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Emily Miller and Lemoe Mata’itusi. Photo: Jim Carmody

Litvak Dance excels at storytelling, turning dances into intimate narratives. And Emily Miller is a gem, not only a powerful mover but a wonderfully mobile-faced actor whose pout could be a weapon. Those were my top takeaways from “Small Dances,” the program the young company—just entering its second year—did at the Vine Theater last weekend.

Sadie Weinberg founded Litvak Dance with a vision of inviting multiple choreographers to create repertory. Each of the eight “Small Dances” was by a different artist, with compelling narrative work coming from company members Miller and María José Castillo.

Miller and guest artist Lemoe Mata’itusi created and danced “Love Songs for the ____ Hearted,” about a combative but deeply connected couple. Exquisitely attuned to each other, the two do tight bursts of unison movement. In deftly paced mood shifts, playful acrobatics suddenly feel dangerous; or they charge as if they’re going to butt heads, but then he catches her in a romantic lift. They also sing and talk, sometimes flirtatiously and sometimes with a grim, “I’m fine. We’re fine.” And there’s that killer pout! I didn’t know if this relationship had a future, but I utterly believed in it.

Ashley Akhavan. Photo: Manuel Rotenberg

In Castillo’s smart, ironic “New Place,” a woman (gorgeous Ashley Akhavan, her fingers clenched around a cigarette) is all twisted limbs and desperate reaches to Chavela Vargas’s plea to a lost love, “Piensa en mi” (Think About Me). All the while, a man (Greg Lane) sits at a table in one corner, calmly eating a meal, drinking a glass of wine, and checking his phone, oblivious to her suffering. Or is he?

Work by guest choreographers included tantalizing excerpts from pieces by Chuck Wilt (director of NY-based UNA Projects), emerging artist Amanda Nora Legbeti, and San Diego legend Pat Sandback.

“Radiant.” Photo: Jim Carmody

Wilt’s “Radiant,” performed by six women in sunshiny yellow, is turbulent and athletic with drumming hands, convulsive shaking, windmill arms, and jumps. Often, there’s an odd woman out—one standing while the rest are on the floor, one agitated and the others still. At times, in this dance described as “inspired by the work of queer artist Keith Haring,” pairs come into a slow-dancing embrace. The full work is slated for a November premiere.

In a solo from Lebeti’s “Centrostalgia,” Miller—her feet planted in a wide second position— seems to struggle with unseen forces. Then, with a triumphant look, she comes through to the other side.

“Girl with Balls,” also a solo, offers the double treat of Sandback’s wit and a performance by Weinberg, fighting with the skirt of a long ball gown. Sometimes the dress wins, entangling her, and sometimes she gets the upper hand, brandishing it like a matador’s cape.

Sadie Weinberg in “Girls with Balls.” Photo: Manuel Rotenberg

There’s another voluminous skirt in Weinberg’s “Unfolding,” which features Berlin Lovio as a woman who’s alternately bold and shy—striding confidently toward us or retreating and hiding her face in the skirt. Six other women support her—forming a phalanx behind her, encircling and lifting her. In a lovely image, they carry translucent bowls that hold lights. Weinberg said this piece, although not an excerpt, was part of an extended exploration of women’s suffrage, and it felt like it needed a larger context.

The program also included a tribal-flavored piece for five women, created by company member Akhavan, that didn’t gel for me; and a solo by Kevin Jenkins, danced by Beverly Johnson, that in its brief (no more than two minutes?) duration didn’t make an impression.

Litvak Dance made a dazzling debut in May of last year, and it’s great to see the company pass the one-year mark. But what happened to the men? The company’s initial incarnation included some standout male dancers. This time, there was only Mata’itusi as a guest artist and Lane in a non-dance role. I know male dancers are in shorter supply than women, and any company director, to be successful, has to be resilient and work with what she can get, but my wish for Weinberg is that she’ll be able to add some men to the mix.

Janice Steinberg

Janice Steinberg

Award-winning dance journalist Janice Steinberg has published more than 400 articles in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Dance Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. She was a 2004 New York Times-National Endowment for the Arts fellow at the Institute for Dance Criticism and has taught dance criticism at San Diego State University. She is also a novelist, author of The Tin Horse (Random House, 2013). For why she's passionate about dance, see this article on her web site, The Tin Horse

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar Angela Filloon on July 17, 2019 at 9:47 pm

    Great review, thank you!

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