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BodyTraffic dance troupe finds a clear lane

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If there is a lesson to be learned from the unorthodox story of BodyTraffic — the Los Angeles contemporary concert dance company founded in 2007 — it must be that defying conventional wisdom is the route to success.

Co-founders Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett ignored well-meant advice about what they "must" do to launch a dance troupe in their adopted hometown. Instead, they came up with a plan for their dream company: They wanted to be both performers and co-directors; they wanted to have a unique and exclusive repertory commissioned from prestigious, international choreographers — right from the get-go; and they wanted to hire great dancers with whom they would have a friendly, family-like relationship. And they would agree (or compromise) on all artistic matters, sharing the administrative duties.

Then they did it.


FOR THE RECORD:
L.A. dancer: A July 28 article about the dance company BodyTraffic misstated that dancer Frances Chiaverini left L.A. Dance Project to join BodyTraffic. Chiaverini has performed with both companies as an independent contractor and did not leave one company for the other. —


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Both directors admitted they have taken an idiosyncratic path. For an early performance, they took a page from Los Angeles Opera's "Recovered Voices" project, which revived operas suppressed by the Nazis.

Rather than present their ideas to a theater executive, Berkett approached Sinai Temple senior Rabbi David Wolpe with her proposal. He helped them raise $40,000 for the production, inspired by Abraham Joshua Heschel's 1951 book, "The Sabbath." Attorney Randy Schoenberg underwrote the cost of the string sextet that played his grandfather Arnold Schoenberg's "Verklärte Nacht." The ballet, "Transfigured Night" (the English translation of Schoenberg's title), was choreographed by Guy Weizman and Roni Haver, Israeli-born dance makers based in Holland, and sold out the Westwood synagogue's social hall, which was transformed into a black-box theater.

It's unusual steps like that that have led them to become one of the most talked-about young companies, not just in L.A. but nationwide, and they have already toured widely, including two engagements at Manhattan's Joyce Theater. "When we finished our Joyce program [in 2012], all our dancers cleared the stage and Lillian and I collapsed and held each other crying and laughing, not believing that we had done this," said Berkett, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and majored in math and economics at Barnard College.

"I feel like BodyTraffic is the highlight of my career," said Barbeito, who spent most of her youth in Santa Fe, N.M., and got her bachelor's degree from the Juilliard School. "It was all just leading up to BodyTraffic."

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In the upcoming months, the troupe of 10 reaches several more milestones.

BodyTraffic makes its debut at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival from Wednesday through Aug. 4, becoming the rare Los Angeles group to be presented at the international festival in Massachusetts' Berkshire Hills. On Aug. 25, the troupe will be back in town to appear on the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony's 10th-anniversary program at the Ford Amphitheatre. In September, the dancers jet to San Francisco to perform at ODC, then head to New York to appear for the first time at City Center's Fall for Dance Festival. On Oct. 11 and 12, BodyTraffic will be at Santa Monica's Broad Stage, presenting a world premiere by rising star Kyle Abraham as well as two other works, one of which features a guest appearance by performing artist Margalit Oved, mother of choreographer Barak Marshall.

Sitting in a Venice cafe in early summer, Barbeito and Berkett took turns describing their relatively brief shared history. They interact easily and discussed food options before a waiter arrived because, as usual, they intended to share their meals, family style.

This cooperative approach has served them well as co-directors. Berkett, the "geek," handles money matters, including fundraising. Barbeito, who loves teaching and was recently added to the faculty at Loyola Marymount University as a visiting assistant professor, handles BodyTraffic's education and outreach programs. (The group rehearses at the college.) Berkett often acts as rehearsal assistant, while Barbeito generally teaches company class. Berkett, the brunet, is a self-described "goofball"; Barbeito, the blond, says she's the "serious one."

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Barbeito choreographed the group's first piece, but the duo specifically wanted BodyTraffic to perform works by diverse choreographers in a range of styles. Richard Siegal's "O2Joy," which has become a company trademark, is a loose-limbed jazzy number to standards sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and others. Marshall's "And at Midnight, the Green Bride Floated Through the Village Square…" alternates scenes of animated arm gestures with acting and dialogue. In "Transfigured Night," flowing dance phrases for specific couples are repeated, than abruptly cut off, symbolizing the break from work mandated by the Sabbath.

"I actually think it's an asset that we're co-directors," Barbeito said. "I like things that are edgy and avant-garde, and Tina likes a very refined aesthetic. That coming together is what makes it accessible to people but at the same time allows it to be challenging."

Added Berkett: "We want people to come and enjoy themselves, see something that is pleasing to watch — not necessarily bright and funny but pleasing. We want to ride that line of pushing people to see something that maybe they hadn't seen; they're not quite sure what it is or how to define it."

Both women have made helpful connections within the local Jewish community and made good use of professional ties they have here and on the East Coast. Berkett, who had met Ella Baff, executive and artistic director of Jacob's Pillow, when she performed there with another company, got in touch with Baff right after starting BodyTraffic. Baff said by phone she likes repertory companies as a change from the more common choreographer-led groups. And she felt the group had reached a level that made it ready for its Pillow premiere.

"The dancers, one, are very strong. Each dancer is individually strong, but they look like they are part of a signature now. They are dancers who understand the work; their bodies are committed to it and their minds are committed to it," she said.

Barbeito arrived first in Los Angeles, in late 2001, and performed with a slew of companies, including Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre and Raiford Rogers Modern Ballet. She met Berkett in 2006 at Westside Ballet in Nader Hamed's regular class, a gathering place for professionals. "She had a New York vibe so I went up to her and said, 'You're kind of good.' I hit on her, basically, in a dance sort of way."

Berkett, however, wasn't ready to make a full-time leap to Los Angeles, where her boyfriend was living. Since college, she had joined Aszure Barton & Artists, then moved on to Mikhail Baryshnikov's short-lived Hell's Kitchen Dance, which performed works by Barton and Benjamin Millepied, the famous founder of another local repertory company, L.A. Dance Project. (Dancer Frances Chiaverini, whom Berkett and Barbeito met through mutual friends and who was an original member of L.A. Dance Project, has jumped ship and joined BodyTraffic.)

Finally, Berkett's boyfriend proposed marriage and told her it was time to give Los Angeles a full-time try. Barbeito enticed her with an artistic proposal: Let's start a dance company. Berkett accepted both propositions. Barbeito is also married and both women have toddler-aged sons. "We are advocates for having balanced lives because we both have families and it's important to us that our dancers also have balanced lives," Barbeito noted.

Throughout lunch, they marveled at the luck they've had in just six years. But they are also doggedly persistent. The latter has enabled them to convince choreographers of stature and reputation, such as Stijn Celis of Switzerland, to come to Los Angeles to work with an unknown, fledgling group.

They do have their ways to lure artists, they said with a smile, especially the ones from northern climes. This is Los Angeles, after all; they enticed Guy Weizman with trips to the beach.

Berkett: "We have this motto, There's no 'no.' It's just like, 'Not now.'"

Barbeito: "We're relentlessly charming."

calendar@latimes.com

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