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Los Angeles Festival : Perez Gets An Adman's Vote Of Confidence

September 10, 1987|DONNA PERLMUTTER

Rudy Perez, who started the postmodern ball rolling in Los Angeles when he relocated here a decade ago, has recently gotten more than he bargained for:

A full-page ad with his name emblazoned next to those of Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Ingmar Bergman and Peter Brook: Is that any way for a struggling choreographer and performance artist to be treated by Los Angeles Festival organizers? Needless to say, he's hardly complaining.

"I'm so overwhelmed," Perez admits just after rehearsal for his dance concert Saturday and Sunday at the Japan America Theatre, "that I'm going to frame it. What an accolade! What a vote of confidence! I'm still taken aback by the festival people and their kindness. I almost cried when I saw the ad."

It's not that the 58-year-old minimalist-with-a-message thinks of himself as undeserving. It's just that this stroke of fortune and the international prestige it confers is not commonplace for him--though he consistently earns high critical praise and is recognized by the dance community as a bellwether.

But at this stage of his career, a time when he says he still has "the vision and urgency" to press on, Perez despairs "for tomorrow . . . and my decreasing physical power." His litany of what a non-Establishment artist can regularly expect is indeed disheartening.

No fewer than five times in the past nine years has the Perez performing group disbanded. Across the board, dancers finally give up their dreams and a life of hand-to-mouth struggle for a business world that can offer financial stability. Other companies, too, see their subculture castles crumble; since 1984, reversals have been the rule.

Indeed, if the situation were not so dire it could be seen simply as grist for the alienation mill Perez works in. An artist who views the world as a spiritually murderous place, he conveys onstage his sense of struggle through never-ending journeys to some unknown destination.

Whether at the experimental mecca of Judson Church in New York, where he picked up lock, stock and leotard for the move westward, or here, Perez deals with the loneliness of the long-distance dancer. So when he compares his experience in one city to the other as "a tradeoff" it's not surprising.

"The major body of my work came about in Los Angeles," he says, sipping a beer. "I couldn't have gotten it together in New York. For one thing I felt pigeon-holed. But here there's a sense of being in a vacuum. Everything and everyone is isolated. Sometimes what you do may as well not have happened at all."

But while Perez feels the benign indifference of the universe as keenly as the most committed existentialist, his analytic side can read experience objectively. As he talks about growing up in a Puerto Rican ghetto, being orphaned at seven and helping to care for three younger brothers, he understands "what it is to relive one's childhood in work.

"Performance art is like play, something I missed but have been trying to retrieve all my adult life. Only now it's a corporate game. The play is not the thing as much as the play-acting or politicking. But am I prepared to put on a tuxedo and work a room full of arts patrons? That's what is necessary to push forward, to expand, to build equity."

Perez says he knows the route to those ends: a commission from the Joffrey Ballet, for instance. Fellow choreographers Twyla Tharp and Laura Dean moved to higher ground that way. But he sees it as "a 'Catch-22' . . . where the conflict comes in giving up creative time and energy for beating the bushes. Which do you do? And how does your art keep its integrity?"

At least for now, those questions stay in abeyance. The three upcoming premieres--"Coastal Acts," "Equal Time" and "Twice"--are taking his attention, not to forget "Countdown," a 1964 solo he's reprising from Judson Church.

"This program sums up everything I've accomplished to date," says Perez. "But now that I've proven myself as a dance craftsman, I'm looking towards new forms of multi-dimensional experimentation. It's time, finally, to get back to this. For me, it's the heart of the matter."

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