The thing about Jordan Johnson and Aidan Carberry — the choreographic duo known as JA Collective — is they’re always intertwined in new ways. They’ve managed to take the finite combination of four limbs each and weave it into thousands of beautiful, complicated connections. After a few years of choreographing for and touring with the band half·alive, the pair have really settled into their unique style, which has really become their calling card. But they are far from stagnant, constantly questioning and reinventing their own concepts. And on their own stage, they have a lot to say.

In 5 Stories About Stage That Are Simply Untrue, a work they co-devised with Ryan Amador as part of Dance at the Odyssey, Johnson is dreaming a duet between dancers Zak Ryan Schlegel and Denna Thomsen. You’re dropped into the middle of a stage piece with no narrative and no context: a feeling the dance viewer knows well and accepts willingly. There are costumes and atmospheric music. But though it’s visually beautiful and emotionally loaded, it’s mysteriously vague. It feels nondescript enough that you’ve maybe somehow seen it before.

Johnson wakes up, and Carberry comes out to give his curtain speech. Except — spoiler alert — he’s just practicing. It’s actually an hour before curtain, and Schlegel is walking to warm up for the big show. And as the hour progresses, Keean Johnson calling “50 minutes until showtime” from the booth, Johnson decides he wants to change the ending, because of his dream. He thinks it can have more of…something.

But JA is threading — literally, threading their arms and legs through each other — as they discuss. They share a few cigarettes with Schlegel as they talk, weaving and smoking and speeding up and slowing down in what could be a standalone piece. It’s infuriatingly good. Beyond the physical and mental feat of actively inhaling and exhaling (hemp) smoke, executing a detailed piece of beautiful choreography, and having a casual conversation about translating ideas to bodies all at the same time, they find this comfortably informal rapport between the movement and the dialogue. They play with time, they stretch dynamics, and essentially meditate on both ideas at once, bouncing them off of each other.

Having known Carberry and Johnson since college, I’ve seen them work in this language before, but never to this complex extent. Codifying such a communal social act into the onstage show choreography is a capture that feels so comforting and challenging to watch. It’s like brain exercise to see both meditations unfold at the same time, satisfying and rewarding.

They lean into the tension of the pre-show revision, breaking it and bending it in ways that feel both cinematic and mundane at the same time. After pulling a very heated conversation into the longest silence known to man, a fascinating study in perspective shifts the trajectory. A camera peers through a clear table surface, pointing up at Johnson and Carberry to capture their on-table forearm duet in a live feed projected on the wall. Reframed, they sort of work out the tension with their unspoken connection. The way the two breathe together, tossing ideas back and forth in this ebbing and flowing rhythm, brings immediate relief. And then they turn the camera up at the booth to catch silhouettes of Schlegel and Thomsen, working out their frustration in the ending duet with a cathartic emotional release.

Carberry and Johnson resume in a breathtaking duet, floating on the lingering tension of that moment and then letting it dissolve completely as Schlegel and Thomsen join them in unison. Tongue-twister movement phrases JA has been working on for years come back to make new friends. The audience takes a collective exhale — it’s the little extra bits of conflict being smoothed out, the true consensus in a fleeting moment of performance.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen evening-length dance work so expertly realized, but I’m not surprised that it’s coming from these minds. 5 Stories will be with me for a long time, a poignant meditation on the tension between real life and dreams, fluid process and rigid product — that exposes how much self an artist brings to their work.

Dance at the Odyssey continues for the next three weekends with Jessie Lee Thorne’s Poets In Motion (February 3 – 4), Suchi Branfman’s Dancing Through Prison Walls/DATA or 7 ways to dance a dance through prison walls (February 10 – 11), and DaEun Jung’s BYOULNORRI (별놀이) (February 17 -19).  For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble website.


For more information about JA Collective, please click HERE.

Written by Celine Kiner for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: JA Collective – Photo by Jake Lanza