Recipe: 7 versatile ballet-trained dancers with great timing and personality, add 11 refined musicians delivering traditional Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin and Frank Loesser – with a twist, Mix well with drinks and a splash of comedy, and Bake in an intimate urban metroscape for about an hour for a fabulous, fun evening of purebred theater.

The evening opened with the comedy of Ian Abramson, who reminded us that acronym-based comedy is not effective. His witticisms set the stage for the rest of the program, which was a fresh homage to vaudeville and musical theater of the screen – up-close and personal.

There are many companies that press the art and techniques of ballet into new territory, creating splashy productions filled with abstract acrobatics. American Contemporary Ballet (ACB) took an elegant dive into old territory with jazz and the magical duets of Fred Astaire and his partners. That dive took place in a quietly dark open space on the upper level of Metropolis Los Angeles, a complex that describes itself as “a city within a city.” The massive windows were carefully masked to create a clean backdrop, but allowing views to the sides of the neighboring high-rises.


American Contemporary Ballet - Sarah Bukowski and Joah Brown in "Astaire Dances III" - Photo by Sam Muller

American Contemporary Ballet – Sarah Bukowski and Joah Brown in “Astaire Dances III” – Photo by Sam Muller

he initial work, New Dances for February 2020, was comprised of 3 solo variations accompanied by solo jazz percussion. The foundation was ballet, but it was snappy, percussive, and quirky.  Each of the 3 dancers (Michelle DeAngelis, Madeline Houk and Rochelle Chang) brought their own personality and connection to the syncopations. These 3 works were the first indication of this company’s deep attention to music.  The pulse of the drum was the heartbeat of each piece, and each special rhythmic gesture – whether of the foot, hand or head – was timed with pinpoint accuracy.  It was a real treat to see and hear Rochelle Chang play the percussion instruments with her feet as a part of her variation.

The feature of the program, Astaire Dances III, was a collection of 5 duets choreographed by Fred Astaire for different movies, and staged by ACB’s Artistic Director Lincoln Jones. The live musical accompaniment was eloquent, and helped the dancers find that combination of groundedness and elegant lift that Mr. Astaire personified. The gentleman who channeled the great Astaire is a well-rounded ballet dancer who clearly relishes a challenge. Joshua Brown danced each duet with a different partner, giving each the warm attention and solid support required to execute the material. His attention to the stylings of Fred Astaire was deep and reverent.  And he brought his own smile and character to the work, transcending the business of imitation.

American Contemporary Ballet - Sarah Bukowski and Joah Brown in "Astaire Dances III" - Photo by Michel Estival

American Contemporary Ballet – Sarah Bukowski and Joah Brown in “Astaire Dances III” – Photo by Michel Estival

Each of the 5 young women who danced a duet were nearly flawless. (Elise Filo, Sarah Bukowski, Cara Hansvick, Madeline Houk and Rochelle Chang) But they had their work cut out for them – Ginger Rogers, Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse and Betty Hutton each had their own strong style and personality. The more experienced dancers expressed their distinctive personalities through facial expression, visual connection with their partner, and small details like the tilt of the head or a glance to the audience. These embellishments never distracted from the execution of the choreography and enhanced the feeling of partnership.  A couple of the dancers looked a bit more ballerina than ballroom.  If the neck were a touch less rigid, and the torso less bound, I believe they would achieve a softer feel apropos to Astaire.

American Contemporary Ballet - Josh Brown and Cara Hansvick in "Astaire Dances III" - Photo by Mary Joyce

American Contemporary Ballet – Josh Brown and Cara Hansvick in “Astaire Dances III” – Photo by Mary Joyce

One duet ventured away from the lyric romance. Oh Them Dudes, from the movie “Let’s Dance”, was an utter romp complete with a pair of cowpokes, a bar, dancing with hats and on boxes, and a bartender surprise.  Mr. Brown and Madeline Houk delivered the dancing and the comedy with elan.

Lighting the unique, long rectangle of the performance space must have been a challenge, but the dancers were illuminated and enhanced the entire time they were before us.

American Contemporary Ballet - Elise Filo and Josh Brown in "Astaire Dances III" - Photo by Sam MullerThe wardrobe (Costume Designed by Ruoxuan Li) was classic, flowing and elegant, as befits a suite of Astaire dances.  Each skirt, gown and suit gave us a sense of the ballroom, patio or saloon the dance inhabited.

ACB is committed to working with live music, and the ensemble created for this production was outstanding.  They delivered classic songs, recognizable yet fresh.  Little touches like flutes voicing percussive touches in Cole Porter’s Night and Day brought us to attention and mirrored the accents in the movement. The musicians that provided this musical freshness were: Alin Melik-Adamyan (Musical Director), Chang Lu, Javier Morales, Mann-Wen Lo, Strauss Shi, Nao Kubota, Keith Williams, Evan Hillis, Ana Barreiro, Anastasia Malliaras, Morgan Jones.

In case you hadn’t figured it out, I had a ball. And that’s not something one often says about a “night at the ballet.”  But there is no reason that ballet, fun and funny can’t get together and have a good time.  ACB delivered all that.

The multi-talented cast of Astaire Dances III included Michelle DeAngelis, Madeline Houk, Rochelle Chang, Elise Filo, Joshua Brown, Sarah Bukowski, and Cara Hansvick. The Executive Director of ACB is Theresa Farrell and the Lighting Design: Zach Titterington.

The program will be presented through February 15th.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Written by Mary Pat Cooney for LA Dance Chronicle, February 5, 2020.

Featured image: American Contemporary Ballet – Rochelle Chang and Josh Brown in Astaire Dances III – Photo by Mary Joyce