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Dancing the L.A. Shuffle : Naomi Goldberg's company reflects the creative power of the city, but that was the easy part. Now it has to tackle what's tough: stability and a commitment to bringing dance to the neighborhoods.

August 28, 1994|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a Times staff writer

Choreographer Naomi Goldberg doesn't seem to know the meaning of the word clash . She mixes modern dance and ballet idioms, choreographs to everything from Bach to Screamin' Jay Hawkins and leads a company that's as devoted to hip, postmodern concert dance as it is to folksy community center projects.

In fact, eclecticism is her calling card. "She's a classicist who's got the heart of a romantic," says outgoing Mark Taper Forum associate artistic director Oskar Eustis, on whose upcoming Taper staging of Eduardo Machado's "Floating Islands" Goldberg is the choreographer.

"She has an ability to translate ideas, themes, emotions and text into kinetic terms. She gives it discipline and precision, but her work is suffused with emotional life."

Goldberg's theater and opera choreography has included Han Ong's "Swooney Planet" and other works for the Taper's New Works Festival, "Carmen" for the Long Beach Opera, "The Mikado" for the Milwaukee Opera and more.

"She has a kind of infectious enthusiasm--I don't want to say it's ego-less, but it almost feels that way," says Eustis, who first worked with Goldberg on a Manhattan Theatre Club production of Philip Kan Gotanda's "Day Standing on Its Head." "She's astonishingly generous."

Yet Goldberg's principal showcase is her 5-year-old company, Los Angeles Modern Dance and Ballet. On Saturday at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, the group presents "Three Tales," an evening of original works based on dramatic adaptations of legends and folk stories from a variety of cultural traditions. The scenarios are written by such playwrights as Gotanda, Luis Alfaro, Nasser Nasser and Kathleen Tolan and Charles Mee Jr., with music by Fredric Myrow, Robert Moran, Daniel Lentz and Carlos Rodriguez.

But L.A. Modern Dance and Ballet isn't just another modern troupe with a slate of bookings at the usual chi-chi sites. What makes this company unusual is that it's also committed to teaching and performing in neighborhoods where dancers seldom tread.

And it's the interplay of the two identities that gives the troupe its drive. "There is this constant duality that comes down to the trained, perfectible form and the accepted free form, between the beauty that comes from training and the wonder of people just sharing in the moment," Goldberg says.

In a city where few companies stay together more than a year--let alone long enough to develop an aesthetic and a mission--L.A. Modern Dance and Ballet has already passed par. But it's at a Rubicon. Armed with an increasingly proficient style and an agenda, it's now got to tackle such new challenges as stabilization and touring.

And L.A. may be a tough place to do that. "Los Angeles is a very easy place for new ideas to come up and especially for individuals to surface," Goldberg says. "I don't think L.A. is really about the survival of groups of people, companies or something that has a plan for making roots."


It's around 9 p.m. on one of those recent hot (and very humid) August nights, and Goldberg is rehearsing her company in its upstairs studio at the Hollywood-Los Feliz Jewish Community Center. Sweat-dripping brows go unnoticed and the camaraderie is evident as the members work.

L.A. Modern Dance and Ballet is a company that really does look like L.A. It's not just that the dancers are noticeably more varied in body type and ethnicity than in most modern troupes. It's also that the material sports a panoply of cultural influences and terpsichorean vocabularies.

The program that these dancers are rehearsing, "Three Tales," ties together several adaptations of classic stories from different times and places. It features the company (Susan Marie Castang, Damon Cavena White, Shawn Oda, Alissa Mello, Katherine Sanders, Teresa Enroth, Miki Inoue and guest artist Tim Fox), along with 20 girls who appear as guest performers in one section.

Goldberg herself will dance the prologue, "Mango," a scenario by Nasser based on a folk tale from Trinidad. The "Three Tales" themselves are: "Princess of the Moon," Gotanda's reworking of an 8th-Century Japanese tale; "La Llorona," Alfaro's take on the Mexican folk story, and "The Sisters Grimm," Tolan and Mee's adaptation of the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty."

The prologue and three main dances all focus on female protagonists--which comes in handy since L.A. Modern Dance and Ballet, like many modern companies, is composed mostly of female dancers. It's also in keeping with Goldberg's propensity for non-sexist choreography featuring strong women's roles.

But then, Goldberg, 33, is something of a strong female protagonist herself.

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