Without losing its focus on distinctive and often provocative choreography, the Los Angeles Dance Invitational has gone from an annual charity benefit to a more conventional showcase of local and visiting companies.
Pitches for donations and glimpses of talented kiddies were thus missing (but not really missed) at the seventh edition Saturday in El Portal Theatre. But the 2 1/2 -hour event continued the practice of honoring distinguished dance teachers -- in this case British ballet veteran Margaret Graham Hills, a local resource since the early 1970s.
As for the dancing, several choreographers tried to reclaim music previously identified with more famous dance-makers -- none more successfully than Marie de la Palme in "The Cage," which made Debussy's "Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune" the accompaniment to a passionate gymnastic duet for an imprisoned Fabienne Levinson and a free, soaring Evan Strand. The cage unit blocked visibility and didn't ideally suit the work's lyric style, but the performances grew deeper and more exciting as the work developed.
De la Palme also collaborated with Mike Wittmers on one of the big hits of the evening: "The Door," a tap showpiece for Wittmers with more to say about confronting impossible obstacles and accepting limitations. Rhythmic tap, angry tap, upside-down tap: "The Door" exhausted possibilities without ever exhausting Wittmers.
In "The Morning After," Ashley Browne adroitly used three couples and pop music to depict a range of contemporary relationships: all loving, turbulent and enduring, despite the odds.
Drapery dance -- an antique modern dance subgenre -- gained new currency from two somber abstractions. Kathleen Davidson's "Night Sky" featured Davidson and Alexa Kershner's inventive rearrangements of an enormous skein of gauzy fabric, and a Vox Dance Theatre women's ensemble strikingly manipulated the trains of formal white gowns in Sarah Swenson's "Fimmine," set to Philip Glass music familiar from Twyla Tharp's "In the Upper Room."
Vibrant expressions of heritage occurred in "Arriba Jalisco," featuring 20 well-drilled members of Jose Vences' Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company, and in "Sibling Love," a Stephanie Zhao trio with a confusing dramatic agenda but a spectacular series of intricate, high-speed passages that ended in picture-perfect group body sculpture.
Powerful dancing proliferated. Tina Kay Bohnstedt exuded steely prowess in the off-balance challenges of Viktor Kabaniaev's moody solo, "Sound of the Closing Door." Sarandon Cassidy and Rogelio Lopez G. agonized effectively in Paula Present's "Orpheus and Eurydice" dance drama for Ptero Dance Theatre.
Jacqueline Pagone and Michael Forsch brought great freshness and buoyancy to Nancy Evans Doede's uneven wooing ritual, "A Wink and a Nod" (to Gershwin), with Forsch's effortless, beautifully shaped jumps especially disarming.
Miscalculations included Michelle Diane Brown's "Urban Sprawl," an energetic, scattershot trio for members of Kacico Kansas City Contemporary Dance; Robin E. Johnson's "Mozart 250," more a teaching piece for a young ensemble than finished choreography; and Laurence Blake's uninspired "Titania and Oberon" pas de deux, danced by Sven Toorvald and Iris Anderson in tribute to ballet veteran Hills.
Considering Hills' longtime affiliation with England's Royal Ballet, presenting Frederick Ashton's magical choreography from "The Dream" to the same music would have been more appropriate -- and enjoyable.
As usual, Howard Ibach served as the event's executive producer and host.