Bodytraffic brings high-octane synergy to ‘ferocious choreography’

By Christina Campodonico

Bodytraffic dancer Joseph Kudra stretches his creative muscles Photo by Joshua Sugiyama

Bodytraffic dancer Joseph Kudra stretches his creative muscles
Photo by Joshua Sugiyama

Ask artistic directors Lillian Barbeito or Tina Finkelman Berkett separately about the moment when they felt like their 9-year-old, L.A.-based dance company Bodytraffic finally arrived, and they’ll give you the same answer — their company’s 2012 debut at the Joyce Theater in New York, one of the most respected theaters for dance performance in the country.

“We just performed at the Joyce Theatre,” recalls Barbeito. “Tina and I, after the curtain closed, literally embraced and fell to the floor sobbing. … And I just remember holding her and just sort of weeping with joy at that moment.”

“The curtain closed and our company left,” recounts Berkett in a separate call. “They ran off stage and Lillian and I just dropped to the ground on the floor of the stage. And we were just sobbing because — it still makes me emotional — we worked so hard to get to that moment.”

Call it ESP or sheer coincidence, but Berkett and Barbeito share a kind of mind-meld that could be called uncanny.

Fortunately, that ability to read each other’s thoughts comes in handy when the two are developing programming for their critically-acclaimed company’s performances at venues like The Broad Stage, where this weekend Bodytraffic will premiere choreographer Arthur Pita’s new work “Death Defying Dances,” perform William Forsythe protégé Richard Siegal’s “3 Preludes” and preview Anton Lachky’s “Private Games: Chapter One.”

Berkett says that aside from her husband and son, Barbeito is the closest person in her life, a partnership that has grown over nine years of making all artistic director decisions together.

“Artistically we pretty much always see eye-to-eye,” says Berkett.

“I think Tina and I are artistic soulmates,” adds Barbeito. “We are very different, sort of yin and yang, and our two different perspectives coming together actually do define the Bodytraffic aesthetic, and one  is interdependent on the other.”

For instance, Berkett handles development and fundraising, while Barbeito oversees the company’s educational arm. Yet both have a taste for high-quality choreography that is not only pleasing to the eye, but also artistically satisfying for their dancers.

“Lillian and I have always looked after the company and curated our repertoire from the perspective of dancers,” says Berkett, who danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Hell’s Kitchen Dance as a founding member and also performs with Bodytraffic. Barbeito received a BFA from Juilliard and danced professionally around the world before landing in Los Angeles and hanging up her dance shoes.

“We understand what it means to have a dancer’s perspective, to know what it feels like inside the work,” continues Berkett. “When the directors get to actually touch and feel, it brings a dedication to the work and intimacy with the work that is particular to our company, and we take a lot of pride in having that closeness to it. So from that perspective, we always commission things that are really well enjoyed and danced from a place of excitement.”

“Really the most important thing is that the work challenges the dancers and helps them grow artistically and technically,” says Barbeito. “As we’re considering a choreographer to commission them and to bring their work into our repertoire, it’s not just, ‘Is this going to add a different color or different flavor to the repertoire that’s already there?’ but ‘Is it going to keep our dancers interested and engaged and really inspired to come into the studio every day?’”

For The Broad Stage, Berkett and Barbeito have prepared a challenging program that showcases the company’s skillful command of ballet and contemporary dance techniques.

Siegal’s “3 Preludes” set to Gershwin’s music of the same name captures “the essence of Bodytraffic, the nuance of our personality … and camaraderie of the dancers,” says Berkett, while Pita’s “Death Defying Dances” builds itself around the songbook of the “Queen of the Beatniks,” folksinger Judy Henske.  But Anton Lachky’s “Private Games: Chapter One,” which will make its full debut at the Joyce Theater next year, is the most intense, she says.

“Anton’s work is like the fastest, the most furious, the most ferocious choreography and dancing I think our company has ever seen,” says Berkett. “It’s super speed. It really shows off the prowess of our dancers, their athleticism and their sheer animal abilities.”

“It’s physically shocking,” adds Barbeito. “It was definitely one of the most physically traumatic creation processes. It was a month-long and the dancers could barely walk after just a couple of days.”

But if Bodytraffic’s track record with this viewer is any indication, the company is poised to be back on its feet and in top form for their Thursday opening at The Broad Stage.

Their performance of Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s “Bounce” with the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in September was buoyant and effervescent, their mastery over Barak Marshall’s complicated hand choreography at a March 2014 USC Visions & Voices event quicksilver, and their 2015 performance of “Restructure” in “Moves After Dark” at the Music Center an engrossing chain of fluid movement.

On the surface Bodytraffic’s name may belie such a free flow of kinetic energy or just scream gridlock, but when the lights go down they’re a nimble force — always on the move.

“Bodytraffic” performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday (Oct. 27, 28 and 29) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $40 to $80. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit