For more than a quarter-century, the locally based Avaz International Dance Theatre has specialized in adaptations of folklore -- adaptations more abstract and impressionistic in recent years, but still identifiably in a world dance tradition.
That artistic identity radically changed Saturday with the premiere of "Guran" in the Luckman Theatre at Cal State L.A. Choreographed and designed by artistic director Jamal using recorded music by four composers, this 70-minute narrative fable incorporated a range of movement resources, only some of them from Jamal's native Iran.
For example, the leading soloist wore pointe shoes and the kind of wings you might find in a 19th century Franco-Russian ballet classic. Moreover, the work as a whole aimed at a kind of pancultural exoticism: Omar Khayyam retelling his tales in the modern world, using that world's evolved stagecraft and theater-dance idioms.
Except for Carolyn Melson as the toe-dancing butterfly, the 15-member cast wore identical black robes with black ribbon-skirts, each ribbon gleaming white on its underside, so that the dancers always seemed to be moving through wondrous self-generated sprays of light.
Also carried through in the dancers' makeup, Jamal's striated black-and-white design motif boldly stylized the focus on wild zebras (the guran) dominating his plot. But the uniformity usually made it difficult to know when that plot switched to depicting the court of a legendary warrior-king.
If you liked, you could think of the zebras as an indigenous culture constantly in danger of being wiped out by the dominant warriors, an interpretation that would give the work social as well as ecological relevance. But too many of the episodes failed to connect, and working through the narrative often seemed to a hopeless viewer (or reviewer) like trying to piece together a pile of ancient glyphs. However fascinating the process, the result invariably proved fragmentary and likely at odds with the work's printed synopsis.
According to the program notes, "Guran" ended with the butterfly preparing to leave the zebras forever, while "they beseech her one last time to stay and save them." However, what you saw on Saturday was no such thing but rather an ensemble victory dance, probably the zebras', but maybe not.
Ultimately, it became far more satisfying to ignore the story entirely and view the work as a visionary spectacle, a series of disconnected dreamlike meditations staged with extraordinary visual flair and choreographic savvy.
Although Jamal showcased soloists Edgar Miramontes, Joy Ann Martin and Lori Parker in intense depictions of death and mourning, group choreography gave "Guran" its luster. He frequently divided the ensemble into geometric configurations that reflected the classical formality of the accompaniments: a processional arc at the back versus a circular cluster downstage in the opening "Niayesh" ceremony, for instance.
Perhaps the most exciting ensemble choreography involved percussive rhythms, lots of opportunities for those ribbon-skirts to flare and so many punching, rotating hands that the Luckman seemed to vibrate with their energy. At such moments, the combination of formal spatial design, stylized costuming and powerfully kinetic movement ideas recalled Erick Hawkins' modern dance classic "The Lords of Persia," which also tried to evoke and abstract the culture of Jamal's homeland.
Performed in front of a forest of reeds, with a broken, monumental archway at the back, these sequences inspired lighting designer Eileen Cooley to a number of prismatic effects that surrounded the black-and-white realm of the dancers with vistas of intense color.
Obviously, "Guran" represented a breakthrough for Avaz, one displaying plenty of talent to back up its high conceptual ambition. But it needed greater attention to accessible storytelling to beguile a wider audience than the Iranian American community, which has long provided the company's base of support. How it looked and moved generated high excitement Saturday, but as dance-theater, it proved disappointingly incomplete.