Formed three years ago, the 11-member company called contra-tiempo just might be the new face of Los Angeles dance -- and the new voice as well.
At the Unknown Theater in Hollywood on Thursday, the company's face was mostly brown, beige or black, its voice bilingual or accented, its vision uncompromisingly identified with the underclass. And no, not only the Latino underclass but also the abandoned, forgotten victims of Hurricane Katrina, the youth culture betrayed and exploited by the commercial swill that currently passes for hip-hop -- anyone in danger of marginalization.
Director-choreographer Ana Maria Alvarez has gone back to where theatrical dance always goes when it reaches a dead end -- to folklore -- and built her company style on the rhythms and push-pull vocabulary of salsa. This choice gives her work an immediate accessibility, though her exploration of gender issues often results in unorthodox partnering (men being dipped, for instance) and same-sex duets.
Her eight-part "I Dream America" represents the kind of socially aware contemporary work that only a few dance artists such as Bill T. Jones reliably provide.
The company is strong, the opinions stronger, the sense of people dancing against injustice or taking on themselves the pain of the oppressed like nothing else in local dance. The protest is always pithy, but the most powerful moments come when the statements of mutual support and solidarity suggest that Alvarez sees contra-tiempo as a microcosm of a reconceived U.S.A. -- a supportive community, responsible and caring.
Clearly Alvarez will try anything, for the program includes bad ideas that show you how she got to the good ones. A brief flirtation duet, for example, plays like a Moiseyev relic: folkloric steps placed in a much-too-cute quasi-narrative context. Other sequences look like basic classroom exercises about getting a text up on its feet. There are impossibly overloaded pileups of speech, music, video and dance. Even some of the same-sex duets look more like political statements than fully developed choreography.
The extended "contra-tiempo/against-the-times" suite starts as a comic depiction of a salsa class (with the unspoken thoughts of the participants played over loudspeakers), then peaks and sags a number of times before its audience-participation finale. The core of it -- varied, overlapping salsa duets that never lose their dignity even at highest velocity and intricacy -- easily outweigh the lumpy, agitprop insertions, but well-structured it's not.
No matter. In heart, mind and soul, this is the real thing, on its way to distinction even if not always there yet. And the live music (much of it composed by Cesar Alvarez) adds its own potent excitement.
Where: Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. today, 6 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Thursday through next Saturday, 6 p.m. July 15
Contact: (323) 466-7781 or www.unknowntheater.com