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A Life in Dance

There‘s a story I heard once about Lester Horton, the granddaddy of Los Angeles modern dance. One day, tired and cranky, he came into a rehearsal, brought all of his dancers onto the stage and commanded them: ”One, two, three, KVETCH!“

Taking Horton’s cue, I‘ve got a kvetch of my own: Why this proclivity to overhype young choreographers? Given the wealth of local dance artists producing a range of fascinating work, why do we fetishize new talent? The problem, of course, with this vampiric cult of the new is that we’re fickle; publicity mills will always be in need of fresh blood, the next big thing. And so we create a system that doesn‘t provide much aesthetic elbow room to experiment -- fail, if need be -- and that overlooks those doing the spade work year in and year out, somewhere between ”emerging“ and ”masterful.“

With that in mind, I approach Ilaan Egeland, a performer who’s been transiting into the role of choreographer over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, the hype was securely in place for Egeland‘s appearance at Highways Performance Space late last month with a relentlessly cheery evening-length piece, . . . in one day, that also introduced her dance company (Egeland, Susan Goldberg, Erin Carper and the musical duo Bright Blue Gorilla). The attention Egeland has received is due in part to a much-quoted resume that includes a lengthy New York stint and, most recently and notably, touring with David RousseveREALITY. Indeed, during . . . in one day Egeland demonstrated some of the gifts that may have led to this association: a long line, quick dynamic responsiveness, and an engaging stage presence that outstripped her other dancers. It’s the kind of beguilement that could sell you snake oil, which pretty much sums up the piece, condensing as it does the Southern California experience into bite-size, easily digestible pronouncements about -- what else? -- Disneyland, Hollywood, traffic, greed and the like. This is a work that not only wears its belief system on its sleeve, but unabashedly reiterates it through song lyrics (sung, spoken and projected onto the back wall), interweaving storytelling and philosophical musings, and movement segments which, like yet another rousing chorus, obediently follow wherever the music leads. (A singer touts a line like ”Lay me down“ and -- voila! -- a dancer does.)

The collagist approach is fairly common these days among dance, performance and theater artists, so I‘ll forego comparing Egeland’s foray to Rousseve‘s. The key to this approach is to be strategic in one’s choices. It‘s like building a house of cards, a delicate structure balanced upright from the tension among its composite parts, and it is here that Egeland’s inexperience becomes most apparent. The elements are cut from the same feel-good cloth, and in the absence of any juxtaposition, it all becomes formulaic: First we talk about it, then we sing about it, then we dance about it. The movement itself -- breezy combinations featuring lots of unfurling limbs -- never takes off, or takes us farther or deeper, subsumed as it is within the limitations of Egeland‘s overarching intention to make a statement about our humanity. I kept wishing that Egeland would forget the point she wanted to make and focus, instead, on the movement.

How different the expansive silences of Neil Greenberg, whose one-night gig at the Skirball Cultural Center June 22 proved how incredibly sublime textural and communicative movement, all by itself, can be. Despite unforeseen technical difficulties (i.e., bad weather) that prevented his New York--based company from performing at full tilt (at the risk of falling on a sopping wet stage), it was a delight to spend an evening with the finely honed wit and movement sensibility of Greenberg, whose trio What Happened and quartet Sequel employed, parodied and subverted the suspenseful and melodramatic trappings of Hitchcock movies. Greenberg finely hones his material, shaving off anything and everything extraneous until we’re left with spare, tightly organized phrases that at first have the rhythmic evenness of a declarative sentence (one can almost hear the dancers trying to explain and defend themselves).

Although Greenberg skillfully uses a range of cinematic strategies (flashback, freeze-frame, stop action, slow pan) as well as two well-placed convex mirrors at the rear corners of the stage to play with our perceptions, his goal seems not to simply mimic filmic POV, but to embody the atmosphere of intrigue at the heart of any great mystery. He slowly builds narrative and character at the same time that he questions it, creating ambiguity with an added gesture, a costume change (Do we believe him, more or less, now that he‘s wearing that shirt?), a look askance, the interjection of a jagged, hair-raising violin chord, or the projection of text which, acting as another character, provides humorous asides such as ”Don’t listen to her. She‘s lying.“ The movement winds around and doubles back upon itself (it is a mystery after all), allowing us the space to marvel at its imagistic power, and the dancers’ ability to imbue even the vaguest gesture with multiple textures and meanings.

The abstruse poetics of Greenberg‘s choreography are not necessarily for everyone. I overheard one woman complain to a friend at intermission that she just didn’t get what it was about, and wished she could hear the choreographer explain his intentions. Allowing dancers to speak for themselves is the point of The Horse‘s Mouth Meets the New Millennium, a ”live stage documentary“ and one of four different programs comprising the upcoming Dance Kaleidoscope, slated for July 14, 15, 22 & 23 at various area venues. Eclectic programming is a hallmark of this annual summer dance tradition, which celebrates new and veteran choreographers alike. This year’s showcase boasts 14 premieres (including a rare solo by Stephanie Gilliland, artistic director of TONGUE) and the participation of a total of 28 artists or companies. Since 1989, Dance Kaleidoscope has flourished under the leadership of eternal dance booster Don Hewitt, the person responsible for resurrecting the then 7-year-old festival after it had lain dormant for three years and Angelenos realized they missed it. The showcase format has its downsides, however. It can result in the occasional imbalanced program, the inclusion of work that isn‘t strong enough to stand on its own, and the nagging sense that such a smorgasbord of diversity isn’t really serving the work itself.

Nevertheless, the sentiment at the heart of Dance Kaleidoscope, that dance encompasses a huge and rich expanse of creative turf, is admirable. It‘s nice to get a sense of dance as a field every once in a while --- which is also the intent of The Horse’s Mouth, a microcosm of the festival, featuring as it does dance practitioners of all ages and forms telling stories about their careers, as well as showing us a move or two. That story about Lester Horton kvetching was told by Carmen de Lavallade at the first outing of The Horse‘s Mouth, back in 1998. Since then, versions of Tina Croll and James Cunningham’s oralbody history project have taken place at Joyce Soho, Dance Theater Workshop and Danspace in New York City, as well as at last year‘s Dance Kaleidoscope -- all to much acclaim. To date, about 30 choreographers are confirmed to join Croll and Cunningham at the Japan America Theater on July 22. With Bharatanatyam dancer Medha Yodh and Cambodian classical dancer Sophiline Shapiro moving with and alongside a range of modernists and postmodernists -- Rudy Perez, Victoria Marks, Hae Kyung Lee and Francisco Martinez, to name just a few -- this is bound to be a visual and kinesthetic feast.

The strength of The Horse’s Mouth, and probably why it continues to garner interest and spawn versions using local dance communities throughout the United States, is not only this panoramic sweep of the human body moving, but the 90-second memoirs of its participants. Since the time limit was the only parameter given, dancers and choreographers wax philosophical or humorous, with stories that chart the day-in, day-out struggles and joys of creating a life in dance. Here are the stories, arising from that gray space where history and memory converge. Here is history as lived experience, and dance not as a finished product, but a lifelong process of moving, thinking about movement, and figuring out how to express the human experience through movement. Which is really what it‘s all about.

For more information on Dance Kaleidoscope, call (323) 343-6683.


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