At the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Wednesday, May 22, 2019, Backhausdance proved that dance is thriving in Orange County. Founded in 2003 by artistic director and choreographer Jennifer Backhaus, the company included a cast of dancers who beautifully performed works by Backhaus, Walter Matteini (artistic director and principal choreographer of imPerfect Dancers) and Dwight Rhoden (founding artistic director and choreographer of Complexions Contemporary Ballet). It was a physically demanding program which the dancers handled with an inspiring level of professionalism.

Jenny Backhaus - Photo by Jack Hartin

Jenny Backhaus – Photo by Jack Hartin

One of the two world premieres on the program was One Continuous Line choreographed by Backhaus. She spoke to the audience saying that her new work was an homage to the women in her company; both the newest members and those that have danced with her company of years. Set to music by Robert Honstein and Christopher Cerrone, One Continuous Line was a gorgeous work that highlighted the talents of these young women while paying tribute to all women.

The work opens with a single dancer slowly walking into the light from upstage. Soon, one by one the other nine women join to form a line of moving ancestry. Costume Designer Rachael Lorenzetti dressed them in a rich amber that unifies them and Lighting Designer Michael Korsch swathed the dancers in a warmth and openness that was soothing yet dramatic.

Backhaus created many very inventive line patterns which subtly expressed a strong sense of unity, lineage and celebration of all women. Another choreographic theme she used were the recurring but ever-changing movement phrases in canon to accentuate their connectivity and collective power. Without using any stereotypes of “forceful” women, Backhaus lyrically revealed their strength, determination and ability to move forward. It was a wonderful work.

The cast of One Continuous Line included Ellen Akashi, Tawny Chapman, Amie Lee Kilgore, McKell Lemon, Katie Natwick, Kaitlin Regan, Chihiro Sano, Megan Seagren, Sammi Waugh, and Amanda Kay White.

This was my second viewing of the dark but absorbing Beyond the Noise choreographed by Walter Matteini with Ina Broeckx, and it moved me as much, if not more, than when I saw it in February of last year at the Musco Theater. Michael Korsch’s lighting is stunning for this work, creating the perfect internal and emotional atmosphere that Matteini and Broeckx have created to reflex the human struggle and private moments between couples.

Walter Matteini - Photo courtesy of the artist

Walter Matteini – Photo courtesy of the artist

The work is harsh, physical and emotionally challenging to both the performers and the audience. Relationships clash and reunite. Characters fall apart or burst into hysterical, tortured laughter only to be soothed by someone in similar pain. The movement is tender but often transforms into dispute or, in one case, controlling and abusive. Beyond the Noise never ventures into the physical extremes seen in works by the late German choreographer Pina Bausch, but it created an environment that reaches the same plane of emotions through a gentler approach.

The emotional undertones of Beyond the Noise were supported by the choreographers’ choice of music by composers Ezio Basso, Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Max Richter, and George Frideric Handel, with added soundscapes by Walter Matteini.  The pedestrian style costumes that never appeared to hinder the performers movement were designed by Jojo Siu.

Special mention goes to Ellen Akashi, Katie Natwick, Samuel DeAngelo and Santiago Villarreal, all of whom excelled in pushing their dance abilities into the realm of convincing theater.  They were joined by powerful performances from Tawny Chapman, Amie Lee Kilgore, Kaitlin Regan, Chihiro Sano, Megan Seagren, and Amanda Kay White.

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Backhausdance in Beyond the Noise by Walter Matteini with Ina Broeckx - Photo: Doug Gifford

Regarding the final piece on the program, Scene Unseen by Dwight Rhoden, I will begin by stating that the entire cast of dancers did an amazing job of performing. Kudos to them all. Ellen Akashi, Samuel DeAngelo, Katie Natwick, Kaitlin Regan, Tawny Chapman out danced themselves, and the tall stately Megan Seagren was enchanting to watch. Aika Doone also stood out in a short duet with Santiago Villarreal.

Dwight Rhoden - Photo courtesy of the artist

Dwight Rhoden – Photo courtesy of the artist

Dwight Rhoden is currently in great demand as a choreographer, and he certainly is a master at getting an audience to rise to their feet with his ceaseless high-strung movement. Barely a second goes by in a Rhoden work without sixteen different things happening. What should be gorgeous duets are upstaged by a host of dancers either dancing at record speed or in constant motion, like trying to watch a beautiful object in front of a constantly changing kaleidoscope. Scene unseen, or scene lost? Rhoden squandered one potentially tender moment with two lovers coming together in an embrace by cutting to a zero count blackout and almost instantly blasting our senses with pounding music and five couples moving at high speed in unison.

What disturbs me about Rhoden’s work is partly that much of it looks the same.  But it is also his choreography that reinforces the non-stop, don’t let me pause to reflect or truly connect society that we are currently living through. When one section is dissected or one duet separated away from the other four, the movement is beautiful and intricately designed. Sadly, however, Rhoden refuses to give the viewer credit for being able to focus solely on two people for more than one minute or less. Does he think that we might be bored by stillness?

In his tribute to David Bowie titled STAR DUST (performed April 2018 at The Music Center), Rhoden managed several times to find moments of quiet, reflection or glimpses of stillness, but even there he appeared to not trust himself to allow serenity to blossom.

The beautifully made costumes that reflected the frenzied quality of Scene Unseen were designed by Christine Darch. It did look, however, that even the extremely talented Lighting Designer Michael Korsch appeared to become exhausted by Scene Unseen. It was more than appropriate, but not his best.

The entire cast of Scene Unseen included: Ellen Akashi, Kira Bartoli, Tawny Chapman, Samuel DeAngelo, Aika Doone, Amie Lee Kilgore, Katie Natwick, Adrien Padilla, Kaitlin Regan, Chihiro Sano, Megan Seagren, Santiago Villarreal, and Amanda Kay White.

For more information about Backhausdance, click here.

To see the performance calendar listing at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, click here.

Featured image: Backhausdance in Jennifer Backhaus’ One Continuous Line – Photo: Jerry Li