Artistic concert-dance companies are not generally associated with Los Angeles, where the commercial entertainment industry dominates the dance scene. But Bodytraffic is bucking the trend.
The cutting-edge company has put the City of Angels on the map as home to an important force in promoting dance. The troupe will perform at Johnson County Community College on Saturday, Feb. 25.
Formed in 2007, Bodytraffic is helmed by women: founding co-artistic directors Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett. Their husbands’ careers brought the duo to L.A., where they met one day in a dance technique class. They quickly realized they needed to form their own company to be able to do the kind of dancing they wanted.
“The concert-dance scene was just beginning to percolate in L.A., and I felt like we were really in the land of opportunity. The atmosphere was so refreshing compared to the overcrowded aggressiveness of New York,” said Barbeito, an Arizona native and graduate of New York’s Juilliard School.
Despite a lack of competition, establishing their troupe in L.A. was not without difficulties.
“One thing that’s easier in New York is fundraising,” explained Berkett, a native New Yorker. “In L.A., there’s no history or tradition of donating money to dance companies, no longstanding network of people who give to nonprofit dance organizations. But at the same time, I don’t know that we would have been able to establish ourselves in New York because the city is so saturated with dance companies already.”
Another challenge is attracting young audiences.
“Young, successful people in New York get involved with the arts, it’s a part of the social scene. But in L.A. it’s a Hollywood crowd,” Berkett said. “There are so many more concert dancers in New York, and they all go to see contemporary dance performances, while in L.A. most of the dancers are commercial dancers, they work in film and TV, and for the most part they’re not attending concert dance.”
Company member Matthew Rich moved to L.A. in 2015 to take a job with Bodytraffic. He had previously lived and worked in New York for 10 years,
“Having grown up in Las Vegas, I was really interested in being part of this burgeoning concert-dance renaissance on the West Coast,” Rich said. “But what really drew me to Bodytraffic is their repertory. For an American company to be presenting work by so many avant-garde, European choreographers is really amazing.”
Berkett insisted, though, that Bodytraffic is not just for dance enthusiasts. The repertoire aims to entertain.
“The movies mentality definitely plays into how we approach our work because we understand that in L.A., people go see movies all the time,” she said. “They’re sitting in front of a huge screen with big images hitting them in the face for two hours, and that’s what we’re competing with to keep people’s attention. Our dancers all have big personalities and lots of charisma.”
The Bodytraffic dancers are also “warm and receptive, curious and open-hearted,” according to Joshua L. Peugh, choreographer of “A Trick of the Light,” one of the works the company will perform Saturday. Created especially for Bodytraffic, Peugh’s work is nostalgic. The dancers wear 1950s prom outfits and perform to French-flavored comic songs and romantic ballads, including “C’est Magnifique.”
“I want the audience to be able to insert themselves in the fantasy they’re seeing onstage,” said Peugh, director of his own Dallas-based troupe, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance.
Barbeito called Peugh’s work “a lighter piece” and said her company recently changed its touring program to include such fare because of the current political climate.
“Presenters at this point are being very careful. They want work that is exciting and beautiful, but nothing too challenging. They feel as though everyone’s really delicate right now,” she explained.
The program will also include “O2Joy,” an homage to American jazz standards, choreographed by Richard Siegal, founding artistic director of the Bakery Paris-Berlin. Built of contemporary dance choreography, infiltrated with ballet technique and jazz movement, the piece is set to recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, Glenn Miller, Billie Holiday and Oscar Peterson.
“As a celebration of joy and jazz music, this piece is really important today. It allows us to feel good and really celebrate our country properly, through the arts and through American music,” Rich said.
That feeling of celebration and being part of something is what Berkett hopes will draw audiences.
“As a working mom, I know how tempting it is to want to just stay home and relax in the evening,” she said, “but I often remind myself that life is about showing up, and it’s amazing how inspired, alive and better you can feel when you experience live art.”