The best part of “Azimuth”, the Hubbard Street/LINES Ballet collaboration which had its Los Angeles premiere Friday, turned out to be the assembled twenty eight dancers themselves. Both companies are fierce representatives of the current state of ballet modernism in the U.S. Hubbard Street is Chicago’s outpost for Euro Zone dance, known for its relationship with the Nederlands Dans Theater franchise, while King has developed his personal, stand-alone brand of contemporary ballet over thirty years of work with his chamber company based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each company presented one work on Friday’s program before joining forces in “Azimuth”.
One axiom for any collaboration is that it should yield more than the simple sum of its parts. But beyond the powerful impression of an augmented cast of accomplished dancers, that didn’t always hold true for “Azimuth”. As a high concept work, it seeks to expand the standard concept of the word. But in practice, it was the surfeit of movement that tended to blunt new references. What remained was a distillation of the demands of King’s hyper-expressive, febrile dancemaking. It’s the kind of movement that amazes due to its obvious muscled virtuosity. It can also seem overly self-referential. Juiced up with the addition of sixteen of Hubbard Street’s powerful alt-ballet dancers, “Azimuth” opens with a large and lengthy ensemble section of mostly unison dance, a kind of flash mob of contemporary ballet, against which a soloist, first Courtney Henry, and later others, emerge. “Azimuth” felt at times overburdened with larger ensembles and a relentless crush of movement which offered little sense of repose. An exception was the section titled “Compass”, set to the harp interlude from Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”. Here the female soloist, Hubbard Street’s petite and daring Kelly Epperheimer, partnered by four men, is continuously sailed and lofted across the stage in a partnership that produced a magical, airy sense of weightlessness.
Much of the score for “Azimuth” depended on liturgical music drawn from Judaic, Christian, and Gospel sources, including original musical collaborations by Ben Juodvalkis. Measured against the overall design of the work, those choices could seem extraneous. The musical collaboration from the opening work, “Scheherazade” (choreographed by King and danced by LINES) also develops along episodic lines. The composer, Zakir Hussain, has created a score that incorporates melodic fragments from the original music (Rimsky-Korsakov) and embedded them in a soundscape that uses both Western and Persian sonorities.
King’s version is a psychological, mostly story-free distillation. The work, originally by Fokine for Ballets Russes (1910) survives in reenacted versions that tend toward caricature of a ballet relic. But here, King’s intricate partnering with the women en pointe, and deepened conceptual orientation prove suited to the ballet’s original themes and a modern evocation of the undercurrents of sexual oppression. The rich colors (here, vivid backdrop projections), a single, hanging piece of swaged textile, pendant lamps, and other suggestions of Bakst’s original designs are brought forward, pared down, but modernized. The designs were by Robert Rosenwasser and Axel Morganthaler. This version coalesces around a beautiful and often harsh, manipulative pas de deux for the two protagonists, Scheherazade (Kara Wilkes) and Shahriar (David Harvey). They return near the conclusion of the ballet, transformed as partners in a final section that hints at the redemptive qualities of their relationship.
The remaining work on the program, Alejandro Cerrudo’s, “Little mortal jump” danced by Hubbard Street, inhabits a more theatrical world. It uses collaged music by Philip Glass, an excerpt from the animated documentary “Waltz with Bashir” and works by other composers. For a score of such disparate elements it was remarkable for its sense of continuity and the way in which it fit Cerrudo’s inventive stage action. While “Scheherazade” and “Azimuth” leaned hard on big themes, “Little mortal jump” tended to made a big deal out of slighter interactions. That’s not to say it’s a slight work. It dwells briefly in dark corners but is also leavened with humor and the winning theatrical flair associated with choreographers (such as Cerrudo) who share a history with Nederlands Dans Theatre.
The work features a compact cast of ten dancers in shifting combinations. It also is vested with shades of vaudeville, inventively coated with appealing, smart movement. The four oversized rolling boxes comprising the set function like props from old fashioned illusions, but also double as portals or walls. Standout sections included a slow motion duo as two dancers made their way off stage in the glare of lights from the wings, and a touching, melancholic pas de deux set against the undulating phrases of a solo violin. It made Cerrudo’s version of mortality via dance seem like a pretty good deal.
(The reviewed program took place in Los Angeles on June 21, 2013. Alejandro Cerrudo is the resident choreographer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. The music for “Scheherazade” was commissioned as part of a project commemorating the centenary of the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo. It was played live at the premiere in 2010. The LINES Ballet/Hubbard Street Dance collaboration for “Azimuth” premiered earlier in 2013 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, California. All the music for this performance was prerecorded.)