“Launch: LA is L.A. Dance Project’s residency program supporting Los Angeles based emerging artists in the creation and presentation of new work. Each Launch: LA artist receives three weeks of rehearsal space, monetary support, and production resources to create new dance-centered work that is presented to audiences in LADP’s theater at the culmination of the residency. Launch: LA is made possible with lead support by Anita Mann Kohl + Allen D. Kohl with additional support from the Hearst Foundation.”

Thanks and acknowledgment are due to the Kohl’s and the Hearst Foundations for supporting such a worthy and beneficial program to the artists of Los Angeles. It is also worthy and beneficial to Los Angeles audiences who may not have otherwise had a chance to see these artists and their unique visions for dance and dance theater.

(L-R) Jamal Kamau White, Heley Heckethorn, Joe Davis in "Sucker Punch" by Jamal Kamau White - Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

(L-R) Jamal Kamau White, Heley Heckethorn, Joe Davis in “Sucker Punch” by Jamal Kamau White – Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

First on the program Friday night was Jamal Kamau White joined by Joe Davis and Haley Heckethorn in their piece, “Sucker Punch.” This piece was first and foremost an experiment in the power of music to help define and give meaning to whatever movement we happen to be seeing. This was done by giving the audience agency over the choice of musical accompaniment through the use of headphones which had three different tracks of music available.

The composer, Cinqué (Sin-K) Granderson was instrumental in the experience of this work as she was responsible for the different soundtracks and therefore the power of how the movement was interpreted. There were four possibilities on hand: one was a ‘Nature’ track played throughout the space and was what the performers were hearing, the other three tracks were named ‘Farmer,’ ‘Ex-Mormon,’ and ‘Lawyer,’ all composed by Cinqué and each added certain aspects to the performance.

(L-R) Heley Heckethorn, Joe Davis in "Sucker Punch" by Jamal Kamau White - Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

(L-R) Heley Heckethorn, Joe Davis in “Sucker Punch” by Jamal Kamau White – Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

The ‘Nature’ track had waves and cicadas, etc. and was extremely quiet in the space. I stayed with this track as it was what the performers were hearing and I wanted to experience what they were experiencing. Unfortunately, this soundscape was seemingly arbitrary and had nothing to do with various outbursts of movement as the performers danced their story. In a way, each soundtrack was arbitrary as there could not be any particular sequence which matched the emotional aspects of the movement whenever it became more chaotic and desperate. The ‘Farmer’ had intense undertones throughout and it felt more ominous as if something sinister was going to happen which ultimately does, hence the title, “Sucker Punch.” The ‘Ex-Mormon’ soundtrack was more romantic and added an underlying passion to the duets especially. I spent less time in the ‘Lawyer’ soundtrack as it was a loop and read to me as background music not particularly suited to elevate the material in any specific way. Was this aspect of the show interesting? Yes, as an experiment, and in this venue it was perfectly suited. As to the names of the music sequences – I expressed at the front desk that perhaps if any farmers, ex-Mormons, or lawyers attended the show an explanation could be made to them so that they wouldn’t feel labeled or ostracized by the music choices. I have no idea if my advice was followed.

Joe Davis (top) and Jamal Kamau White in "Sucker Punch" by Jamal Kamau White - Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

Joe Davis (top) and Jamal Kamau White in “Sucker Punch” by Jamal Kamau White – Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

The piece itself was more difficult for me to follow. There was a major narrative present. I may be going out on a limb here, but it seemed to me to be a portrait of a threesome gone wrong with a definite power dynamic involved. The three characters were a couple who worked for a man of higher prestige and power within a corporate environment, perhaps he was the CEO. The stage had three sections: Stage right was a living room where the couple dwelt, a boardroom table upstage center inhabited by the CEO character, and stage left an apparent office after-party complete with empty bottles of wine, champagne, dirty dishes, a cake with a knife in it, balloons, etc. We see duets ensue between the three characters in various forms. The couple has a passionate if not slightly aggressive duet in their living room, a power dynamic. The two men have an antagonistic duet at the board table, another power dynamic. One man changes into a skirt at the afterparty set stage left and has a cigarette – alternate personality? Non-binary statement? Path not taken? Who knows? He changes back into his slacks before having another duet with the CEO, this time more sensual and caring. Then the female of the couple has a duet with the CEO ending in what seems to be his vanquishment. The other male comes to retrieve him and drags him back to their apartment where he is propped up between them on their couch while they watch TV and play with his hair. The sucker punch being that while he lorded it over them as underlings, they got the last laugh by killing him and making him their plaything. I was led to this interpretation by a sign that the male of the couple produced after his duet at the afterparty with the CEO. It read: “Karma is a bitch.”

JA Collective in "I-S-T" - Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

JA Collective in “I-S-T” – Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

The second piece on the program was JA Collective’s “I-S-T.” JA Collective is a creative collaboration between Los Angeles natives Jordan Johnson and Aidan Carberry. They formed the group at University of Southern California when Jordan and Aidan decided as college juniors to explore making work together. Aidan’s strong background in various hip-hop dance forms and acting, plus Jordan’s contemporary dance and theater background lead to them developing a unique amalgamated movement style together. Besides their commercial work, Jordan and Aidan are also pursuing concert dance. In November of 2023 they had the honor to premiere a new work under the direction of, and in collaboration with William Forsythe in Karlsruhe, Germany and Abu Dhabi.

JA Collective in "I-S-T" - Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

JA Collective in “I-S-T” – Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

The description in the program says: “Confined and not to a box within a box, the performers question and engage in the light.” This is exactly what happened, but this description cannot cover the vast array of imaginative and ingenious play which the performers utilized in questioning and engaging in the light. They used a set piece by Aidan Carberry which focused attention on a very small part of center stage. It was three-sided and had five lights overhead to illuminate in different aspects of the movement. It was very smart to bring the focus in from the very wide and deep space of the LADP. They rendered everything outside of their immediate sphere negative space and so we didn’t waste any time or attention outside of the picture tube they presented.

JA Collective in "I-S-T" - Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

JA Collective in “I-S-T” – Aidan Carberry and Jordan Johnson – Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.

At first both are sitting still in their bunker, maybe even bored. They hear some noises from outside and try to peek out to see what it is. There is the sound of rain as well. A light-hearted musical interlude is introduced and so begins their play with the rhythms and counterpoint of said music. All of their movements are reactions to environmental stimuli. Whether it be from the sounds, the music or the lights, both are engaged in kinetic play throughout. Much of it was very funny. Their movement ranges from simple mime to incredibly exact and complex pop and lock with hip-hop also thrown in. I was reminded of Charlie Chaplin making his potatoes dance at the dinner table as well as Buster Keaton staring idly as the train he is sitting on begins to move. Both performers had brilliant timing and obviously had worked together so closely that they were of one mind. The unison movement was impeccable and breathtaking. They filled the piece with visual humor which is what play is all about.

Music was composed by J. Tyler and Emiko Rochelle with the lighting design by Caleb Wildman. The lighting was another performer as it defined the space and also set the cues for movement and pauses. This was an entirely entertaining and engaging piece of dance theater!

To learn more about L.A. Dance Project, please visit their website.

Written by Brian Fretté for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Haley Heckethorn and Joe Davis in “Sucker Punch” by Jamal Kamau White – Photo by Skye Schmidt Varga.