BODYTRAFFIC
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

March 1, 2022
The One to Stay With (world premiere), (d)elusive minds, SNAP, PACOPEPEPLUTO

Jerry Hochman

I have a visceral negative reaction to angular, frenzied movement that looks pointless, to dances that feature an overabundance of energy seemingly for no reason, and to program notes that are unnecessarily opaque or that makes claims about the particular piece that are not apparent in the piece itself. All of these characteristics were present in the program by BODYTRAFFIC, a Los Angeles-based contemporary dance company that I saw at the Joyce Theater Tuesday night. Yet, because of the manifest talent of the company’s dancers – its greatest asset – and the unusual themes and quality, with some reservations, of the dances presented, the program proved to be both interesting and enjoyable.

The last, and only, time I saw BODYTRAFFIC was five years ago at the Joyce. I recall being favorably impressed, but also with reservations. Of the dances on that program, none were bad, none were great, and all were varying degrees of good, or interesting, or different, and all showed a company with an enviable willingness to take risks. The same description proves true now, but under the leadership of Artistic Director Tina Finkelman Berkett, BODTYTRAFFIC’s profile has been ratcheted up. It may not yet be in the same league as Nederlands Dans Theater or Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, companies with which it has much in common (including certain pieces in its repertory), but it doesn’t push the envelope as far – at least not yet.

BODYTRAFFIC in Baye and Asa’s “The One to Stay With”
Photo by Todd Burnsed

The program, the first of the Joyce’s Spring-Summer 2022 season, includes four dances choreographed by four different choreographers.

The One to Stay With, the evening’s world premiere, was choreographed by the team known as Baye & Asa (Sam Pratt and Amadi Washington) to excerpts from music attributed to Tchaikovsky (“The Snowstorm Waltz”), Hungarian composer Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, and “On the Hills of Manchuria,” attributed to the Russian Brass Band. Except for the Bartók, the attributions appear inaccurate and/or sloppily made, but this has no impact on the actual music that was used.

One of the music sources, however, invites further comment. “On the Hills of Manchuria” played (not composed) by a group referred to as Russian Brass Band, was composed in 1906 by Ilya Alekseevich Shatrov, a Russian military composer and bandmaster (lyrics to it were added by Stepan Petrov shortly after it was composed). The song commemorates and memorializes the Russian soldiers who lost their lives at the Battle of Mukden, reportedly the largest modern-era battle fought prior to World War I. That battle effectively sealed Russia’s defeat, ending the Russo-Japanese War. The war arose from a conflict over mutual expansionist policies, competing “sphere of influence” demands, and the establishment of neutral “buffer zones.” As philosopher George Santayana famously said: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Sloppy attributions and ironic observations aside, I suspect that the nature and background of the musical compositions used, rather than their origins, were the choreographers’ considerations in curating the dance’s musical score to frame and enhance their intent, but the fact that all these songs have Eastern European / Russian origins is something that’s too obvious to overlook. So when I read the piece’s cryptic and incendiary program note, which I won’t repeat here, I thought that the target of the dance’s ire was some repressive and ruthless totalitarian government or component thereof that demands conformity, obedience, and unquestioning loyalty from its citizens and that steals the country’s soul in the process – perhaps similar, thematically if not choreographically, to Alexei Ratmansky’s monumental Shostakovich Trilogy. [If any piece should be immediately, or sooner, returned to American Ballet Theatre’s repertory, it is that masterwork, even more than Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table.]

(l-r) Katie Garcia, Guzmán Rosado, and Joan Rodriguez
in Baye & Asa’s “The One to Stay With”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Having now seen The One to Stay With, my initial expectation was clearly wrong. I suppose it can be interpreted in different ways, but to my eye the dance is a broad-based metaphoric visualization and condemnation of greedy corporations that do the same things that totalitarian governments do to remain in power and to accumulate wealth for their leaders – and maybe, more generally, of capitalism. But I still find it curious that the best musical support the choreographers could find to comprise the dance’s score is derived from Eastern European and Russian sources.

All that being said, The One to Stay With is an impressive dance regardless of whether one agrees with its premise.

It begins with an image down-stage left of a huge round bowl and a beam of light that emanates from above it. In front of it stand three dancers with their backs to the audience, appearing to admire (and maybe to draw sustenance from) the bowl. At the same time, an imperious-looking woman dressed in white is stationed up-stage right, intently watching the others and becoming increasingly agitated.

(l-r) Katie Garcia, Guzmán Rosado, and Joan Rodriguez
in Baye & Asa’s “The One to Stay With”
Photo by Steven Pisano

In hindsight, that scene is something of a prologue. Shortly after the scene registers in the mind, the bowl area goes dark, and additional dancers join those who stood in front of the bowl. What proceeds is a jumble of mostly individual choreography in which each dancer on stage moves in a jerky, jagged, angular, and staccato manner, with limbs seemingly flying ferociously in different directions at once for no particular reason. Initially, it all appears haphazard

Eventually the individual woman isolated in the prologue is seen as something of a corporate officer, manager, recruiter or enforcer, who, occasionally with the assistance of allies (it’s not clear – nor does it need to be – whether these people are corporate executives or higher level employees chosen to help enforce the company line), slowly but surely compels a change in the dancers / employees movement qualities, from the initial “free” individual and unregulated movement, to conformist, regimented, “assembly-line”-like movement.

