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Arts and Entertainment

Company Ea Sola visits Royce Hall

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Anticipation was high as people entered Royce Hall on Friday to watch Vietnamese-born/French-raised choreographer Ea Sola bring her company of eight dancers and five musicians to the stage in their Los Angeles debut. They presented “Drought and Rain Vol. 2” and I don’t think this turned out to be what people expected.

It wasn’t a European, Asian or American company filled with athletic virtuosi, dramatic visuals and a densely layered product. The music, composed by Nguyen Xuan Son, was spare and supportive without being insistent. The movement was simple and often pedestrian, sometimes balletic and frequently laced with idiosyncratic and repeated gestures that, I think, sought to reveal an emotional quotient from the effort and commitment of the performer. It was group choreography with eight modest soloists.

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“Drought and Rain Vol. 2” began in silence with a stage-wide video image of Asian (maybe Caucasian) eyes that searched the space. Underneath, the dancers entered one at a time from the wings at both sides of the stage. They walked in sideways with their faces to the audience and mostly in silhouette. Eventually, some turned to face profile and continued walking in bare feet and on half toe. It was quiet, unfettered, yet somehow aimless, as if each performer wasn’t sure where he or she was going. Or not sure on their legs.

These crossings modulated to travel from the back of the stage to the front edges and thus began a repeating compositional motif. On one of these up-to-down stage variations, the dancers leaped and jumped as if quietly joyous. But, most of the time, the regular slow-paced steps were interrupted only by eclectic full body twitches and convulsions. These were placed at different spots on the stage, at different times within the section and individually specific. No two dancers did the same thing, rarely did things happen at the same time and an underlying sense of tension or unease seemed to exist throughout the seventy minute work.

During another of these up-to-down passages, the performers brought framed photographs of a diverse group of men and women from the back wall of the space to the front. There, they stood erect at one foot high, faces to the audience. Some photographs showed someone wearing Middle Eastern head gear, another wore a European military beret, another was of African descent and so on. These footlight mini-alters remained unaddressed through most of the work until late in the evening. Uniformly, at one point, the dancers arranged themselves behind these framed photos and stretched their arms above the images and toward the audience, palms up. The lighting design (by Sola) highlighted their hands and turned them red.

At another time, one of the young men in the piece remained onstage as the others exited (all the dancers are part of the Vietnam National Opera Ballet-Hanoi). Trinh Tuan Anh, in a gray tank top and red pants, silently ranted and raved, shivered and shattered while the percussion orchestra aligned by the side of the stage paradiddled in agreement. Celebrated Vietnamese opera singer Doan Thanh Binh walked gravely through the space to add lamenting and wailing sounds to the mix.

Throughout the most of the piece, the dancers' spasmodic fits and occasional eruptions of movement happened in isolation from one another and without any visual connection between the performers. However, in one section, one of the females approached Pham Van Duc and stood behind him as he faced the side. She knocked on his shoulder until he finally turned and carried her away to the other side of the stage. End of connection. Similarly, one man lifted another man and transported him to a nearby location, where he put him down and went on away from him. End to that.

Sola seemed to also be agreeing with the cultural sexism or, at least, demonstrating its existence in her costume choices. The men wore rehearsal clothes with just a bit of color and all the women were dressed in black tops and pants with their long dark hair extended loosely across their faces. Invisible.

At the end of the piece, the dancers began calling out names which were projected onto the wall at the back. The names filled the screen and, at that point and with the dancers silent, these names were visually erased. What was left was some kind of computer digital image of small rectangles and a noiseless restraint.

Overall, I was impressed with the performance quality of these young dancers. They were fully committed to their roles, to their movements, to the choreography. I also enjoyed Sola's lighting design. Along with the aforementioned red-lit hands, the back light seemed to always be gently changing, as in the passing from morning to night; yet the brighter colors seemed to have a slightly greenish tinge. A barely traceable hint of springtime or new growth. The drumming was elegant: soft and crisp, at times, loud and deep.

What didn't work for me was the singular up/down or side/side use of the stage. After a short while, this became predictable and a bit uninteresting. Having eight quasi-soloists each do their thing at every go round kept the pacing a little too even and, therefore, made the evening long. Though perhaps fair and just in its egalitarianism, it stretched the dance beyond its calling.

A moving text that traveled across the wall behind and above the performers twice during the performance stated "Don't go away tonight when the moon crosses the row of trees . . . ." I'm not sure what this refers to specifically, but its poetic imagery offered another element in this Vietnamese-French creation. Promotional materials described "Drought and Rain Vol. 2" as Sola's exploration of the current generation and what exists in its postwar subconscious. Perhaps the unanswered questions are part of this puzzle.