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Dance at Wharton Center: BODYTRAFFIC Review

Dance Critic, Kate O'Neill

Kate O’Neill retired as the dance and theatre critic for the Lansing State Journal and was inducted into the Lansing Dance Hall of Fame in 2017.  

Back in 2007, dancer Tina Finkelman Berkett, a native New Yorker, who had recently moved to Los Angeles, was thinking of founding a dance company in that city. Joining her in this enterprise would be a newfound California friend Lillian Barbeito. 

But what would they call their new company? 

 “We wanted a name that would be associated with Los Angeles.” Berkett said. “And what do people associate with Los Angeles—traffic, of course!” 

And so, BODYTRAFFIC was born. On Saturday, February 19, it comes to Wharton Center’s Cobb Great Hall with a performance at 8 PM. A Sensory-Friendly Performance will also be presented earlier that day at 2 PM. 

At the time BODYTRAFFIC was founded, most Los Angeles companies featured the work of one single choreographer (often the company’s director), Berkett recalled. “But Lillian and I were interested in bringing in voices from around the world. We began writing grants; we found support for that kind of funding.”  

In this work, Berkett could draw on knowledge and skills honed years earlier at Barnard College of Columbia University, where she graduated summa cum laude with a double major in mathematics and economics. A dance student most of her life, she continued to take dance classes throughout her college years. 

“But I was planning to work in finance and make a lot of money, as my dad had done,” she recalled. Then, in her senior year, as she was finishing college, she had an important talk with her dad. “He told me that I had a gift; why not share it,” she recalls. 

And so, after graduation, Berkett made a sudden switch in career plans. Instead of becoming a banker, she joined Aszure Barton & Artists, a contemporary dance company. She soon became one of its featured dancers and, later, Barton’s assistant. 

 Some years later, when superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov left ballet to found Hell’s Kitchen Dance, Berkett became a founding member of that company. She stayed with them for two years before leaving for California. To this day, Baryshnikov continues to support her work in Los Angeles. And, in time, Berkett and Barbeito realized their dream, commissioning over 30 original dance works for BODYTRAFFIC by some of the world’s distinguished choreographers.  

Some years later Barbeito moved to northern California, while Berkett stayed on in Los Angeles to become BODYTRAFFIC’s sole director. Since then, she has taken the company on tour to more than 70 cities around the world. BODYTRAFFIC has been called “the company of the future” by The New York Times and was named as one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2013. Now this company of six dancers is coming to Wharton with three dance works making up a program of about an hour with no intermission. 

 The opener, A Million Voices is danced by the entire company. The choreographer, Matthew Neenan, has set work on numerous ballet companies, Berkett says. The ballet is danced to music sung by Peggy Lee—songs by Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, and more. “It’s very nostalgic,” says Berkett. 

The program’s middle work, Recurrence, by Ethan Colangelo, had a virtual premiere just last summer at the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition, where it received multiple awards. Now it will be seen live on BODYTRAFFIC’s current tour. Colangelo “is one of our emerging choreographers,” says Berkett.  “The dance, a duet, with beautiful partnering, is about a couple working through a challenging relationship.” 

The final work on the program, Snap. is by former BODYTRAFFIC dancer Micaela Taylor. “She’s a dancer born and bred in Los Angeles,” says Berkett. “Five or six years ago, she got the urge to choreograph, and she has become an innovative choreographer. Snap shows the battle we experience between social pressure and our desire for individual expression.” 

Slightly shortened versions of A Million Voices and Snap will be seen on the 2 pm Sensory-Friendly Performance. It will provide a supportive environment intended to make BODYTRAFFIC accessible to those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental disabilities, sensory processing disorder, and other sensory-sensitive people, and their families. TheSensory Friendly Performance, which runs about 40 minutes, will include a social narrative, modified lighting, and other helpful accommodations for sensory-sensitive people. 

“The matinee performance is also open to anyone who would like to come, says Kelly Stuible-Clark, who coordinates these programs. “Wharton wants to make them accessible,” she adds. For those for whom the special $16 admission would be a hardship, free tickets are available. Interested persons should inquire at the Wharton Box Office, (517) 432-2000. 

“BODYTRAFFIC is the second dance company to present a Sensory-Friendly Performance during its Wharton visit, says Stuible-Clark.  Most such performances have been offered by children’s theater companies. But sensory-sensitive adults, as well as children, will enjoy these dance performances. 

For all local dance lovers, BODYTRAFFIC’s performances at Wharton provide a unique opportunity to see vibrant, young dance company appearing here for the first time. And for local dance students and their teachers, who spend most weekday evenings in the dance studio, the Saturday evening performance provides a special chance to get to a dance concert without missing class!

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