LA JOLLA — If she hadn't found theater such a comfort during her nomadic childhood, Anne Bogart might have been a choreographer.
"I always directed theater, since I was a little girl. I'm from the Navy, which means we moved every year. I actually lived in San Diego when I was 4," the 34-year-old New Yorker said. She was enjoying a sunny midwinter morning in La Jolla, soaking up the warmth from a granite sculpture on the grassy UCSD campus.
"When you move from place to place as a child, you get plunked into these huge schools, and I always found that somewhere in these huge schools there were people putting on plays. It was a way of having a very intense community experience, creating something beautiful, and then it would be over, which . . . exactly reflected my life of moving from place to place, so I could believe in it.
"(But) dancers look at my work and they say, 'Anne, you're a choreographer.' The way I work with actors is not that I set the movement; they make up the movement, but we set it very, very carefully. It's all based on principles that I think are similar to what Balanchine was using before he died."
Whatever it is that inspires her work, Bogart has received high praise for her eloquent reinterpretations of traditional works by William Inge, Gertrude Stein, Anton Chekhov--even an award-winning restaging of "South Pacific."
She is in residence here, taking time off from teaching duties at New York University's Experimental Theater Wing and frequent directing forays in Europe and the United States, to complete work on a new "music theater" piece with the help of acting students from UCSD's graduate theater training program.
"1951," which uses music, theater and dance to explore the anti-Communist frenzy of the 1950s, opens March 7 for two weekends at the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts.
This is not a small endeavor for Bogart. Work on "1951" began in October in Paris, where Bogart worked with 22 acting students from NYU to begin her intensive research into the impact of McCarthyism on American artists. Their efforts were staged three weeks ago for an audience of enthusiastic Parisians. "They went crazy for it," Bogart said.
Before that, the director had nothing but questions.
"Whether it's good or bad or successful or rich or poor, there's something in (European art) that we don't have," Bogart said. "In every play they do, there is an attempt to criticize or analyze the society that produced it . . . there is a kind of social criticism, a kind of engagement. And I look at the plays that have come out in the last 20 or 30 years in this country, and they're usually not about anything except for me, or us, you and me and my problems and my diet and my this and my that."
Even the exceptions--the handful of radically political acting troupes found in America--lack the quality Bogart found in Europe. "I find (their work) is very facile and it's kind of boring. People get up on a soapbox and they say, 'U.S. out of El Salvador.' . . . It insults your intelligence or your sense of emotions," she said.
"What I was seeing in Europe, on the other hand, was not soapbox-y at all. It would be very complex and very emotional, and sometimes with beautiful acting, beautiful performances."
Curious, she looked back in theater history, beyond the "explosion of theater" in the late '60s and discovered something that occurred to cause "a certain emptiness around making art; that's why it's become so abstract."
Bogart found people like playwright Clifford Odets, working 50 years ago, "people who were, in my opinion, doing exciting, committed, interesting and compassionate work."
"I found that at a certain point in the early '50s, all of them," Bogart said, "without exception, went through a kind of Inquisition, and after they went through it they either left the country, couldn't work anymore, or changed the way they worked, totally, to create entertainment with very, very carefully built work that avoided any sort of statement about our relationship to the world we live in. I said, 'My God, these people's careers were destroyed and we don't talk about it.' I realized that my generation doesn't know very much about what happened."
Knowing that without a project for motivation her research might stop there, Bogart conceived the idea for "1951."
"It's not like a PBS telling of the story of the McCarthy era or of the Hollywwod Inquisition. It's a reaction to it, in a sense. It's a meditation on it," she said.
"This play is really a way for our generation to look at our previous generation. It's an honor to be in a rehearsal situation, and there is an actor playing Elia Kazan, saying things that he actually said from interviews, from things he wrote. And there is Sterling Hayden and there's Lillian Hellman. There's Dorothy Parker, there's even Ayn Rand. We have Walt Disney and we have Howard Hughes--we have all these people, pros and cons, up on the stage. What we're trying to do is let them speak."
La Jolla Playhouse resident composer Michael Roth is working with New York lyricist and author Mac Wellman to create the music for "1951," which Bogart thinks will eventually become a kind of opera.
Wellman and writer John Herschel, with dramaturgist Anne Cattaneo, are helping produce the script's "impressionistic collage of events," Bogart said.
And, of course, the student actors will give evidence of her fascination with the frontier between dance and theater, which she describes as "a very lively place."
"There's a sudden, incredible energy in the dance world," Bogart said, a feeling of lightness she finds much more agreeable than the prevalence in New York of "weird plays" performed in "dark holes."
She said her work in the theater strives for that quality of freedom a gifted dancer can reveal despite, and because of, the clear form set forth by a choreographer. And the young actors working with her on "1951" have taken to this challenging method "like ducks to water," she said.