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FESTVAL: A CELEBRATION OF THE ARTS : STEPS BEYOND THE NORM : Dance in the '80s: Look for more than mere display. Look for the unexpected, the unfamiliar, the innovative--swirling currents in the mainstream of dance

August 16, 1987|LEWIS SEGAL | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance writer

For local dance aficionados, the Los Angeles Festival offers both access to unfamiliar work and a chance to enlarge our limited frames of reference. Look for dance with more on its mind beyond mere display and, above all, dance reflecting the trends and cross-cultural influences of the past few years.

Based on information available at press time--and allowing for some educated guesses about unannounced repertory--the festival should provide a clear fix on many of the major issues that dancers have investigated in this decade.

Consider, for example, the development of rigorous, Germanic dance-theater a la Pina Bausch into the looser form of movement spectacle presented by the Compagnie Maguy Marin of France. In revolt against formal, American-style post-modernism and its focus on pure movement invention, Marin makes dance into just one component in her kaleidoscopic performances--and subordinates conventional demonstrations of prowess to the ongoing rush of multidisciplinary stagecraft.

Hers is a theater of images, of bold collage, and it is visual, not physical display that she seeks. Whether she's depicting a world of derelicts ("May B") or retelling a fairy tale with toy dolls ("Cendrillon" for the Lyon Opera-Ballet), or tracing the decline and fall of the virgin wilderness ("Babel Babel"), concept and staging are everything and dance-movement sometimes nothing more than gestural reinforcement.

Is Marin's work dance or performance art? Does it give us more or less than conventional--and even unconventional--dancey dance? Stay tuned: The controversy about Marin should be quite a spectacle in itself.

The transformation of so-called ethnic vocabularies reportedly links the festival programs of Urban Bush Women from the United States and Muteki-sha Dance Company from Japan. In each case, the distinctive movement-heritage of the choreographer is said to yield unexpectedly virtuosic and highly personal works of reminiscence and characterization.

Jowale Willa Jo Zollar of the American company draws upon black folklore in her freewheeling compendium of Southern matriarchal roles, "Anarchy, Wild Women and Dinah." The idea apparently is to keep it raw and authentic, not to streamline it into Alvin Ailey.

One of the few women specializing in the grotesque butoh idiom that arose in Japan in the aftermath of the Occupation, Natsu Nakajima uses the memory of a lost homeland as the basis for her movement diary, "Niwa."

In the past, Michael Clark of Great Britain, Karole Armitage of the United States and the team called Monnier-Duroure of France have all touched controversial issues of gender identity in their work, often declaring their defiance of societal norms through provocative costuming: tutus for Clark, black leather for Armitage, skirted unisex kimonos for Mathilde Monnier and Jean-Francois Duroure.

Though outrageous fashion proved an important embellishment to the choreography, cross-dressing was considered less the issue than questioning prevalent notions of what is essentially male or female in dancing and invading movement territory formerly considered off-limits.

Clark and Armitage each come from the world of ballet, where male and female norms are very precisely encoded. Their rebellion against this tradition has led them in some of their most celebrated work to statements of male sensuality, female toughness and ironic commentaries on behavioral roles that no longer pertain.

In contrast, Monnier and Duroure have no classical icons to smash; through collaboration they seek a pan-sexual image and use references ranging from pre-World War II cabaret performance down to new-wave performance art in their mordant rituals of accommodation.

Like Clark and Armitage, La La La Human Steps from Canada preserves a distinct contemporary edge through connection to pop culture--and also, like Monnier-Duroure, the Canadians pursue an insatiable curiosity about sexual relationships. Violent sexual relationships especially.

However outre the costumes or movement vocabulary, this is mainstream '80s dance. Sexual politics represents the decade's key choreographic theme, whether physicalized in the wild athleticism of La La La choreographer Edouard Locke or distilled through the formal group processes created by Susan Marshall of New York and Rudy Perez of Los Angeles.

There's a war out there, after all, and while Locke specializes in intense battlefield reports, Marshall and Perez have, in the past, preferred to explore the conflict's strategy, tactics and patterns of basic training.

In many of their pieces, Marshall and Perez investigate societal codes--the ties that bind. How those codes define or oppress people, what kind of feelings may be expressed and what may not, are revealed through systems of motion.

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