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DANCE : The Spice Is Right : Welcome to David Rousseve's 'Urban Scenes / Creole Dreams,' a lively mix of theater, performance art, dance and cutting-edge urban music that aims to bring issues of racism, misogyny, homophobia and AIDS to the unconverted

March 27, 1994|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A frumpy grandmother in a pink bathrobe stands by her rocking chair and laundry basket. "I didn't take my grandmother very seriously when I was growing up," says a man's voice. "She just seemed like so many other grannies, uh, mammies. . . ."

Soon, the grandmother begins to shamble across the stage as a line of women and men in tank tops and shorts enters.

David Rousseve steps up to a microphone and begins a chatty, funny tale about the pet rat he had as a boy, until the story takes a turn that leaves his audience suddenly silent.

An a cappella voice begins to sing. Rousseve and a woman, in separate pools of light, begin to move. Clenched muscles and the body language of anger pour out of the two isolated dancers as a rap recording by Public Enemy blares.

The cuts come fast and furious in Rousseve's world. One minute you're watching theater. Then, it flips to performance art and, within minutes, dance. Actually, "Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams" is all three, sometimes at once, and with music.

As Los Angeles audiences will see when that work is performed by Rousseve and his company REALITY at the Wadsworth Theater on April 8 and 9, it doesn't fit easily into any one category. Mixing mediums is essential to Rousseve's activist message.

Rousseve isn't out only to dazzle but also to get his audiences thinking. He's political, and his eclectic approach is more than just style. It's strategy.

It's the best way he's found to speak to as wide a range of people as possible about racism, misogyny, homophobia and AIDS.

"I couldn't make a piece that was only dance to save my life at this point," Rousseve says. "I can't take just that vocabulary and speak about issues. It's just not my voice."

Yet experimental as Rousseve may be, he's not elitist.

"My voice is a little more popish," he says. "(The mixing of styles) is an effort to keep the work accessible and to talk to as many different people in as many different languages as possible."

The more ways you come at an issue, his logic goes, the more chances there are for people to relate to what you're saying.

"I'd rather talk to . . . churchgoing African Americans, young gays and lesbians, middle class (people) and AIDS activists than just one (group). I want to preach to the unconverted too."

*

The late Thelma Arceneaux, a Creole descendant of a Louisiana slave who picked cotton for much of her life, was the basis for the grandmother character in Rousseve's "Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams."

Arceneaux's 34-year-old grandson, the charismatic New York-based Rousseve came to Los Angeles recently to discuss what he describes as his "middle-class 'Sanford and Son'-watching black family in Houston." His "country" background, as he half-jokingly puts it, didn't include "any experimental theater."

Yet he went on to study theater at Princeton.

"I had never heard of the place, didn't know where New Jersey was, but they sent me an application because I had done well on national achievement testing for minority students," Rousseve says. "I actually went to Princeton because I thought I wanted to do musical theater. It wasn't for academics."

While there, Rousseve also took up dance, "just to complement the theater." Then, after graduating in 1981, he performed with several small New York modern dance companies, while acting on soap operas to make ends meet.

But something wasn't right.

"I was working with technically based modern dance companies and getting really frustrated with saying absolutely nothing with dance," he recalls. "That's when I started to do my own work, because I wanted to talk about issues of the heart, which also are political issues."

His first independent piece was a 1984 monologue about "African American self-hatred."

"All of my work since then has been text-based, which is shocking," Rousseve says. "I just couldn't go on without talking."

Rousseve first performed at New York's PS 122, a key downtown performance art venue, in 1987. "Then I switched from being a dancer who's choreographing a bit to being a choreographer who's dancing a bit," he says.

In 1988, Rousseve launched REALITY, which consists of the choreographer-writer-performer himself and six dancers, most of whom are female and African American. They are Aziza, Renee Redding-Jones, Sondra Loring, Kyle Sheldon, Julie Tolentino Wood and Charmaine Warren.

That same year, Rousseve and REALITY presented the first of what was to become a series of six works. These "Creole" works mesh the story of the grandmother with snapshots from contemporary life.

*

In the "Creole" series, events in the grandmother's life--including an impoverished Southern childhood, the death of a husband and the rape of a sister--are intercut with anecdotes from the artist's own experiences. He draws analogies between the lynching deaths of an earlier America and deaths from AIDS today.

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