The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts opened its doors in October of 2013 and was one of the first major venues in Los Angeles to present and produce local dance companies. One of the first was Jacob Jonas The Company followed by Heidi Duckler Dance, Ate9, Blue13 Dance Company, DIAVOLO/Architecture in Motion, Versa Style Dance Company, Micaela Taylor & TL Collective, BODYTRAFFIC, and more. Very recently, other venues such as The Music Center, The Soraya, The Musco Theatre and The Segerstrom Center have also discovered that there are extremely talented and dynamic dance companies right here in LA.
In residency prior to and following the pandemic, and now returning to The Wallis stage for three performances October 21 & 22, 2022 is LA based BODYTRAFFIC, led by Artistic Director Tina Finkelman Berkett, featuring works by three very diverse choreographers, Baye & Asa, Matthew Neenan and Los Angeles native Micaela Taylor. Baye & Asa’s The One to Stay With will have its west coast premiere after premiering in New York City, and Matthew Neenan’s “whimsical and joyous” A Million Voices performed to the music of Peggy Lee will make an encore performance at The Wallis. The program will include PACOPEPEPLUTO with choreography by Alejandro Cerrudo.
BODYTRAFFIC will also present the world premiere of Micaela Taylor’s new work was inspired by well-known tragic love stories. This (as yet untitled) piece was created to music by SHOCKEY.
I met with Berkett and Taylor on Zoom to learn more about their upcoming home season. This was my first time speaking at length with Berkett, but Taylor was the very first LA dance artist that I interviewed for LADC back in 2018. She has since gone on to make a name for herself both nationally and internationally. Most recently Taylor was commissioned by renown Cuban born dancer and choreographer Carlos Acosta, Artistic Director of Havana, Cuba based Acosta Danza. Taylor’s work, Performance, will have its Los Angeles debut on Saturday, October 8, 2022 at The Ford Theatre.
“Our goals are very much in line with what the artistic team at The Wallis is up to,” Berkett stated when asked about her company’s residency there. The Wallis has very recently had a turnover within its artistic team. Their very first Artistic Director, Paul Crewes, left at the end of 2021 and The Wallis recently announced the departure of Executive Director & Chief Executive Officer, Rachel Fine. who has been a huge supporter of dance at The Wallis “Rachel Fine has been an incredible partner to us, ”Berkett continued. “We’re really sad she’s leaving.” She mentioned, however, that the Associate Artistic Director, Coy Middlebrook, has been very encouraging of BODYTRAFFIC’s work.
“With Coy, we’re in this constant conversation around how BODYTRAFFIC can do more at The Wallis,” Berkett added. “Really as an opportunity to do more for Los Angeles.” Without giving away any unapproved ideas that she has, Berkett hopes to not only increase the visibility of Los Angeles Dance, but to help organize programs in partnership with The Wallis to give back to the dancers and dance professionals. “Those who have been investing in this community for a long time,” she said, adding that she hopes to help make certain that high schools who do not have the means to attend their afternoon school showing that takes place before their opening night on Friday, October 21st. “Our partnership at The Wallis is ultimately to serve the greater community,” Berkett continued.
Berkett grew up in New York City, graduating summa cum laude from Barnard College, Columbia University with a double major in Mathematics and Economics. She credits her love of dance to her teacher and mentor Michele Cuccaro Cain and began her professional dance career at Aszure Barton & Artists. Berkett was also a founding member of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Hell’s Kitchen Dance and toured internationally alongside Mr. Baryshnikov before relocating to Los Angeles and co-founding BODYTRAFFIC with dancer and colleague Lillian Barbeito. Barbeito has since relocated to Carmel, California where she launched the annual Carmel Dance Festival.
Now in the process of redefining BODYTRAFFIC and clarifying the company’s artistic vision, Berkett hopes that BODYTRAFFIC will be able to present its annual home season at The Wallis. “We’ve done a lot of work around what kind of impact we want to have,” Berkett said. “This season we’re really focusing on identity, the identities of the people who are the most important contributors to our company, and how we all identify ourselves as Angelenos.”
