It starts with a flutter, a flap, a wave – an angel. At the beginning of Jamar Roberts’ new work ‘Lineage’, the LA Dance Project company gathers with arms outstretched and shake hands at the same time. The moment quickly descends into chaos. New groups form, one rigid and precise, one limb at a time moving at high speed. Meanwhile, the other moves from one step to the next.
Nayomi Van Brunt breaks through the cacophony of bodies and dives into the hands of two fellow dancers. Her head and body turn to face the audience while restraining her body. Moments later, she’s surrounded by flapping hands that collectively transform the collective into a larger, angelic being – one you can’t look away from.
Formerly a dancer and now a choreographer, Roberts had no idea what his new commissioned work with LA Dance Project would be when he began rehearsing with the company. Unlike most assignments, which usually start with one to two weeks of rehearsal, he was given five weeks in the studio prior to a weekend of performances. He did that to his advantage.
“Usually I come in prepared and already know what the play is about and stuff,” says Roberts. “But I didn’t do it here.” He prefers it this way, he says, because it “really tailors the work to who’s in the room, not me.”
That resulted in ‘Lineage’, a work that will be presented until Saturday together with artists in residence Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber’s ‘Quartet for Five’ at LADP – now sold out. During the weeks in the studio, Roberts’ world premiere became an abstract plunge into the psyche, inspired by dreams about his grandmother. As a result, he paints a fantastic portrait of relationships with others and the self.
Before venturing to the studio in downtown LA, Roberts was the resident choreographer at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from 2019 to 2022, where he created five critically acclaimed works. He has worked with the company since 2002 and stopped dancing in 2021. And in February 2022 he made his choreographic debut with New York City Ballet after a quarantine spent creating work for movies. Moments of breakthrough, as well as periods of conflict about what it means to be in the dance world right now, have informed his long journey to becoming a choreographer. His years with Alvin Ailey have helped him convey his vision while empowering the dancers to uphold their own style; both are central to LADP’s mission.
Roberts often takes a more intuitive approach to choreography, looking for what can help artists interpret the movements. This may involve using unusual expressions (such as “SpongeBob” and “stop sign”) as a way to both lighten the mood and create signifiers for a particular section. “I can’t be myself in the room,” says Roberts. “I’m very clumsy and stupid by nature.”
To create ‘Lineage’ he started thinking about recurring themes – like angels – and how that idea would translate into movements.
The work contains a lot of movement from the upper body, using the arms and swinging them like rivers over the body, pulling from the elbow. A swinging and swinging arm then pulls the body forward. In a separate sequence, the arms are spread to the sides of the body, bent like an umbrella. During a rehearsal in early February, Roberts briefly watches the movement before instructing the company of dancers to wave their forearms.
“Sometimes I think of the arms as wings,” says Roberts. “I was thinking about some celestial being or something, but the way they would communicate wouldn’t be the way you and I would communicate.”
The pace of the performance is often high. He compared it to James Cameron’s “Avatar”: in the same way that the blue characters connect to the trees through their hair, the characters in his choreography are drawn into movement by a similar overarching energy, a higher being, that they try to to connect. Unpleasant.
The movement language that Roberts developed is unique in that it will not be revisited. He said that he creates a new movement vocabulary for each choreographic work. Anything made at LA Dance Project is not recycled.
“These steps here you may never see in another piece because they are very specific to this work and these dancers,” says Roberts.
In the same February 3 rehearsal, dancers go through a sequence where the arms and hands are heavily taken up before their bodies flow one by one to the other side of the stage. They follow each other over and over again with the same choreography. Roberts points to the theme of lineage in these moments, referring to generational trauma capable of “ripping through time.”
Roberts developed the work after recurring dreams about his grandmother, who died 12 years ago. “She’s very prominent in my mind, memory, life,” he says. He began exploring the “idea that a person can be gone but somehow still present in your life, physically or metaphysically,” he says.
The theme also has a through line in the avant-garde jazz music to which it is set. “You think about the lineage in the history of jazz music and how it was created by black people,” says Roberts. He deliberately tried not to use a musical performer who is often danced, like Mozart. “What about Miles Davis?” he asks. “What about John Coltrane? Dance in America feels so white, I feel a certain responsibility in myself to bring out the geniuses of black music.
As the dancers broke out of the line they had created on stage, their movement shifted with the hum of the music. A trio formed here and a duo slid there. The dreamy world came alive, as bodies collided and mingled into a mist. When they resurfaced, they revealed David Freeland extended his leg and the energy rolled down the spine, slowly bringing his chin to his chest.
At that moment, Roberts runs from his chair to the Marley dance floor. The dancers watch Roberts as he stands still. He laughed softly and went through the next step, before stopping prematurely and stepping back.
Okay,” he says before making the next move.