For his 14 years as a member of the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, John Pennington’s dancing took our breath away. This weekend at the State Playhouse, Pennington proved that he can still wow us with his artistry as a performer as well as impress us with his choreography. His company, Pennington Dance Group, celebrated its 15th anniversary with strong choreography, a wide variety of music choices and exciting dance artists.  

Tom Tsai and Michael Szanyi in <i>Skins and Screens</i> © Beijing Dance Festival
Tom Tsai and Michael Szanyi in Skins and Screens
© Beijing Dance Festival

Skins and Screens (première) opens with three dancers crawling across the stage underneath cocoon-like material painted in camouflage shades of black and brown. As they emerge, the movement is gnarled and sporadic, as if these creatures are morphing from one form into another. The movement expands into more open and unified grouping but the world that they inhabit appears tentative and they exit uncertain of their future. The second section is also a trio with a set of three portable panels that are used as various corridors to separate the members of this particular world. The relationship between the two sections feels incomplete even after the inhabitants of both worlds are brought together at the end.

On The Brink Of Time (1969) was choreographed and first performed by Bella Lewitzky; one of the most grounded dancers ever to grace the stage. The music is by Morton Subotnick, who is best known for his Silver Apples of the Moon, the first electronic work commissioned by a record company, Nonesuch. The score and Lewitzky’s use of strobe light were very innovative elements for that era. Pennington gave a beautiful, grounded and inspiring performance of this historic work. His control is amazing and his command of the stage makes him one of Los Angeles’s most beloved dance artists.

Ungoverned Spaces (Part 1) closed the first half of the concert with a very strong and connected performance by Montay Romero and Annalee Traylor. It is an energetic and somewhat exhausting work which involves two small Plexiglas seats for the dancers to sit on, move around and crawl under. They dance rapidly in unison and then separate with slower and more task-like movement as the powerful score by Tom Peters helps drive them forward. On this night, the end of the dance was sadly compromised by the incompetence of whoever was calling the light cues. Pennington’s choreography is strong and dynamic, but the lighting design by Matt Schumacher only worked against his vision of the work.

The second half opened with a duet that was a “co-collaboration” between Lester Horton and Bella Lewitzky. Created in 1948, The Beloved was inspired by a newspaper article about a religious man who murdered his wife over suspected infidelity. It was choreographed to an original score by Judith Hamilton and includes a set design by Lewitzky’s husband Newell Reynolds. The set is two straight back chairs with a small table in-between that is slightly tilted so that the audience can view the skillfully choreographed gestures taking place on top. John Pennington and Li Chang Rothermich gave powerful performances in a duet that is difficult to watch only because of the subject matter. The gestures are sometimes subtle but gripping and the tension between these two characters is daunting.

Hearing Change was created by Pennington in 2004. In this performance it was danced beautifully by Danae McWatt to the music of Thuja, and David Karagianis. The set, designed by Pennington, is a large circle that resembles a spinning CD and sits stationary upstage center.  McWatt’s costume reflects the lines and colors on this disc, but it isn’t enough to clarify the set's connection to the choreography, which is at times percussive, sometimes lyrical and then suddenly suspended in place. Is the disc the sound of change? It was not clear.

The concert concluded with the première of Company of Orbs performed to the music of William Duckworth and scenic design by John Pennington. There were pink lanterns or orbs hanging at different levels upstage and two hollow plastic globes are utilized by Li Chang Rothermich in her intricate and sometimes witty solo. Company of Orbs was the strongest of Pennington’s choreography on the program. The movement is generous, circular and appears fun to dance. There was a section that reminded me of tossing a ping pong ball into a group of other balls and watching as they rebound in all directions. Dancers revolve around themselves and each other, and the relationship between the performers is wonderful to see. They truly came across as a company in this piece. All six dancers deserve mention. They were Danae McWatt, Li Chang Rothermich, Edwin Siguenza, Michael Szanyi, Annalee Traylor and Tom Tsai.

John Pennington’s work continues to grow and mature. I look forward to the next 15 years.