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Choreography in the Present tense

Paula Present brings a welcome dose of social commentary to her work with thoughtful, committed dancing.

July 23, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

The choreographer Paula Present has a gift for creating memorable body sculpture (particularly with groups) and for shaping a sophisticated, contemporary movement vocabulary into fine-grained meditations on important current issues. In a three-part program at the Unknown Theater in Hollywood, her award-winning, mostly female PTERO Dance Theatre provides a satisfying summary of her artistry -- as well as a look at her limitations.

Present needs a resident composer to save her from the consequences of dumping so many styles of music into a work that the accompaniment generates a disjointed, scattershot effect. The glowing exception: her 2004 lyric solo "Unfolding," impressively danced by Nicole La Cour on Saturday, in which an original score by Ariel A. Blumenthal supports a woman's search through her memories and emotions for something crucial that is now lost.

The difference between light and darkness in a PTERO piece may be only a matter of degree, and that tendency can leave a work with an elliptical ending and no real feeling of closure. Present's "In the Forest," a 2006 quintet that focuses on the troubled young women from Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible," artfully develops a conflict between sensual needs and religious repression, with AnnJeannette Walters serving as the group leader and Delyer Anderson as the ultimate rebel. But the ending -- a costume change in silhouette -- is insufficient, and we wait in vain for more.

Present's new abstract dance drama, "The Frame of Mind," uses nine composers in five sections to explore ideas about dominance, social tensions and belief systems. Anderson emerges as the manipulative authority figure, finding Present waiting by a closed door and pushing her through pointless changes of position.

You can easily read the sequence as a comment on U.S. immigration policies, but the issue becomes more than conceptual when Louie Cornejo, Shoko Tamura and Eva Wieland begin battling with long wooden poles and Anderson is forced to confront the consequences of her power-mongering. (Tim Weske is credited for fight choreography.)

Dancers blindly feeling their way through the landscape or absorbed in prayer or sending semaphoric hand signals to the audience as if angrily laying down the law: These images abstract the actions of people in our society with agendas that Present questions. But her conclusion is hopeful. That closed door opens, and people pass through it. The fallen are mourned, and a new sense of community arises. Even the oppressor is liberated.

Whether you share Present's optimism, the process of transforming the news of the day into thoughtful, committed dancing represents the kind of positive action that's needed on the widest possible scale right now.

Social commentary in modern dance is not new, but it's heartening to find a constellation of skillful Los Angeles artists making work that's about something more than their oh-so-sensitive souls, their last love affair, their fabulous technique, their devastating sex appeal or their beautiful feet. And those artists seem to be finding an audience just as aware as they are in places like the Unknown Theater.

Besides the dancers previously mentioned, PTERO included Courtney Meadows and Marni Rosenthal Chaikin on Saturday. Performances continue next weekend.



Ptero Dance Theatre

Where: Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., Hollywood.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 6 p.m. Sunday

Price: $18 (online only) and $24

Contact: (323) 466-7781 or

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