Hailing from Los Angeles, contemporary dance group BODYTRAFFIC, made its Boston début on Friday for a two-night, sold out engagement at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Founded in 2007 by Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett, BODYTRAFFIC has quickly become a force to recognize, being named one of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch in 2013. A dynamic company comprised of ten dancers that exude enthusiasm for their work, BODYTRAFFIC brought the audience to its feet with a trio of works from three exciting and entirely distinctive choreographers; Kyle Abraham, Barak Marshall, and Richard Siegal.

Barak Marshall’s And at midnight, the green bride floated through the village square… opened the show – a theatrical piece comprised of a series of vignettes that tell the story of nine siblings doomed to a life of jealousy, misery, and loneliness from a childhood spent in a tumultuous household in Aden, Yemen. Marshall is one of Israel’s preeminent choreographers and is the son of Margalit Oved, a world-renowned dancer, singer, and choreographer who grew up in Yemen, next-door to the riotous family that inspired this piece.

Using spoken word, well appointed props, and a particular proclivity for comedic choreography, Marshall has masterfully crafted a theatrical piece, full of dark humor, that startles with jarring juxtapositions while remaining accessible and entirely appealing. In his choreography set to primarily Jewish love songs and hymns, you can see the influence of traditional ethnic dance – grounded with sharp and frantic arm and hand gestures that at times seem to be didactic in nature. The company takes to this piece with ease, slipping into character with great facility and speaking scripted lines during the piece in a way that suggests these are trained stage actors, and not the vocally shy creatures dancers are often assumed to be. 

A theme of female objectivity is present throughout the work and, in one particularly eyebrow-raising vignette, the men drag the females on to the stage, ankles and wrists bound, while the sound of bleating lambs echoes in the theater – truly lambs being led to the slaughter, and in this case, the slaughter is marriage. A disturbing image to say the least, however, the sacrificial woman exacts her revenge on her male oppressors in a brilliantly orchestrated up-tempo finale, where rose petals fly, and bodies crumple.

Next up in the program was Kollide, a piece created in collaboration with BODYTRAFFIC by Kyle Abraham, a choreographer creating quite a buzz in the dance world with a recently awarded MacArthur Fellowship, and current collaboration with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Kollide examines the unstable and tumultuous side of human relationships, dealing with the themes of compassion, desire, and betrayal that all stem from our visceral need to connect with others. Showcasing the company’s technique and strength, Abraham’s choreography is at once sensual and strong – sweeping limbs, undulating torsos, and occasionally sharp cuts with the elbow or knee are characteristic of his choreography that is informed by both traditional modern dance and hip-hop.

The music – by Icelandic musicians and composers Hildur Guðnadóttir and Valgeir Sigurðsson – is hypnotic and ethereal, with deep notes of the cello morphing into abstract and celestial sounds creating an unsettled atmosphere that seems on the verge of collapse. And collapse it does. The set is composed of five identical white panels hung at the back of the stage that are projected with the image of a stone surface, and in the final moments of the piece, the stone begins to crumble, echoing the sounds of cascading rock in the soundtrack, and further mirrored in the collapsing body of Yusha-Marie Sorzano, now alone on stage silhouetted in a strung-out backbend. 

o2Joy choreographed by Richard Siegal, brought the program to an infectiously joyous close, with five pieces set to popular jazz standards by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Siegal’s choreography for this piece is set firmly in the Broadway jazz tradition with contemporary and hip-hop flair, which the company execute as flawlessly as its more familiar modern contemporary style. Siegal has dancers identifying with an element of the music or specific instrument – one dancer would echo the notes of the twanging bass, while another took on the singer’s voice – a beautifully simple concept that echoed the comfort already imbued in the piece by the familiar music.  Absolutely stealing the show was Andrew Wojtal, who lip-synched and danced to Ella Fitzgerald’s All of Me, nailing even her signature scatting, and backed up by company co-director Tina Fenkelman and dancer Yusha-Marie Sorzano, who comically entered and exited the stage echoing the blaring horn section in the music.

BODYTRAFFIC is the third dance company to make its Boston debut through the support of World Music/CRASHarts during their 2013-2014 season, and I hope the decision is made to bring them back soon.