Los Angeles Times
AEROS Company

Royce Hall -- UCLA
405 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles

"The collision of the aesthetic and the athletic"--that's how Moses Pendleton has pegged "Aeros," the new piece of dance theater he is co-directing with Daniel Ezralow and David Parsons. The three are all dancer-choreographers descended from the athletic experiments of Pilobolus or Momix or the Paul Taylor Dance Company, where they were founders or members. They have joined forces with 19 members of the Romanian Gymnastics Federation in another example of the "Riverdance" phenomenon, the melding of mass entertainment values--and in this case, the values of sport--with concert choreography.

Performers in "Aeros" during a rehearsal at UCLA.

"Aeros" begins and ends with bursts of gymnastic pyrotechnics--jumps, tumbles, leaps, somersaults and midair splits to a blood-stirring syncopated beat. One segment takes off from the trampoline, with red pajama-like costumes and New Age music to nudge it in the direction of dance. In another number, a dozen performers mosey across the stage on their hands, wearing white leotards that glow in black light--if you squint, they look like creatures from another planet, with short spindly legs and overdeveloped arms (and no heads). It elicits immediate explosions of oohs and aahs from the audience.

Times dance critic Lewis Segal's review called the maneuvers "awesome." " 'Aeros,' " he wrote, "raises the bar for dance when it comes to matched slow-and-steady virtuosity as well as perfect control of the angles that bodies can define in space."

But, he cautioned, it doesn't successfully cross the divide between a discipline and an art. That's a distinction Ezralow, Parsons and Pendleton aren't too troubled by. At the dress rehearsal, a few days before the production premiered at Royce Hall two weeks ago, the three collaborators emphasize that "Aeros" was designed with popular appeal and not strict categories in mind.

"Dance has to change if you're asking people to pay good money to come see it," says Pendleton, who acknowledges the esoteric nature of some modern dance. "It has to fall into principles of drama, some kind of situation that may fall into the area of entertainment."

"Our point was to make it accessible," Ezralow affirms. "I don't think we've sold out, but we're trying to make something that people can get. I think we were very clear we wanted people to like it."

"Aeros" got its start in 1998, when the choreographers were approached by Italian producer Antonio Gnecchi to work with the much lauded Romanian gymnasts for an "industrial," a show created for Procter & Gamble. Gnecchi, with Columbia Artists of New York, decided to re-create it for an international audience.

The concept of gymnasts as dancers was appealing to the choreographers from the outset--all three of them, and the companies they've been associated with, Pilobolus and Momix, are known for putting trained dancers through acrobatic paces. And the Romanian Gymnastics Federation--spawning ground of such famous Olympic "artistic" gymnasts as Nadia Comaneci and Andreea Raducan--could provide the crème de la crème. In this case, however, the choreographers worked with a different branch of Romanian gymnastics, sports aerobics, which emphasizes tumbling and acrobatics, including trampoline work, done individually and in ensembles.

"They do have music to their routines, so they're not so dissimilar [to dancers]," says Pendleton. "They do have some experience of moving through physical phrases to music."

They all participate in international gymnastics competition. Last year at the sports aerobics World Championships in Germany, for example, Izabela Lacatus, 24, took first place in the individual women category, while Cristian Moldovan, 26, won first place in trio and a third in individual men.

After going to Bucharest to meet the gymnasts and observe their exercises and routines--Parsons himself was trained as a gymnast--the three American choreographers began to devise works that would highlight their abilities. Last September and December, the choreographers and gymnasts met in workshops at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

It was a learning experience all around.

"They're not dancers, they're performers, which means they know how to use their bodies on stage in unique ways," says Ezralow. "Dancers have a different essence to them, they can understand a simple walk." For the gymnasts, a walk across the stage was daunting. However, he points out the gymnasts are trained to absorb high impact, rebound from surfaces, walk on their hands with ease and maintain their equilibrium while upside down.

"They fly through the air," he says, with awe. "They like being upside down."

And the gymnasts have added a more studied walk to their repertory.

"They taught us how to move more slowly," says Lacatus.

"In aerobics everything is contraction, tension," says Moldovan. "They taught us how to be smooth, to relax."

The choreographers aren't done experimenting with their new colleagues. "When you get athletes like this," Ezralow says, "they have a certain purity, and you get very excited by their positivity and their energy. We're all very excited by the human potential of these bodies."

"There is a vocabulary that we're starting to discover and that's very exciting," observes Parsons, already envisioning future numbers for the gymnasts. "It's a new vocabulary for them, it's a new vocabulary for us, and I think that's something that dance really needs right now. I don't know what we'll find, but it pushes everyone to think in a different way." -- SCARLET CHENG, Special To The Times

Jan. 25: 8 p.m.
Jan. 26: 8 p.m.
Jan. 27: 2 p.m.; 8 p.m.
Jan. 29: 2 p.m.

Price: $20 to $35
Information: 310-825-2101

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times