As Berkett made that last statement, she turned to Taylor as someone who represents the perfect person to be BODYTRAFFIC’s first artist in residence. Taylor was born and raised in LA, began her dance training in Hip Hop and other forms of commercial dance at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, attended the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts (LACHSA), received her ballet training at the Marat Daukayev School of Ballet, and graduated from Cornish College of the Arts. Taylor performed with companies Ate 9 and BODYTRAFFIC before launching Micaela Taylor & TL Collective in 2016. (add link to interview w/Micaela)
“Everything about Micaela speaks to her dedication to Los Angeles,” Berkett said. When I mentioned that Micaela was born and raised in LA, Berkett added, “She’s the only one actually from here!” Referring to current members of BODYTRAFFIC.
Their residency at The Wallis does involve some teaching, but not the usual classes in dance technique. The Wallis offers in-school-residencies known as GROW @ The Wallis – A Space for Arts Education. One aspect of this program is designed for young inspiring Arts writers and older adults who are also interested in writing about the arts. The latter is called Staged Stories and Beyond Words which is designed for “those 55 and older to tap their creativity and find new ways to share their personal stories.” Cuban born BODYTRAFFIC member Joan Rodriguez led a movement workshop for older adults. Berkett said of Rodriquez, “In my humble opinion, he is one of the greatest gifts to LA dance. He is a Cuban refugee, and he has taken our company by storm. He was the complete highlight of our summer program teaching Afro-Cuban and sharing his experience.”
“We’re doing a lot of partnerships and outreach work with the various programs that The Wallis is already invested in,” Berkett added. Just recently the company hired its first Education and Outreach Manager Julie Opiel. Berkett said that it appears that Opiel is setting up a residency at LACHSA centered around Taylor’s work, as well as other classes around the city.
When I asked if working with Taylor, whose work is highly influenced by hip-hop, ballet and contemporary dance, helped prepare the BODYTRAFFIC dancers for Baye & Asa’s hip-hop and Afro-American based movement. Berkett said that it was because of Taylor that she even became aware of Baye & Asa. She first saw the group when they, and Taylor, were participating in a virtual film festival titled BlackLight Summit. She was also impressed with how Baye & Asa responded to questions during the Q&A which followed the showings.
The One to Stay With was inspired by and based upon Patrick Radden Keefe’s book Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. It is a book that has been awarded a National Book Critics Circle nomination, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and it was a New York Times Best Seller. The music for The One to Stay With is by Russian Brass Band; Romanian Folk Dances; Béla Bartók; Georgy Sviridov; Sound Design by Jack Grabow; Lighting by Michael Jarett; Set Design by Baye & Asa and Michael Jarett, and Costumes by Oana Botez. The cast includes: Katie Garcia, Pedro Garcia, Tiare, Keeno, Ty Morrison, Joan Rodriguez, Guzmán Rosado, Jordyn Santiago, and Whitney Schmanski.
Berkett also credits Taylor with helping her become a better director. “She has really let me into the [creative] process,” she said, “and I play a fairly active role in the creation of her works now. So, I’ve grown a lot as a director by virtue of that relationship.” She also believes that this present company of dancers is the strongest that BODYTRAFFIC has ever had.
I asked Taylor, who was recently awarded the 2021-2022 Audience’s Choice Award of Best Dance Soloist by SF Classical Voice, why she chose this particular storyline for her new work.
“When I learned about this story, I was attracted to the love and tragedy of it,” she answered. “I think that no matter who you are, you’ve probably experienced those emotions. To go through what we’ve been through— the devastation and the heartbreak, I think that it was inevitable and was something I did not want to avoid. Most of all, one of the things that really drew me in. Likewise, having two people come together from totally opposite worlds was very intriguing to me.”
Taylor has always been interested in the re-telling of a story. It was working so closely with BODYTRAFFIC as both a dancer and a choreographer that has given Taylor the courage to take on this new task. She had previously worked with SHOCKEY for her work titled SNAP which BODYTRAFFIC premiered at The Wallis in 2019 and felt that he could utilize more classical musical sounds. “I really wanted to collaborate with him again and show a different size of both our creativity,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s new work was created to an original music and sound score by SHOCKEY; Lighting by Michael Jarett; Costume and Set design by Lori Lee Jacobson; and performed by Katie Garcia, Alana Jones, Tiare Keeno, Ty Morrison, Joan Rodriguez, and Jordyn Santiago.
