Luminario Ballet: Dancing in the Balance Between Mortal and Immortal

Luminario Ballet of Los Angeles did what it does best in its recent performance of Heroes, Sheroes, and Eros at the Wallis this February. The aptly named performance featured larger than life stories by performers who seem invincible. The exquisite physique of the dancers was not lost on the audience and brought no shortage of the god Eros’s love and sex appeal to the stage that night. Quite a long program, the evening featured performances by a variety of dance and aerial choreographers with wicked strong performers to fulfill the artistic vision in a show full of spectacle and delight. 

Hard as a Rock, Choreographed by Judith FLEX Helle; Film by Judith FLEX Helle
(L-R) Sadie Black, Raymond Ejiofor, Vanessa Nichole, Antonio Martinez, Stephanie Hall, Adrian Hoffman. Photo by: Rob Latour

Act I included a variety of shorter works, which ranged from thought provoking to titillating. Hard as a Rock, choreographed by Judith FLEX Helle, opened the show boldly with the signature strength of contemporary ballet partnering, performed by Sadie Black, Stephanie Hall, Ray Ejiofor and Adrian Hoffman, that framed an aerial duet by Antonio Martinez and Vanessa Nichole. Featuring colorful lighting and strong imagery projected behind the work (film also by Helle), the piece set the stage for the night of spectacle and over the top passion and drama.  

Act I progressed through the social justice minded world of Jamal Story’s solo performance about the care and respect for veterans, entitled The Problem With Homeless Veterans, set to a speech by President Barak Obama. Then, an abstract work entitled, Tend, choreographed by Adrian Hoffman, featured a trio of male dancers Adrian Hoffman, Raymon Ejiofor, and Marlon Pelayo in a sensitive work in which the men continuously fell and were supported by each other in interweaving patterns. The result was a humanizing and hypnotic flow between the bodies in skin tones ranging from light to dark, melding, blending, cascading, and catching each other in turn. 

Tend, Choreographed by Adrian Hoffman
(L-R) Adrian Hoffman, Raymond Ejiofor, Marlon Pelayo. Photo by Rob Latour.

An impassioned aerial tango, Wryd Tango, choreographed and performed by Bianca Sapetto-Finck, showcased her harnessed into a swing apparatus with Marlon Pelayo moving with and around her to propel the swing through time and space. Together they played out a fervent love story, through grasping embraces and rhythmic leg flicks in the flavor of Argentine tango. The piece was set to driving and heartbreaking music by Morgan Sorne who sang live and moved throughout the space. Tosh Thoughts. . . Break on Through to the Other Side was an irie trio by Jamal Story set in the groovy world of Peter Tosh spoken and sung by Grasan Kingsberry in a projected video by Judith FLEX Helle. The balance between the video and the dancers was difficult to maintain in this work. The imagery of marajuana fields and smoky rooms with tight close ups of Kingsberry tended to dominate the three dancers on the stage. Yet, the performers Raymond Ejioford, Emma DeStasio, and Jamal Story danced mightily in a joyous rapture that played with flow and connection between them in extensions and lifts that evoked a sense of freedom in their long flowing pants and tunics. 

Woman in black leggings and white shirt suspended by a harness over a man lying on the floor.
Wyrd Tango, Choreographed by Bianca Sapetto.
(L-R) Bianca Sapetto, Marlon Pelayo. Photo by: Rob Latour

Dreya Weber’s witchy Hexenstucke opened up the expressive potential for aerial choreography and the manipulation of the aerial props to facilitate new narratives for theater. Wearing a body mic, Weber told a story of the earliest witch hunts and her own experience of being accused of witchcraft. Weber and the two other female dancers used the hanging nude fabric as a sheath, revealing and transforming themselves between old women and young venuses. The effect was compelling, intriguing, and dare I say bewitching. 

The film L’Invalid (The Invalid) was a three part story of mental illness that again featured Helle’s passion for addressing taboo topics and the sensuality of the human body in her work. The film, created in 2021 during the recent pandemic closures, is another testament to the dedication of this company to keep making work in the hardest of times. While its presence on this concert was perhaps unneeded since the show was already nearly two hours with intermission, it was another beautiful example of the dancers’ classical technique repurposed for contemporary themes and topics. 