Then, as a conclusion or epilogue, dancers (now workers or capitalist dupes) return to that now re-illuminated bowl, and suddenly water pours (plops would be more accurate) down from the source of the beam into the bowl, the pot of gold, a metaphor for the company’s gaining wealth by exploiting natural resources.

I don’t appreciate dances that make their point with a meat cleaver. But although the water / pot image is borderline silly, it doesn’t negatively impact the dance. And the choreography, which I initially saw as haphazard, isn’t.  The movement isn’t just jagged and angular for the sake of being different or to create a new and idiosyncratic dance language. It’s highly complex (not just because of the speed of the movement) as dancers weave their way on, off, and around the fully-utilized stage and respond to or resist instructions, until they eventually conform. And the movement variety, even with its jagged edges (or maybe because of them) eventually becomes compelling, and somewhat mesmerizing.

The argument the dance makes is nothing new, but here it’s envisioned differently, and it’s thoroughly exciting to watch it evolve. And, strangely, the dance clarified the program note rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, the dance failed to clarify the meaning, if any, of its title, which I still don’t get.

(l-r) Jordyn Santiago, Tiare Keeno, Guzmán Rosado, Katie Garcia,
and Pedro Garcia in Baye & Asa’s “The One to Stay With”
Photo by Steven Pisano

Notwithstanding its choreographic quality, The One to Stay With would not have worked at all were it not for BODYTRAFFIC’s dancers. Tiare Keeno, the dancer initially appearing isolated under her own beam of light, is a marvel. She was a force of nature, the center of gravity, the focus of action whenever she was on stage (even when the choreography didn’t mandate it), in part because of her costume (white or off-white, as opposed to most of the other dancers whose costumes appeared to be shades of dull grey or brown), but always because she was the most magnetic dancer on stage.

Keeno, who is the company’s Dance Captain, was abetted in overall excellence by each of the other Body Traffic dancers: Katie Garcia, Jordyn Santiago, Whitney Schmanski, Pedro Garcia, Ty Morrison, Joan Rodriguez, and Guzman Rosado. Each delivered superb performances. Whether one agrees with dance’s premise, and whether that premise could have been presented more clearly, isn’t nearly as important as seeing Baye & Asa’s choreography and these dancers’ execution of it.

(l-r) Guzmán Rosado and Tina Finkelman Berkett
in Fernando Hernando Magadan’s “(d)elusive minds”
Photo by Todd Burnsed

Also at a very high level, though very different in character and ultimately as disappointing as it is entertaining, is (d)elusive minds, the second piece on the program and a New York premiere. It was brilliantly executed by the piece’s two dancers – Berkett (yes, the company’s Artistic Director) and Guzman, the company’s Associate Artistic Director.

According to the program note, (d)elusive minds is “based on the true story of Santiago, a mental patient with Capgras Delusion, a type of schizophrenia where the patient becomes convinced that a family member has been replaced by an identical imposter. In a delusional state, Santiago killed his wife.” The note goes on to say that he wrote to his wife for the 15 years he was in prison after having killed her, and that he continues to look for her.

It’s a compelling story. It’s also a challenging one to choreograph. But it’s not the only one that the piece considers. After elaborating in detail on the Santiago story, the note goes on to state: “Inspired by this story and many other extraordinary stories, [the work] explores the line between reality and fiction, health and insanity, and the deceiving characteristics of appearances.” In other words, instead of focusing on the Santiago story, the dance dilutes it and modifies the emphasis from exploring mental illness and its consequences to providing humorous examples of ‘things aren’t always as they appear to be’. With that shift of emphasis, the dance became more entertaining, but it loses its significance and devolves into cartoonish comedy.

Choreographed by Fernando Hernando Magadan to music by Franz Schubert (excerpts from Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 100), (d)elusive minds is a series of loosely connected sketches. It begins before it begins. With the curtain still down, an extensive list of people, identified only by their occupation or trait, is spoken monochromatically and piped through the theater’s speakers (e.g., a math genius, a writer, …). As I listened, I thought that these were identifications of people who were suffering with a mental illness, and that the commonality of mental illness would be the dance’s thrust. It wasn’t.

When the curtain rises, the stage set shows a room (unidentified: it could have been a room at someone’s home, or a chair and surroundings from an institution). A man (Guzman) sits at the chair reading a newspaper, and the floor is littered with a stage-spanning accumulation of discarded yellowed paper (the set was also designed by Magadan). The narrative then continues with a brief description of certain situations that are not what they appear to be, and the situation described verbally is acted out by Berkett and Guzman, who execute each sketch superbly – so well, in fact that one forgets that these stories all, presumably, relate to some form of mental illness.

