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Thriving on Shaky Ground

Choreographer Loretta Livingston embraces all that's unpredictable in L.A., finding inspiration in earthquakes and other maladies.

June 09, 1996|Jennifer Fisher | Jennifer Fisher is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Loretta Livingston may be one of the few people around who can look at the beleaguered sprawl of Los Angeles, study its turbulent past, embrace its seismic future and still describe her primary reaction as "tremendous joy." How does that work?

It's almost a Pollyanna thing. For the 46-year-old downtown choreographer, the city's lack of an urban cultural "scene" means she isn't pressured by trends; racial tension is eclipsed by the idea that "there are things that transcend skin color"; and even the inevitability of earthquakes is welcomed as just another inspiration for energetic movement--one that keeps us on a literal edge.

Livingston explains L.A. as a city on the move this way: It's on its very own tectonic plate, which is shifting north an inch and three-quarters every year. Dance pieces like her "A History of Restlessness" (1992) have mined this shaky ground before, but she likes the idea so much that she's named her newest evening-long dance work "Tales From the Plate, Moving North." Commissioned by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, it premieres June 14 at the Japan America Theatre in a festival called, ironically enough, "Dance Without Borders."

"To me, the city is perpetually in motion," Livingston says during an interview combined with a tour of a neighborhood she particularly likes, the area around her Bunker Hill condominium. "Cultures are moving, cars are moving, the earth under our feet is moving. You could say every city or human colony is that way, but I feel it particularly here. It's a ride, and I love the ride."

The gesture that accompanies this idea slices across her body in a repeated pathway that makes her hand look like it's taking off again and again. At other times, she stretches her arms to their limits in sweeping arcs, as if the wide open spaces of Southern California are constantly inviting "big" movement. She talks enthusiastically about a "Pacific plate aesthetic" that comes to her through osmosis. "I love big, athletic movement, I love a lot of openness, I love risky things," she says. "Or maybe exuberance would be a better word. The sheer joy of running through space."

Standing at one edge of the Water Court at California Plaza in early afternoon sunlight, Livingston is still for a moment, watching the recently restored funicular railway called Angel's Flight. Fascinated by local history, she explains that the tiny hillside railway was originally built in 1901 by Col. J.W. Eddy. At the time, he wanted to connect the genteel neighborhood of Victorian houses that preceded the high-rises on this hill with the mercantile district below.

On reopening day of Angel's Flight last February, Livingston and her dancers took a ride, one of many research trips for "Tales." The piece has been in the works sporadically since the fall of 1993, interrupted by tours of Livingston's enormously popular "Grandma Moses Project"--rural vignettes inspired by the paintings of Anna Mary Moses--and the 10th anniversary season of Loretta Livingston and Dancers in 1994.

"For this piece, we started with a lot of field trips," she says. "I kidnapped the dancers every Saturday and didn't tell them where we were going. Then we'd ride the subway to Union Station, La Placita and Olvera Street. And we went to the La Brea Tar Pits, or to the beach or for a day up in the mountains, where we did improvisations and movement games. Even if the information doesn't end up in the surface of the work, all those layers of experience are there.

"And the dancers are always game. I can't say enough good about my dancers. We've developed such a trust and a rapport. I need them to trust me, because I need to try things that are potentially . . . ridiculous. And they give me permission to do that. They're heroic, they're just heroic."

The lunch-hour activity around the plaza makes Livingston think about other heroic dancers she has worked with in the many outreach projects that make up much of her living. A line of schoolchildren snaking out of the subway below reminds her of the residencies she does in downtown schools, sponsored by the Los Angeles Music Center; and as we pass the nearby Angelus Plaza, she talks with affection about the movement workshops she and the company have done there with senior citizens.

A week before, several of Livingston's senior movers from Angelus Plaza had been in the front row of the Japan America Theatre, eagerly awaiting a preview of "Tales From the Plate." Selected scenes and a small buffet were served up for company friends, board members and contributors. Livingston often stages these "sneak looks" to get a feeling for the way a piece plays for an audience.

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