To recorded sounds of sad, gentle arpeggios, three performers with the Gloria Newman Dancers sway as if moved by the wind. They slowly bend backwards or stretch into difficult balances or turn in narrow circles.
One by one, the other company members cross onto the stage, adding a wide variety of movement and a blur of differing tempos. Gradually, the dancers begin telling us about their lives:
- "I didn't plan to come to California: I was adopted," Korean-born war orphan Kim Johnson said.
- "We had a Zulu gardener in South Africa," said assistant company director Gladys Kares, who was born in Johannesburg. "I was surprised to see that his blood ran red when he was cut. I thought it would be yellow or green. . . ."
- "I hated Chinese restaurants, bok choy, mixed vegetables and squash," Chinese-American dancer Karen Ju said. "I loved tamales. I always thought I was half Mexican."
In this way, Gloria Newman begins her new work, "Cantata, Part I," which her Orange-based company will premiere at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday in the Robert B. Moore Theater at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. (Also on the program will be "Each to His Own Rag," choreographed by Kares.)
"(In the work) the dancers talk about their heritage, traditions, environments and prejudices, and in this way we get to know them as people," Newman said during a recent rehearsal.
Newman said she considers the dance a "California" work that reflects "the cosmos that California is."
"It's a work that delves into the mystery of how we become what we are and how we view that process," Newman said. "It explores the different places that shape us: inside, our interiors; and outside, our environments."
She described the 40-minute work as four different sections that follow one another without pause.
"The first section is the talking, and the movement is descriptive in terms of what the dancers are talking about," the choreographer said. "The second is a series of duets and deals with relationships, with the dancers relying on each other for protection in a hostile environment: They actually need each other to create the movements.
"The third section--'Points of View'--deals with play fantasy and makes theatrical statements using ramps to reflect changes in the horizon and how one sees things.
"The last section uses projections of running figures to interrupt bombastic movement of the dancers. It has a paralyzed, almost dreamlike quality."
Newman said she envisions "Cantata" as being the first in a projected set of her dance works that will comprise an entire program; hence "Part I" in the title.
"Even what you do say is not always true. You don't intentionally mean to mislead, but the (choreographic) process doesn't shape itself to that logical fashion (of language). Sometimes I look at my work later and understand it in a different way because I'm (mentally) working from a different place.
"The impulse for the choreography of a work varies," Newman said. "Sometimes you see something abstractly and it's not related to a particular dancer, and sometimes you see something in a dancer that intrigues you or something that is potential.
"In this case, I started by asking the dancers a lot of questions about where they're from and I found that they always related their answers back to their original heritage.
"Then the dance sort of formed itself and the pieces of the puzzle began fitting into the right spots."
Newman said she sees the work as striking in a new direction. "I don't like repeats. I don't try to do the same movement in every piece. That's what makes it exciting."
Newman is one of the pioneers and survivors of local modern dance. A native of New York, she moved to California in 1954 to teach at Eugene Loring's studio in Hollywood. She moved to Orange County in 1961 and formed her own company. She has premiered 37 works, made more than 50 concert tours throughout the country, revived classic modern dance works and received three choreography grant awards from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her company also danced in the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.
Even with these credentials, she admits that survival is still an uphill battle.
"Supporting a company is always a struggle," she said of her 10-member group. "We're just like Gypsies, we rent studios all over the place. But finding an appropriate space is more and more difficult. This performance came about from the generosity of a lot of people. What makes it expensive and difficult is that we're doing only this one performance."
But she said she prefers the struggle to making a case for her work as a Southern California--or "regional"--choreographer. "I really dislike the notion of looking for a regional identity in dance or in any other art. That defeats the purpose of it all. The identity should be in the art form."