When Lillian Barbeito was a fourteen-year-old studying ballet in Santa Fe, she attended an improvisation class for disabled dancers. Her mind was blown.
“I have a vision of the world dancing together in harmony,” she wrote in an essay that won her a full scholarship to Julliard. She believed in the healing powers of dance then and believes it now, so many years later.
“I realized that anybody can dance,” she said, “that we are all born to celebrate with music and movement.”
Her Los Angeles-based dance company, BodyTraffic, performs at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, Feb. 5.
Founded by Barbeito in 2007 with dancer Tina Finkelman Berkett, the internationally acclaimed company has become known for its community outreach. In 2015, the dancers were selected to represent the United States in a cultural exchange with Israel and Jordan sponsored by DanceMotion USA, a diplomatic outreach program run by the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Since then, BodyTraffic has been invited to residencies in Algeria, South Korea, and Indonesia.
In the Middle East, the dancers led workshops with disabled dancers and collaborated with local artists. During a week in Jerusalem, in which they were going to be working with a group of Jewish and Palestinian high-school kids at a YMCA, there was an outbreak of sectarian violence, including stabbings and bombings, in the city.
“We were in a very small room. There were about 15 boys and girls,” Barbeito said. “The animosity between the two groups was palpable.” When they were directed to dance as a group, divisions dropped away. “I remember one Jewish boy put his hand on a Palestinian kid’s shoulder. They were trying to figure out some complicated footwork that we had given them. They were laughing together, having a great time.” But the minute the dancing ended, the students quickly separated.
A new work, Resolve, explores the dynamic Barbeito saw in Jerusalem. The piece, which is previewed Tuesday, is a collaboration between former company dancer James Gregg and RubberLegz, a contortionist and street dancer whose real name is Rauf Yasit. To explore the tension between difference and sameness, RubberLegz paired with a more classically trained dancer, while Gregg, a ballet dancer, worked with an athletic, street savvy company dancer. In it, the dancers attempt to solve the puzzle of how to work, dance, and fit together.
Each choreographer and dancer was working outside his comfort zone and it was this tension — the very lack of ease — that inspired new ideas and ways of moving, Barbeito said. “Of course, this is still a preview. We’re still messing around with some of the elements. We’ll set it later.”
BodyTraffic is part of a burgeoning contemporary dance scene in Los Angeles, where a tradition of commercial dance for film and television has expanded in the past few years to include such cutting-edge groups as Benjamin Millepied’s LA Dance Project, Ate9, Diavolo, Jacob Jonas The Company, and Barak Ballet. Colleges there boast major names from the dance world, including William Forsythe, Barak Marshall, and Aszure Barton at the University of Southern California; Kyle Abraham at UCLA; and Lar Lubovitch at UC Irvine.
As with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, neither of BodyTraffic’s directors are choreographers. Their strength is in curating a selection of dances created by some of the most diverse and interesting choreographic voices on the scene today. At the Lensic, the group will present a steamy, sensual piece by Sidra Bell, whose work plays in the worlds of design, fashion, and spectatorship. A dance by Belgian choreographer Stijn Celis includes music by Arvo Pärt and probes silence and emptiness. An upbeat work by Matthew Neenan features the music of Peggy Lee. Richard Siegal’s o2Joy is a company favorite: a crowd-pleasing finale set to jazz standards.
Beyond artistic excellence and community outreach, the mission Barbeito and Burkett have developed for their company is an unusual one: to make the dancers happy. “We started this dance company because we had each danced in New York and Europe, and there was no contemporary dance we were excited about in Los Angeles at the time,” Barbeito said. “Tina and I are older now; we both have kids. We believe in a work-life balance. Now, we’re trying to create a working environment that is sustainable for dancers.
“We look at things from a dancer’s perspective. We encourage them to teach, to create their own work. We want BodyTraffic to be a vehicle for their fulfillment, just as it has been for us.”
Barbeito values working with great choreographers and watching them create new work, but it’s also a rush to work with the community, she said, helping the world to dance in harmony.
“As dancers, we always obsess about perfection — in bodies, in movement — but I’ve also had the opportunity to create a dance with a group in wheelchairs who could only move their eyes. I’ve seen their joy. I’ve watched them increase their range of motion while they danced,” she said. “Those memories give me the most profound appreciation for what we do. It’s the best job in the world.”
It’s been a lifetime since Barbeito composed the essay that would change her life. These days, she writes a lot of emails and grant applications. However, it was Santa Fe, she said, that made her the artist she is today. “I think wide open spaces give you an open mind. I was a fourteen-year-old ballerina at an improv jam. A forty-year-old man with Down syndrome was drooling on me. Another had his toenails in my face. It woke me up. Suddenly, I was in touch with humanity.” ◀
▼ BodyTraffic Dance Company, presented by Performance Santa Fe
▼ 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ $14.50-$110; ticketssantafe.org, 505-988-1234