciplined routine of an exercise class. Another ensemble routine has up and down lifts to heavy syncopated Afro-inspired drumming, followed by a battle of the sexes between a man and a women. She besting him was an obvious crowd pleaser. A trio of women follows, in gracefully bonding mutual support. The tone and subject become even softer in a boy-meets-girl ensemble sequence of orange tee-shirts and blue dresses/shorts. A duet of tender doo-wop "Hey, little One" has a smitten "she" choosing a pixilated "he" to close Act I. 

Act II continues the soft-edged feel, with a lovely bluebird kite paraded on stage in a pas-de-deux romance. Sighs and songs, with a twist of sadness, usher in a legato of love. A plaintive cello solo (by Hyosun Choi, momentarily on leave from dancing) accompany the reminiscences of a young lady as she walks through the backyard of a childhood friend. "This is my home. This is where our stories began. This is my life, my geography."

In a more jocular sequence, the ensemble plays a game of ball, catching flies in the air. Manipulating his own advantage, one of them fakes a knee injury and cries foul. Yet soon after, a co-ed soccer game has the group (from left above, Irene Kleinbauer, Sofia Klass, Louie Cornejo, Sadie Yarrington with ball, and Jodie Mashburn) relearning normative rules of social order and fairness through sports.

Ensemble with politician's web of control
A harsher form of social order enters the scene  when a masked strong-arm politician (Diana Lynn) makes every one assemble in formation. A fascistic catch phrase, "Greatest Challenge, Greatest Opportunity," heralds enforced conformity within a web of extended ropes. Blood red lighting and a blaring apocalyptic techno-pop march demand brutal compliance to this new order.

Out of that frightening prospect, and rather abruptly, a tender French song laments, "Don't leave me" and another pas-de-deux (Jessica Dunn, in red hair and blue ruffles, with Chris Smith) heralds the ending. The song "Feeling Good," about a new day and a new life, features classic ballet leg extensions, followed by an ensemble reprise in the evening's familiar bathtub and nearby trees. In the final tableau, each dancer takes a solo turn and the three pairs of the ensemble invoke new optimism for the beleaguered community.

Jessica Dunn and ensemble
After It Happened was well conceived and executed. Its dance sequences, staging, lighting and music were imaginative and lively, and its setting at the Ford ideal. The work is a worthy addition to the creativity of the local dance scene that stimulates deeper reflection on what community means today. Let's hope it also signals a growing cohesion of peoples in what the US Census Bureau defines as the "city-state" of Los Angeles.


Photo credits: The Future Collective and George Simian, courtesy of Ford Theatres.

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