On October 6, 2018, the El Camino College Center for the Arts presented Pennington Dance Group at the Marsee Auditorium, a vast hall with a seating capacity of just over 2000. John Pennington, Artistic Director, choreographed three of the four works on the program, with the fourth being the historic duet, The Beloved, choreographed by modern dance legends Bella Lewitzky and Lester Horton.

This is perhaps the third time that I have seen Pennington’s Company of Orbs, and this performance was not one of its best. Throughout the work, several of the dancers appeared uncomfortable with the movement. The dance is built on different variations of circular shapes and gestures, with 10 globe shaped lamps hanging overhead and two similar sized globes used in a solo for Li Rothermich. Aided by music by William Duckworth, Company of Orbs evokes planets with orbiting moons, asteroids tumbling about while moving through space as well as more earthly circular formations.

The opening solo featuring Tom Tsai introduced the work’s movement theme and Pennington developed it quite thoroughly. He incorporated beautiful and complex choreographic patterns with arm, leg and torso gestures that totally visualized nature’s multitude of sphere-shaped objects. In past performances, this work came across as lyrical and the movement flowed.  On this night, however, that same movement appeared static and hesitant.

The cast of Company of Orbs included: Heidi Brewer, Becky Chang, Danae McWatt, Amy Oden, Li Rothermich, Edwin Siguenza, Michael Szanyi, Tom Tsai, and Mollie Wolf.

Bella Lewitzky, Lester Horton in "The Beloved" - Photo from the web.

Bella Lewitzky, Lester Horton in “The Beloved” – Photo from the web.

The Beloved was choreographed and first performed by Bella Lewitzky and Lester Horton in 1948 to music by Judith Hamilton. The dance was based on a true story of a pious man who beat his wife to death with a Bible out of rage for her infidelity. Their version of the story was not as physically violent, focusing instead on the emotional terror the man cast upon his wife before he murdered her.

The set for The Beloved consists of two brownish straight back wooden chairs separated by a small round table. This was the perfect abstract vision for a Victorian-like era when men and women wore high collars and ladies’ dresses revealed very little skin. It was a time when men had complete and total control over their wives’ every action. This minimal set was where most of the action took place. His hand moved slowly across the table and violently grabed the wife’s wrist, pulling her off the chair and onto the floor in front him. The lifts were tense, with the wife pulling backwards from her waist as she tried to escape. She moved up on and across the green cloth covered table before her life is brutally cut short.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in "The Beloved" - Photo from the web.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in “The Beloved” – Photo from the web.

Bella Lewitzky has been described, and I agree, as a force of nature. I have seen brief video clips of The Beloved and film clips of her demonstrating Horton’s technique. Lewitzky’s physical response to Horton appeared like an honest response of a woman recoiling in fear rather than just a dance movement. Li Rothermich is a lovely dancer and she gave a strong performance. Pennington’s interruption of the cold and domineering husband was chilling.

Intermission was followed by the premiere of Ungoverned Spaces, performed to music by composer and GRAMMY® nominated performer, Tom Peters. The work was structured in six sections with each one labeled Space 1, Space 2, etc. Taken separately, each “Space” had its own identity, but somehow the pieces of the puzzle did not piece together to form a complete and solid picture.

The movement in Space 1 had the impression of a well-oiled machine or obedient robots moving together toward a common cause. Space 2 began with a ramp appearing from out of the wings and a reptilian-like creature (Li Rothermich) exiting an unseen space ship. Antennas connected the alien’s head and ankles, creating different wing-like shapes as she moved. In Space 3, two plexiglass seats became the vehicles for a pair of women (Heidi Brewer and Danae McWatt) to create varying vessels or pathways. They performed it well, but its purpose escaped me.

Space 4 was the strongest section of Ungoverned Spaces. The dancers moved about in mostly unison phrases, interrupted by a woman’s recorded voice giving out instructions. Humorous at first, this section eventually took on an eerie reflection of a society like the one depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. The dancers were told to stop, then continue; stop and bend over, then continue. One by one they were instructed to leave; selected with a description such as “the shortest dancer,” “the woman on the right,” or “the two furthest up-stage”. Personal names were omitted, giving it a  sinister detachment. Finally, the last man standing was forced to move at a speed that was seemed purposefully destructive.

Space 5 also began with humor but ended with a stark reminder of the “no tolerance” immigration laws this country is currently witnessing. Performed to a children’s learning song from Sesame Street, stuffed dolls attached to the backs of Amy Oden, Andrew Palomares, Mollie Wolf, and Becky Chang like backpacks, became victim to incarceration inside a wire cage.

An alien-like sculpture with blinking blue lights sat prominently in Space 6. I was not sure if the dancer, Danae McWatt, costumed in flowing gold was a butterfly in transition or a another visitor from outer space. The latter held more credence as she entered this shimmering vessel and white lights began to emulate a ship preparing to lift off.

Pennington enjoys working with props and scientific elements, but the choreography he excels at is pure dancing. Out Of was an excellent choice to close the program and it was clear from the dancers’ performances that it was a work their bodies loved to dance. It was very lyrical, filled with curves, circles and a luscious roundness. The dancers suddenly appeared like caged animals set free. Dressed in beautiful white flowing jumpsuits, they were cut loose and their dancing soared. There is not much else to write about this work except that it was a joy to watch.  The choreography was luscious and the performances were stunning.

The beautifully painted panels that hung on stage left at the beginning of Out Of  were designed by Susan Rankaitis. The dance inspiring music was composed by Edgar Rothermich and the cast included Heidi Brewer, Becky Chang, Danae McWatt, Li Rothermich, Michael Szanyi, Tom Tsai, and Edwin Siguenza.

The gorgeous lighting for the entire evening was designed by Los Angeles’ lighting treasure, Eileen Cooley. Her artistry not only provided each work with its individual environment, but Cooley has long been a dancer’s best friend. She knows how to bring reality to a choreographer’s vision while allowing the performers’ every move to be clearly seen.

For more information on Pennington Dance Group, click here.

For more information on the ARC, click here.

Featured image: Pennington Dance Group – Photo: Denise Leitner