(l-r) Guzmán Rosado and Tina Finkelman Berkett
in Fernando Hernando Magadan’s “(d)elusive minds”
Photo by Steven Pisano

The final skit, however, was particularly disappointing. The program note, with its extensive discussion of the Santiago matter, signaled that that curious case would be the most significant of the series of vignettes. It may have been, but only because it lasts a little longer than the others. This concluding skit depicts a man’s encounter with his wife, who he eventually kills. But there’s no hint here of the agonizing mental illness that the dance is purportedly based on. Instead, after murdering the woman (Berkett), the man (Guzman) slowly stands, slowly lifts his head, slowly looks toward the audience, and grins. That grin may be evidence of a mental illness, but that’s all there was. And many in the audience laughed at the funny image.

Berkett and Guzman are wonderful dancers, actors, and hams, but (d)elusive minds should have been more than a series of entertaining sketches that don’t advance the ball with respect to mental illness and the consequences of it. It’s a lot of fun to watch, but it sacrificed significance for fun. It could have been so much better.

I recently attended a Fall for Dance 2021 program that included choreography by Micaela Taylor.  I had a mixed reaction to the dance presented, Drift, but recognized, this being my first exposure to Taylor’s choreography, that there may have been more to the piece than I could understand. SNAP, the third piece in this BODYTRAFFIC program, is also choreographed by Taylor, but a second exposure to her choreography didn’t change my response to it. I must emphasize, however, that mine was a minority view: the audience clearly enjoyed it.

BODYTRAFFIC in Micaela Taylor’s “SNAP”
Photo by Todd Burnsed

SNAP is choreographed to an assortment of songs by James Brown, the late singer frequently referred to as the “Godfather of Soul.” The songs are not identified in the program, though many of them are easily recognizable.

The program note here asserts that the dance “is inspired by the ethnically diverse, yet isolating crowds of Los Angeles.” The note further claims that it “urges people to ‘snap’ out of’ social pressures to conform, and to connect with their individuality as well as with people around them.” From what I could determine, SNAP does nothing of the sort. It’s a series of segments of choreography to a series of James Brown songs, but beyond the choreographic style and the very dim lighting through most of it, there’s little to connect the dots into some consistent theme.

(l-r) Alana Jones, Tiare Keeno, Joan Rodriguez, Jordyn Santiago,
and Ty Morrison in Micaela Taylor’s “SNAP”
Photo by Steven Pisano

There’s nothing wrong with a dance that simply choreographs to an artist’s songbook, even if all it does is to honor and celebrate the artist who created the songs (as opposed to weaving a continuing theme or message into the presentation). SNAP simply reflects the tenor of Brown’s songs. Compared to the other pieces on the program, particularly Baye & Asa’s choreography for the program’s opening dance, Taylor’s choreography at times looks lazy and somewhat slow motion. It isn’t – the choreography is a product of, and accurately reflects and illuminates, its score. Together with Brown’s music, it’s what holds the piece together. The BODYTRAFFIC dancers (the same as those in The One to Stay With (minus Schmanski, Rosado, and Pedro Garcia, but adding Alana Jones and Joseph Davis) express the choreography convincingly. Morrison, Rodriguez and Keeno were the standouts within the standout group.

The evening ended with Alejandro Cerrudo’s PACOPEPEPLUTO. I previously saw this piece on a program presented by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 2013 (it’s not an easy title to forget).

The dance is divided into three segments, each to a song sung by Dean Martin.

Pedro Garcia
in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “PACOPEPEPLUTO”
Photo by Todd Burnsed

It would be difficult to present a greater musical contrast than between James Brown and Dean Martin. Brown’s music is bluesy, funky, macho, abrasive, contradictory, and at times powerful. The Martin songs used here (“In the Chapel in the Moonlight,” “Memories Are Made of This,” and “That’s Amore”) … have none of those qualities. As I’ve written previously, Martin’s vocals are the equivalent of being slobbered over by your favorite pooch. However, placed following SNAP made me appreciate the dance more than I did nine years ago. Its innate, unsubtle humor is refreshing (not the kind of humor in (d)elusive minds), the choreography appears more varied and suited for each song than I’d initially thought, and the execution by Rodriguez (PACO), Pedro Garcia (PECO), and Rosado (PLUTO) was superb. Each dancer is costumed in a lightly colored thong and nothing else, but that doesn’t make it at all prurient. And when Rosado’s rear faces the audience in perfect sync with the lyrics “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie,” the effect is gut-busting.

As should be obvious, this BODYTRAFFIC program provides a broad variety of contemporary dances, with something to appeal to any viewer – and the BODYTRAFFIC dancers will energize and entertain anyone. The company will be in residence at the Joyce through Sunday.