The closing of the first half was an excerpt from Story’s work If the Walls Could Scream.  Due to the absence of an ill company member, we were only able to enjoy the romantic duet performed by Emma DeStasio and Adrian Hoffman. The short piece set to Nina Simone was just another example of how strong and skilled these dancers are as they moved together with confidence and strength through battements and pirouettes and interlacing partnering. 

If the Walls Could Scream, Choreographed by Jamal Story
(L-R) Adrian Hoffman, Emma DeStasio. Photo by Rob Latour.

Act II consisted of Helle’s and Story’s playfully irreverent take on the biblical story of Easter set at a wild and crazy music festival, entitled The Last Supper. Featuring Jamal Story as a rockstar Jesus, shirtless and in tight white jeans, the story loosely retold the final days of Jesus, this time betrayed over drug possession and metaphorically sacrificed to be reborn again. Vanessa Nichole performed her part as Mary Magdalene with finesse in both her hammock duet with Story (choreographed by Story and Sheila Joy Burford) and solo work on the circular aerial hoop called a lyra (choreographed by Helle). Her strength and skill was unquestionable and matched only by her convincing emotional performance. Adrian Hoffman performed as Judas with equal conviction and passion throughout the work making the two a strong pairing for the climax of Act II. 

The Last Supper – Sinners, Choreographed by Judith FLEX Helle; Film by Kailee Gaylord. (L-R) Stephanie Hall, Emma DeStasio, Adrian Hoffman, Precious Gilbert, Sadie Black, Raymond Ejiofor, Jamal Story. Photo by Rob Latour.

The ensemble cast performed in wild festival wear in situations of playful depravity with a lust for life. With additional imagery of the Coachella valley and other natural spaces projected in a video by Kailee Gaylord, the feel of the work was hot and heavenly. After the robust and moving first half, this evening length work challenged the audience to stay focused as the plot was loose and the movement narrative underdeveloped. However, the music was rockin’ and the athletic skill of the performers remained intact even after nearly two hours of intense performance. Knowing too that the company was navigating a last minute switch of casting due to illness, makes the work a triumph. Additional cast members Raymond Ejiofor, Stephanie Hall, Emma DeStasio, Sadie Black, and Precious Gilbert performed the work with full commitment, through countless extensions, turns, balances, front walkovers, and more. 

The challenges of blending aerial performance which is by nature intoxicating and bold with the composition and technique of contemporary ballet is no small feat. The evening was a study in how to skillfully move the body’s center of gravity, whether balanced on the 2 inch platform of a pointe shoe or hanging upside down from an ankle. The incredible athleticism of the dancers is nothing short of amazing and Luminario does well in balancing the elements of spectacle with artistic intentions to create new visuals and storylines. 

The Last Supper – Jesus and Mary, Choreographed by Jamal Story
(L-R) Jamal Story, Vanessa Nichole. Photo by Rob Latour.

In addition, the technical challenges of such a show are nothing to be trifled with, technical director Allen Walls and aerial rigger Kevin Scott Cannon are as much a central piece to the show as any of the performers. Incorporating projections and managing to illuminate the sheer height of the performance space, while transforming a more traditional theater space like the Wallis into a half circus tent is a challenge. The lighting as a result had occasional flatness with much of the lighting coming from the front, but that can only be expected with theatrical spaces having limited resources in their catwalks and when so much of the overhead space needed to go toward the lines for the aerial apparatuses which numbered at least 6 by my count. What Luminario was able to accomplish in transforming the space was incredible. The costumes by Terril Teran Miré were appropriately sexy yet functional, meeting the needs of the dancers to move freely, the aerialists to interact with their apparatuses safely, and the artistic vision to be fulfilled. The show as a whole was very well received by the audience who clearly appreciated Helle’s vision as Artistic Director and the magnificence of these movement artists. 

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Categories: The Wallis

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