In today’s high-tech world, where trends blow up the Twittersphere and Facebook like a Tesla on Insane Mode—going from 0 to 60 in under three seconds—the current dance scene also has its share of fast moving choreographic innovators: Think Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck or Crystal Pite of Vancouver’s Kidd Pivot.
Add to that list the name Danielle Agami, who decamped from Seattle to Los Angeles in January 2013, bringing her Ate9 Dance Company with her. Indeed, in a megalopolis known for its fickle nature and mostly inhospitable dancescape, the Israeli-born Agami has become choreography’s ‘It’ girl, taking the town, if you will, by terpsichorean storm.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Agami, whose über-short black hair accentuates her coal-dark eyes, thick eyebrows and high cheekbones, was a member of Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company from 2002 to 2010, and also served as artistic director of Batsheva Dancers Create. In addition, Agami was the troupe’s rehearsal director for two years beginning in 2008, during which time she received the Yair Shapiro Prize for Excellence in Dance.
And while there was a brief period of time when Agami thought about leaving the City of Angels, the 30-year old says she now feels both “curious and excited” to have a dance troupe here, adding, “I think what we have to offer wasn’t offered for a while in L.A., which is a very specific research of movement and content that is handed to audiences with a lot of respect.
“I feel like Ate9 [has] a very thoughtful process and execution when it comes to meeting their audience and I think this makes a difference,” Agami continued, “because there are people here who are ready for this kind of meeting with art, and the art is in the form of dance.
“It feels better with time and there are, probably, potential audiences here that will be happy to be exposed to this art form that is new for them. And that is the challenge.”
However challenging it has been, the L.A. dance community has embraced the eight-member company since the troupe’s arrival. In one of Ate9’s first appearances in 2013, the Los Angeles Times described an excerpt of Agami’s first full-evening work, “Sally Meets Stu,” as “an amped-up, balletic folk dance, different styles bolted together with a hypnotic rhythmic expertise.”
But if one were to describe Agami’s signature style, it would be that derived from Gaga, the term for a technique Naharin created and developed more than 15 years ago while dealing with a back injury. Gaga is a movement language where actions train the body and aid one’s self-awareness in response to verbal prompts—surreal and otherwise—from the teacher. (“See if you can reach with your bones outside of your skin.”)
The technique has been an indispensible part of Agami’s practice—and life—for years, with the dancer having headed Gaga USA when she briefly lived in New York in 2011. A master teacher, Agami likens her class to a playground, where participants are urged to connect to pleasure.
“Gaga changed the way I feel about my body—the confidence, the joy, the option to use my body as a tool for dialogue with myself and the outside world,” she said. “That is the core of what I’m trying to teach, how I move and how I choreograph. Gaga lets me put all this inside and gives me freedom to express myself.”
On stage, the results of Gaga are easily recognizable: From edgy, quicksilver directional shifts, swivel-hipped motifs and fitful arms, to daringly aggressive gambits and rhythmic couplings that might morph into hard-core balances, the method makes the strange seem somewhat familiar.
Another Naharin influence is the “no-mirrors” policy, which, for someone whose career is body-centric, means that the mirror has been noticeably absent in Agami’s dance practice for more than a decade.
“The day Ohad took the mirror away I had the privacy to think about other things that are so much more important than the way I look,” recalled Agami, whose liberation of the body also factors into making the dancer a dramatic onstage presence.
In other words, the influence of Naharin is all-pervasive. Explained Agami: “Of course, we’re very close friends. Ohad is part of my life. His brilliance always did guide me and always will. At the same time, I’ve been away from Israel for five years.
“Not that five years is a lot of time,” she pointed out, “but I worked with him for eight years and I think that I grew very much thanks to the distance, and I can translate and profit by the tools he’s given me. They are useful in research and I develop them on a daily basis. It’s an ongoing process, which Ohad will always be part of, and he and Batsheva and Israel will always be a home base for me.”
Naharin sings Agami’s praises, as well, writing in an email: “Very rarely [do] I meet someone like Danielle Agami, who can both use the codes and write the new codes of art-making at the same time. She was always a great interpreter of my work. Looking at her dancing you feel that there is a new narrative, one that the choreographer did not write [but] one that helps a moment to become memorable.
“As a choreographer,” added Naharin, “her evolution is not linear. It’s going back, side, up and wider. From the very beginning it felt meaningful and original.”
Agami also has formed a deep creative relationship with Yuval Sharon, artistic director of the L.A.-based avant-garde opera troupe the Industry, founded in 2010. In the spring of 2013, Sharon tapped Agami to choreograph members of L.A. Dance Project for “Invisible Cities,” composer Christopher Cerrone’s “headphone opera” that premiered to great acclaim at Union Station later that year.
