“LA deserves to have a remarkable dance company that’s representative of this community,” Tina Finkelman Berkett, co-founder and artistic director of Los Angeles-based dance troupe BODYTRAFFIC, told me.
BODYTRAFFIC is a 17-year-old dance company based in Los Angeles that will be performing at the Audrey Irmas Pavillon performance space at Wilshire Boulevard Temple (3643 Wilshire Blvd) on February 29 with a program, “In Pursuit of Love” that features three pieces, Love. Lost. Fly by Micaela Taylor, Recurrence by Ethan Colangelo and Blue Until June by Trey McIntyre, set to the music of Blues legend (and LA native) Etta James. Tickets are still available and can be purchased here.
“I was dancing my whole life,” Berkett recalled recently of the journey that led her to LA and co-founding a dance troupe. As a child she went to dance classes at a little studio near her home in New York. “The first dance performance I went to was on a New York City public school trip to City Center, and I saw Alvin Ailey and it changed my life.” However, she could not imagine a career in dance. “I just assumed: I love to dance but that’s not going to be my life.”
Berkett grew up in New York in a family of math-adepts, mathematicians, accountants – non-artists. Berkett seemed on that same path. She attended Stuyvesant High School, New York’s special admission public school, and then Barnard where she double majored in Mathematics and Economics. “While I was at Barnard, I was really on a track to work at an investment bank or a hedge fund.”’
However, one day when riding the subway with her father, she shared that she had all these interviews at investment banks. To which he said, “Why would you do that?” Berkett assumed that her father wanted her to pursue a financially secure life. But he encouraged her to follow her passion for dance. “I shifted gears and within months of that, I was performing at the Joyce Soho [theater].”
Berkett’s big break was being part of Hell’s Kitchen Dance, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s dance company. She danced for Baryshnikov for almost three years, and that experience, that Baryshnikov credential, was like an Ivy League credential for her career.
In 2007, Berkett moved to LA. She was 23, newly married, and she wondered: “What am I going to do?” Berkett was trying to put something together for herself to dance in, and realized there was a real hunger in LA for a dance company. So, together with Lillian Barbeito, she founded BODYTRAFFIC.
Their first performance was in the catering hall of Sinai Temple of “Transfigured Night World” to music by Arnold Schoenberg. Randy Schoenberg, his grandson – filmmaker, philanthropist, genealogist, and attorney who won the Klimt Lady in Gold case, underwrote the performance. 700 people showed up.
Over the next decade, the company won awards, performed at the LA Philharmonic opening Gala at Walt Disney Concert Hall, The Joyce Theater in New York, at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, The Broad Stage in LA, the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, the Tel Aviv Opera House, the Hollywood Bowl, The Wallis in Beverly Hills, the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity. BODYTRAFFIC were Cultural Ambassadors from the US to Jordan, Israel, Algeria, Jakarta & Indonesia, and performed at the Context Festival in Moscow & St. Petersburg.
At one point in her career, Berkett reached out to Ohad Naharin, then artistic director of Batsheva dance to mentor her. Naharin challenged her to come to Israel to dance a solo that was, Berkett said, “definitely amongst the hardest things I’ve ever danced.”
Based on the rehearsal I attended, BODYTRAFFIC features a diverse company of talented modern dancers whose performances display technique that remains rooted in ballet with touches of Gaga (Naharin’s school of movement) and contemporary dance movement – reminding me of the early work of Twyla Tharp.
For most of its existence BODYTRAFFIC has been better known and more appreciated outside of LA than in its hometown, in great part because LA has not built the infrastructure necessary for dance: the rehearsal spaces and theaters with permanent spaces and residencies devoted to dance are few if any and, as concerns dance, there is not the same history of philanthropy and deep bench of board members devoted to dance. That is changing.
In 2020, Berkett became the company’s sole artistic director. In 2022, Micaela Taylor became their first artist in residence. And in 2022 Gillian Wynn joined BODYTRAFFIC as President, not only taking over the management, business relations, logistics, and planning duties of running a dance company but also joining Berkett as a creative partner in bringing new choreographers and programming to the company.
Wynn had long been passionate about dance, having served on the boards of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, Nevada Ballet Theatre, and as a champion of dance at the not-for-profit United States Artists (created to support American artists in all disciplines). Once Wynn came aboard BODYTRAFFIC, she quickly secured the company a summer residency in Sun Valley; expanded the number of performance dates around the country and at various locations around Los Angeles; invited choreographer Trey McIntyre to stage his original work, Blue Until June, for the company to perform; while at the same time, raising the pay and health benefits for the dancers.
“We really want to be known as Los Angeles’s Dance Company,” Wynn told me, “And we’re trying to make that happen.”
What Berkett would like to say to potential audience members is: “Come to the theater. I promise you it will be a positive experience.” Berkett says of her mission: “We have to entertain people …through music we have to hook people [to] build a community that has energy that people want to be a part of.”
Berkett believes things are changing in the dance world post-pandemic in ways that favor an LA troupe. It used to be that dancers flocked to New York for the permanent companies that can offer contracts as troupe members with better pay along with support, teachers and choreographers, physical therapy, insurance and other benefit and perks. However, increasingly, dancers are freelance artists, and for them quality of life issues (as well as the high cost of living in New York versus LA), make LA increasingly attractive.
BODYTRAFFIC has become a company where dancers can broaden their “awareness of what is possible in your dance career,” Berkett said. What BODYTRAFFIC offers dancers “is really about leadership, empowerment, positive work environment, advocating for yourself, mental health. I mean, these are the aspects of working at body traffic that are unlike working in other dance organizations.” Berkett says BODYTRAFFIC is focused on “broadening people’s awareness of what is possible in your dance career.”
Looking forward, Berkett says, “the next few years, my goal is to be able to offer all of our education programs for free, and to do a tour of school shows across the city.” Berkett believes that if young people in LA have access to dance, “it will change their lives as it did mine.”
“So it’s a really simple,” Berkett concluded, BODYTRAFFIC is about, “Love and [our] mission, and I think that more and more people want to be a part of it.”
BODYTRAFFIC touring schedule can be found here. Tickets are still available for the February 29 Los Angeles performance, here.