Just a few years ago, Mehmet Sander was the holy terror of the Cal State Long Beach dance department and the big news at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. On Friday, when the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago presented his trio "Inner Space" at the Ahmanson Theatre, he became the first locally based choreographer to have a work performed here by a major national company while still a part of the Southland dance scene.
"Inner Space," however, is scarcely ballet by any definition. Rather, it traps three dancers inside a transparent acrylic box and explores the possible geometric configurations and cooperative endeavors that human bodies might achieve under those conditions. Lighted from below, with huge shadows of itself filling the back wall left and right, it is accompanied only by the amplified sounds the dancers make as they slam into the walls of the box or hang from the open circle at the top and slide down to the floor.
Although you might consider "Inner Space" a metaphor for urban survival, its formal rigor links it to dances of pitiless abstract experiment such as the Balanchine/Stravinsky "Agon," with a dash of Harry Houdini on the side. And even if there are no steps to execute, the slender, long-limbed Joffrey dancers give its tests of pliancy a linear purity and smoothness of phrasing missing when the piece is presented by Sander's own task-oriented dancing gymnasts.
This adventuresome, entertaining showpiece--performed by Terace Jones, Jill Davidson and Todd Stickney--crowned an otherwise familiar, appealing four-part program devoted to elegies and iconoclasts. Dating from 1983, company director Gerald Arpino's brooding "Round of Angels" is the first widely seen dance work responding to the AIDS crisis, and the elegant Laura Dean section of "Billboards" from 10 years later also pays tribute to a fallen friend in its opening sequence, "Sometimes It Snows in April."
Working with an 18-member ensemble, Dean builds from a flow of motion across the stage, through a passage of rapid-fire jumps that crisscross the space, into big circle formations with the dancers turning along the circumference--a battle plan as geometric as Sander's. Dean also manages to alternate bold displays of technique with looser, cooler dancing, never flinging the company in the audience's teeth. Not even at the very end, when everyone drops face down on the floor instead of forming a show-biz "Love Me, Applaud Me" lineup. An artful accomplishment in a full-evening project to music by Prince not exactly celebrated for being high-minded.
With beating wings and surging entrances used as recurrent motifs for its six men, "Round of Angels" (music by Mahler) ultimately becomes a pas de deux in which the ballet's lone woman anchors the choreography and embodies its theme of heroic endurance. David Paul Kierce proves a conscientious partner here, and the ballerina role is given exceptional dramatic force by the Joffrey's reigning classical stylist, Lorena Feijoo, who opts for the highest extensions, the deepest backbends, the softest arm flutters, the sharpest contrasts between positions. All distinguished by the distinctive Soviet-style body sculpture that Feijoo honed in Cuba.
Completing the program: "Untitled," a collaborative Pilobolus sextet from 1975 to music by Robert Dennis, in which two Edwardian women (Davidson and Julie Janus) stand very, very tall indeed--with men's legs sticking out beneath their long dresses. Conceived as a whimsical life cycle, the work turns gender chauvinism inside out by giving men no reality except as adjuncts, partners, toys and ultimately furniture for the women's use. It was created by its original cast: Robby Barnett, Alison Chase, Martha Clarke, Moses Pendleton, Michael Tracy and Jonathan Wolken.
Taped music accompanied all the pieces except for "Inner Space." "Round of Angels" replaced a ballet by Robert Joffrey on short notice, which may explain why its curtain calls were a technical shambles. No further performances by the company are scheduled this season.