That auspicious collaboration then led to “In C.” An installation/performance at the Hammer Museum’s courtyard featuring Terry Riley’s iconic score performed live by a range of singers and instrumentalists, the work featured Ate9 cavorting amid a bevy of inflatable air dancers, creating a fluid, intriguing performance that captivated children and adults alike.
Sharon, 35, who was recently appointed the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first artist-collaborator, is currently working with Agami on “Hopscotch.” An opera by six L.A.-based composers, it will unfold in a series of 24 moving cars for a limited run from October 31-November 15.
Sharon said that Agami and Ate9 are perfect for “Hopscotch” because of a shared curiosity in “disturbing the traditional relationship of audience and performers.
“Danielle’s site-specific projects place the audience in a surprisingly intimate yet compellingly distanced relationship to the performer. She reminds me how easily a spectator can create their own narrative.
“Those are key conceptual elements of “Hopscotch”—disorientation, intimacy, ambiguity,” added Sharon, “and in this, Danielle continues to be one of my most trusted and thoughtful partners.” Agami responded by saying that, “Yuval shares the understanding that things are bigger than us. Since we both feel the same, we put egos aside and just make art.”
Ate9’s most recent art-making proved a hit during the L.A. Music Center’s site-specific program, “Moves After Dark.” Subverting the opulent grandeur of the Founder’s Room on the fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the troupe was seen romping on top of the burnished wood bar, zipping around plush sofas and even frolicking on the glass tables normally reserved for patrons’ comestibles.
Agami is also in demand for setting Naharin’s dances on prestigious companies, which, in the past, have included Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Juilliard School and Ballet Atlanta. In between those gigs, Agami found time to take home the $10,000 Division I Grand Prize Award at the McCallum Theatre’s Choreography Festival in Palm Desert in 2013, snagging the top prize again last year, when the troupe performed an excerpt from “Mouth to Mouth,” one of about eight full-length works Agami has made.
With that money, Ate9 presented itself in New York City in May, 2014, prompting Wendy Perron, former editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine, to write: “Danielle Agami has the gift of turning awkwardness into something beautiful.”
In November, 2014, the troupe took part in the Context Festival by Diana Vishneva, in Moscow, where they performed the complete “Mouth to Mouth.”
It was, Agami recalled, “not my cup of tea.”
The choreographer explained: “Diana saw us in New York in a very, very small theater and then we went to this big stage. She was behind her decision to bring us and it was valid to expose the audience to something that is new to them.
“I love Diana’s spirit—that she’s trying to push everything new and give the stage to a very young company, but I did not enjoy our show in Moscow. Back then,” recalled Agami, “I feel we were beginners. Today it feels different and it’s only a year apart.”
This jibes with the notion that Agami’s process is an ongoing one, and that, in general, she is not satisfied with a premiere. “I keep finding more ideas and options, so my pieces constantly change. Moscow was a turning point for “Mouth to Mouth,” and I’m grateful for that.
“It made me see where we’re lacking. The host,” added Agami, “was amazing, and I hope we’ll go there again—but better.”
As to the seeds of a new choreography, Agami said she comes to the studio with a rough visual idea or some kind of intention. “What will this picture send out to the space? And then I choose who is the dancer that is going to lead my physicality.
“I start creating movements for a specific dancer, which helps me, because I try to connect to how he is moving and who he is. What would be best for him or scary for him, and together we create new movement. There’s a picture in my mind and there’s a person in front of me, and then on stage it will come together.
“I put the dancer and process at the front,” Agami stated. “That’s the engine when it comes to choreography, they’re 50-50 in this product.”
And while she makes choreography rooted in Gaga, Agami said she looks for a dancer that is “open and sophisticated with his body, and the way he’s approaching movement, the corrections, the sensations, my imagery.
“He needs to create music with his body, beauty with his body, and be pleasant to be around,” continued Agami. “He needs to be curious and develop my curiosity about him or her. And,” she stated unequivocally, “they must be willing to work hard and exaggerate when it comes to passion and dreaming with Ate9 about the long-term future.”
Agami’s immediate future is teeming with travel: She goes to Germany, Italy and Israel, where she is, respectively, setting Naharin’s “Hora,” making a new work in Rome as the final part of a three-year workshop, and choreographing a piece for Batsheva Ensemble.
And, of course, she continues to teach, at least three times a week, including at Ryan Heffington’s hip studio, the Sweat Spot (Heffington choreographed Sia’s “Chandelier”), “which,” noted Agami, “keeps me extremely creative and connected to my body and environment. This is why Gaga is the most important thing that happened in my career, the most addicting thing that I experience physically.
“It can be kind of exhausting when someone like me is asked to create so many new works every year,” Agami proclaimed, “but it feels very good. This is something I’m committed to.”
As she is also committed to her troupe. When asked where she sees herself in the next five years, Agami replied: “I want to make more work, make Ate9 more established and more sustainable. I want to make sure we’ve done everything we can to engage the audience in L.A., and to be happy with this medium [as well as] my decision to have a dance company.”