An interesting and perhaps amusing fact about the making of Matthew Neenan’s A Million Voices is that it was made pre-pandemic on a Dude Ranch in Arizona. Neenan wanted to use the music of Peggy Lee’s and Berkett said, “Little did we know how much we’d be influenced by Americana and being on this Dude Ranch.” This was when the company had been awarded a residency in Wickenburg, Arizona. All of the dancers in BODYTRAFFIC are people of color, immigrants or identify as members of the LGBT+ community. “So for all of us to be plopped down in Wickenburg, Arizona was a really interesting thing to observe and to feel,” Berkett said. “What it is to be American. What it meant for people at some time in history to be proud to be American and how we’re struggling with that right now.”
Berkett stated that audiences appear to be responding to A Million Voices more positively post pandemic. “I think people are just enjoying being in the theater and seeing something that feels celebratory and nostalgic,” she said.
A Million Voices was created to music performed by Peggy Lee; composed by Robert Sour & Una Mae Carlisle, Johnny Mercer & Harold Arlen, C. Farrow, Irving Berlin, Mike Stoller & Jerry Leiber, Adrian Zing & Benny Goodman, and Arthur Hamilton. The Lighting Design is by Burke Wilmore and Costumes by BODYTRAFFIC. The cast includes Katie Garcia, Pedro Garcia, Alana Jones, Tiare Keeno, Ty Morrison, Joan Rodriguez, Guzmán Rosado, and Jordyn Santiago.
One of my final questions to Berkett was how she feels to be running BODYTRAFFIC alone after co-directing it for 14 years with Lillian Barbeito who she says had a beautiful relationship with both as a friend and as co-directors. “I was only 23 years old when I started BODYTRAFFIC,” she said. “Lillian and I both were exploring what it could be and developing it together. As the years went on, we each became clearer about what work we each wanted to do.”
During the pandemic Barbeito moved to Carmel and Berkett’s vision for the future of the company became more focused. “I’m reinventing the company and clarifying exactly what we’re committed to and the impact we want to have,” Berkett began. “I’ve found that these dancers have a new found commitment to the company, which has been totally inspiring. It is really the values of the company that have come into focus.”
Berkett spoke about how when the company first started out that she and Barbeito felt that they had a lot to prove and to get through. They had a long bucket list of goals each wanted to reach like performing at Jacob’s Pillow, the Joyce Theater in NYC, etc. Now that those goals have now been reached and that the company no longer has to prove that they are established, Berkett stated that she now cares “about our dancers and our audiences and making sure that people really see that we’ve devoted our entire lives to perpetuate dance as an art form. That is the crystal-clear vision.” She hopes that when audiences come to see BODYTRAFFIC at The Wallis, that they will see and get the integrity and commitment that everyone has to what they are doing.
Unfortunately we did not have time to discuss Alejandro Cerrudo’s PACOPEPEPLUTO, set to music by Memories Are Made of This by Joe Scalisi, In The Chapel In The Moonlight by Dean Martin, That’s Amoré by Dean Martin; Lighting Design by Matthew Miller and the performers include 1st solo: Joan Rodriguez; 2nd solo: Pedro Garcia, and 3rd solo: Guzmàn Rosado.
The Associate Artistic Director of BODYTRAFFIC is Guzmán Rosado; the Technical Director is Michael Jarett; the General Manager is Callen Gosselin; the Touring and Production Manager is Dora Quintanilla; and the company dancers include Katie Garcia, Pedro Garcia, Guzmàn Rosado, Alana Jones, Tiare Keeno, Ty Morrison, Joan Rodriguez, Jordyn Santiago, and Whitney Schmanski.
WHERE: Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts – 9390 North Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210
WHEN: Friday, October 21, 7:30 pm
Saturday, October 22, 2:00 pm & 7:30 pm
TICKETS: Tickets: $39-$99 (prices subject to change)
For more information and to purchase tickets, please click HERE.
To Learn more about The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, please visit their website.
To learn more about BODYTRAFFIC, please visit their website.
To learn more about Micaela Taylor/TL Collective, please visit their website.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.