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Ate9's Danielle Agami doesn't need a mirror to know what she's doing

Ate9 Dance Company artistic director Danielle Agami isn't much for tradition. Her troupe premieres 'Mouth to Mouth' at Los Angeles Theatre Center.

April 19, 2014|By Victoria Looseleaf
  • Ate9 dance troupe director Danielle Agami in UCLA's Royce Hall Rehearsal Room.
Ate9 dance troupe director Danielle Agami in UCLA's Royce Hall Rehearsal… (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)

Dancer-choreographer Danielle Agami, artistic director of Ate9 Dance Company, dislikes voice mail, cameras and mirrors. Indeed, for someone whose career is so body-centric, the mirror has been noticeably absent in her dance practice for more than a decade.

But Israeli-born Agami, 29, has never been one to hew to tradition. When her eight-member troupe premieres her latest full-evening work, "Mouth to Mouth," at Los Angeles Theatre Center April 26 and May 3, expect a supremely idiosyncratic performance.

"The day Ohad took the mirror away I had the privacy to think about other things that are so much more important than the way I look," explained Agami during a recent break at UCLA's Royce Hall Rehearsal Studio.

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That would be Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company, with whom Agami danced from 2002 to 2010. She also served as artistic director of Batsheva Dancers Create and as the troupe's rehearsal director from 2008 to 2010, before moving to New York the next year, where she headed Gaga USA.

The term for a technique Naharin created and developed nearly 15 years ago while dealing with a back injury, Gaga is a movement language where actions train the body and aid one's self-awareness in response to verbal prompts from the teacher. ("See if you can reach with your bones outside of your skin.")

The unblocked body then becomes a vessel for distorted, exaggerated motion, forging a metaphysical connection that is also meant to hearken back to simpler times. Agami likens her class to a playground, where participants are urged to connect to pleasure.

"Gaga changed the way I feel about my body — the confidence, the joy, the option to use my body as a tool for dialogue with myself and the outside world," said Agami. "That is the core of what I'm trying to teach, how I move and how I choreograph. Gaga lets me put all this inside and gives me freedom to express myself."

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On stage, the results of Gaga have a distinct look: From cycles of edgy, quicksilver directional shifts, snake-hip motifs and restless arms, to daringly aggressive moves and rhythmic couplings that might morph into hard-core balances, the method makes the strange seem almost familiar.

It is this liberating of the body that also makes Agami, a dramatic presence with her nearly shaved head, thick eyebrows and dark-as-onyx eyes, such a mesmerizing mover.

During rehearsal — sans mirrors, of course — Agami leads the troupe through a series of steps done in unison that include exaggerated duck-like walking, the occasional split-leg leap and moves reminiscent of toy dipping birds: heads repeatedly bobbing, albeit, for unseen water. There are also rapid bourrées on highly arched feet that could seem satiric but here feel organic.

"I'm trying to have the dancers lead me, to point out their characters, their physical abilities and let that be the engine that helps generate movement for them," she says. "I want to create a flow that will make sense and won't make any sense at the same time, that keeps you captivated."

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And it does. Moving from New York to Seattle, where Cornish College of the Arts supported an Agami residency with Velocity Dance Center, the Israeli established Ate9 in June 2012. But finding Seattle a bit tame, the director brashly moved to L.A. in January 2013, taking her dancers with her. (Of the original group, three remain: Sarah Butler, Genna Moroni and Ariana Daub.)

Since arriving in town, Agami has become choreography's It girl. At last year's L.A. Dance Festival, The Times described an excerpt of her first full-evening work, "Sally Meets Stu," as "an amped-up, balletic folk dance, different styles bolted together with a hypnotic rhythmic expertise."

More recently, Ate9 completed a week's residency at UCLA, performing two shows for high school students. Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA's artistic director, Kristy Edmunds, said that L.A. is "inspiring to Danielle's aesthetic ideas.

"As a curator," continued Edmunds, "I think her priority is not to imagine how to exploit riches in service to her 'brand' but instead to position her artistic ideas within an internationally engaged 'art city' in pursuit of creating great work — from here. I respect that diligence and awareness."

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Last spring, Yuval Sharon, artistic director of the avant-garde opera troupe the Industry, tapped Agami to choreograph members of L.A. Dance Project for "Invisible Cities," composer Christopher Cerrone's headphone opera at Union Station. Then, in November, Agami and company won the $10,000 Division I Grand Prize Award at the McCallum Theatre's Choreography Festival in Palm Desert. (With that money, the troupe presents itself in two concerts in New York City in late May.)

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