2015 may be one of the gutsiest years ever in San Diego theater. I can’t ever remember so many world premieres. Even though the word on staging them is: do not. They’re too risky, can be hit-or-miss; audiences prefer known stuff; no safety net.
Well, if you don’t count the Without Walls Festival, which has a bunch, five of the La Jolla Playhouse’s six shows this year are world premieres. And the Old Globe’s current offering, also a world premiere, is a dance-theater piece. I guess they never got the memo. Good thing they didn’t.
In Your Arms, conceived by Christopher Gattelli and Jennifer Manocherian, commissioned 10 name playwrights to pen vignettes about love — and tell them through dance. The authors are an all-star team of Pulitzer Prize-winners and finalists: among them Terrence McNally (Love, Valour! Compassion!), Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother), Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed), and Christopher Durang (Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them).
The stories match Derek McLane’s set: a medieval wall in “fair Verona,” with Juliet’s balcony, stage right, and love letters taped on the stones. The ten stories are variations on the theme of star-crossed lovers.
In Nilo Cruz’s The Lover’s Jacket, the Spanish Civil War has ended, and Generalissimo Franco has forbidden expressive dancing. When lovers spike the floor with flamenco steps (and amazing Oscar Valero really spikes it), La Guardia Civil arrests the man. They reunite years later. But is it too late?
Alfred Uhry’s Love With the Top Down is one of the most simple, and eloquent. Two teens in a car, in the Fifties, the stars aligned. They experiment. What happens after is one of the show’s most unexpected, and sage, moments.
Overall, In Your Arms both delights and frustrates. Except for Carrie Fisher’s funny self-parody, Lowdown Messy Shame (two dancers are fed up with their playwright, who has a Princess Leia, earphones-hairdo), the writers don’t actually write. They present plotlines, some quite predictable. These are famous names, but the more skeletal plots could have come from anyone.
At times you can see/hear the author’s voice. Lynn Nottage’s A Wedding Dance unites an African man and woman with a long red ribbon. Formal, ritualistic dance moves fuse their eternal bond. But a tragic event may dis-align the heavens. This is Nottage Territory pared down but still powerful.
The pieces are uneven. Among the weakest, Intergalactic Planetary takes too long to set up and, except for Donald Holder’s glorious night sky lighting, doesn’t do much either.
The frame tale also needs strengthening. Tony Award-winner Donna McKechnie sings a lame song about love and separation (Stephen Flaherty’s score rarely inches beyond the generic). Then she reunites with the man — played by co-Broadway icon George Chakiris — in the end. But they don’t dance much at all! It’s another instance of the show’s tendency to name-drop but not make full use of the talents.
The dancers and Gattelli’s choreography impress throughout. In Your Arms functions like a sampler of styles: there must be 15 to 20, all performed with blazing precision. Some standouts: Hayley Podschun in Top Down does a high-wire jitterbug; the whole cast shines in Hwang’s White Snake, which flips from the mundane to the mythical; Life Long Love, a sort of Same Time, Next Decade, isn’t much. But Karine Plantadit is extraordinarily expressive. During one sequence, as if her ceiling were only four feet off the ground, she whirls and arches, splays and dips just inches from the floor. Later she rushes toward her dance partner, leaps, and spins 360 degrees in the air — and he makes a perfect catch! Mr. Ballanchine, who may have invented the move, would give her a perfect 10.