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COVER STORY : Dance to the Edge : A controversial L.A. modern dance trend that some are calling Hyperdance emphasizes athleticism, endurance and risk, serving as a timely metaphor for survival in an age of disaster

March 06, 1994|LEWIS SEGAL | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance writer

In an era of fires, floods, earthquakes, riots, recession and AIDS, L.A.-area modern dance suddenly teems with metaphors for survival.

Throughout the Southland, a major trend in local work is defined by hyper-athletic, risk-oriented dancing in which contending with physical objects and with changing architectural conditions reflects feelings about trying to exist in a confined, threatening or out-of-control environment.

This isn't protest art; it's movement for movement's sake. But the physical conditions and structure of the work undeniably address how human beings cope with overwhelming events.

Tests of gravity, stamina and spatial ingenuity are central to this kind of dancing: How many times can you roll steeply uphill in military formation? How many different ways can you move a pile of 50-pound wooden blocks? How much dance can you cram on a tabletop? Inside a plexiglass cube? Onto a single concrete block?

Jacques Heim, Stephanie Gilliland, Joel Christensen, Frank Guevara, Mehmet Sander and Lori DuPeron come from different dance backgrounds, but all have worked locally in this controversial new style or school or offshoot of postmodernism.

Some people are calling their work Hyperdance, partly because its advocates inevitably praise its hyper-physical, hyper-kinetic intensity, while its detractors say it's mostly hype. Either way, it's different from the hyper-physical work coming out of other U.S. cities or touring here from Europe, Canada and Japan. Rather than portray social themes or dramatize human relationships, the trend in L.A. emphasizes objects, architecture and extending the physical limits of dancing.

Obviously, all dance involves a quest for personal bests, with such idioms as ballet, modern and jazz dance particularly intent on technical expansion: faster footwork, more turns, higher jumps, longer stretches. But those forms--and even the postmodernism that made task- oriented motion commonplace on our stages--typically denied effort. Dancers tried to make it look easy, to always seem in control.

No longer. Watching people swallowed up by strenuous, uncontrollable processes has become increasingly familiar on L.A. stages. And showing effort has become a sign of honesty, if not a badge of honor.

Work like this isn't appearing in other U.S. communities in any concentrated fashion, says Sali Ann Kriegsman, director of the dance program at the National Endowment for the Arts.

"I can't say I'm seeing more of it (on a national level)," she comments, explaining that narrative and autobiography still dominate contemporary dance elsewhere, and what's happening in Southern California could well be a rejection of the emphasis on expressive content.

Kriegsman considers Hyperdance to be "part of dancers' normal appetite for new challenges, new horizons" and finds it a melding of techniques from the martial arts, the sports world and the physical fitness craze, along with a deep creative response to "the explorations of the moon and space: overcoming the terror of loss of gravity, the potential for movement that isn't grounded in the usual way."

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At Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, seven members of Jacques Heim's Diavolo Dance Theatre swarm up a ramp to the top of a seven-foot-high metal jungle gym and then dive off--some landing on a platform halfway down, others on the floor below. Three take the plunge face down. Then they do it again.

Throughout Heim's "Tete au Carre," the 10-by-10-by-7-foot jungle gym functions as a city infrastructure, confining the dancers, conditioning their movement options and continually changing around them with the addition of the ramps and platforms, as well as curtains and projection screens. Heim says the theme is "the relationship between people and architecture, specific environments. And it was very hard to deal with this kind of (dance) space.

"I got that (idea) by living in L.A.," he says. "I feel really trapped here, going from point to point in my car, so I wanted to do a piece that is confined, and in the last section I have eight people--some of them are 6-foot-4--inside the jungle gym.

"How will all of them move in this environment?" Heim asks. "How will they relate to one another? I know the way I relate to people here is very different than the way I related to people in Paris or New York. It's affecting us and affected most of the movement (in this piece)."

The 29-year-old Heim, solidly built with deep-set eyes and a nervous, watchful manner, comes to Hyperdance from a background in European dance theater. He created and performed street theater in his native Paris, then studied dance both in England and at CalArts. He currently teaches contact improvisation at UCLA and the Orange County School of the Arts and says that, as a choreographer, he goes back and forth between theater and experimenting with movement.

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