A Conversation with BODYTRAFFIC’s Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett

Finkelman Berkett (left) and Barbeito at Jacob’s Pillow, where the company performed in July

Neither of them particularly wanted to run her own company. When East Coast transplants Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett founded their repertory troupe BODYTRAFFIC in 2007, it was really so they’d have a vehicle to perform the contemporary work they loved in the commercial dance hub of Los Angeles. In the beginning, Berkett says, “we were basically begging people to dance for us. They would fly in from wherever they lived, and it would be such an ordeal to even get them to stay for two weeks’ rehearsal process.” Now, nearly eight years and a dozen-plus works later, the company’s success—with commissions from groundbreaking contemporary choreographers like Barak Marshall, Hofesh Shechter, Andrea Miller and Richard Siegal—has helped change the landscape of L.A.’s dance scene. Berkett and Barbeito report that there’s no shortage of dancers looking to move to L.A., eager to get on BODYTRAFFIC’s radar and join the city’s budding contemporary dance force.

Later this month, the company embarks on its biggest international endeavor yet: a four-week DanceMotion USA–sponsored tour to Israel and Jordan.

BODYTRAFFIC’s origins

Tina Finkelman Berkett: “We don’t like to really say it—because it sounds too traditional, if you consider the kind of woman-power we have now—but we both originally came to L.A. for our partners.”

Lillian Barbeito: “I had been living in L.A. since 2001. One day I was in ballet class and saw Tina, and I basically hit on her, in a dancer sense. I went up to her and said, ‘Who are you? Where do you dance?’ And of course her response is, ‘I live in New York.’ But then we ran into each other again about a year later, and I said, ‘You again! Let’s go take a modern class together.’ I told her she should move here, and we’ll start a company—jokingly. Lo and behold, she moved here. The first piece was a solo that I had already choreographed, but I set it on Tina.”

TFB: “We met at the perfect time in our careers, because we were both ready to make work that would challenge us and push L.A. to become a dance town. We’ve watched the city change over the last seven and a half years.”

How a co-artistic directorship works

TFB: “I think we’re figuring it out, still. Originally, we just did everything together. We didn’t have kids—Lillian now has two kids, I have one—so we spent way more hours together and agonized over a lot less information. Now, Lillian has taken off with our tremendous education program. She handles that all without me. I have very little to do with the administration. I handle the development and fundraising.”

LB [laughing]: “So basically I clean the mirrors, and she’s out at a great party.”

TFB: “But all of the artistic direction is shared equally.”

Finkelman Berkett and Barbeito (stepping forward to take a bow) met by chance in ballet class.Naming the company

LB: “When people read or heard the name, we wanted them to think dance. So we made a list of words that were dance-related. And then we wanted it to also be something that screamed ‘L.A.’ So we made a list of anything that had to do with Los Angeles. We went back and forth, pairing things together, and BODYTRAFFIC really stood out to us. We knew that it was a strong name. People either loved it or hated it, but it stuck.”

On commissioning work

LB: “In the beginning, it was sort of a bucket list for us as dancers: who we’d want to be in the studio with. Now, coming more from a producer’s standpoint, we want to make sure that the audience goes on a journey, that it’s a really well-balanced evening: something more spiritual or balletic, something more urban.”

TFB: “When people see BODYTRAFFIC, they should walk away in shock that they saw dancers who can do three or four very different things in one evening.”

Their DanceMotion USA tour

TFB: “This year is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, so when we’re in the Middle East, we’ll be doing outreach with communities that have multi-abled demographics. It’s not as much performing as it is facilitating workshops and getting in different venues with children—school gyms or community centers—and exposing them to what’s going on in the United States in terms of dance.”

LB: “In other regions, aside from Israel, we’ll have to be culturally sensitive. In some of the partnering work, we’ll have to excerpt and do sections that are more side-by-side unison. We have to adjust our costumes, because we have to be covered.”

Plans for the future

TFB: “An immediate goal is to have all of our dancers on salary. Right now, about a third of the company is full-time, salaried dancers, and we’re really proud of that accomplishment for a company so young, but we want to get everyone on that track.” DT

Lillian Barbeito

Training: BFA from The Juilliard School

Performance: danced with the Metropolitan Opera; American Repertory Dance Company; Helios Dance Theater

Teaching: certified to teach Anouk van Dijk’s Countertechnique

Tina Finkelman Berkett

Training: studied under Michele Cuccaro Cain

Performance: member of Aszure Barton & Artists; founding member of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Hell’s Kitchen Dance

Photos from top: by Jim Webber, by Christopher Duggan, both courtesy of BODYTRAFFIC

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