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Call Him a Re-Emerging Artist

Samuel Donlavy has overcome a personal tragedy and illness to once again become the force behind a series that showcases emerging dancers.

June 23, 1996|Victoria Looseleaf | Victoria Looseleaf is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman may be a foot taller than 28-year-old dancer-choreographer-producer Samuel Donlavy, and the renegade basketball player may sport a host of tattoos and body piercings to Donlavy's unadorned body, but the duo has this in common: They are both amazing rebounders.

In Rodman's case, it's all in his external moves; in Donlavy's case, it's an interior talent: He has bounced back from devastating personal loss and physical ailment.

Donlavy leads his own troupe, Donlavy Dance Company, and he is also the force behind Voices in Motion, a dance series that showcases emerging artists. Co-created in 1993 with Susan Alvarez of the Inner City Cultural Center (she jumped ship after the 1994 earthquake), Voices has always been a labor of love, but it was also a "pay to play" situation: dancers were charged up to $1,000 each in order to perform, a not uncommon situation in Los Angeles, where getting one's work before the public is becoming increasingly difficult and cost prohibitive.

"Sure, there were a few complaints," a sweaty Donlavy says during a rehearsal break for this year's Voices, "and we've operated in the red for the last four series, but the worst is over. After writing grants since '93, I finally got one."

The grant from the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and Donlavy's determination, has enabled Voices 5 to bow over four performances this week at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE).

Climbing Mt. Everest might have proved easier, however.

Donlavy grew up in South Central Los Angeles, earning a B.A. degree in theater and English from Cal State Northridge. He currently works full time as recreation director of Queen Anne Park, but his great love is dance. To that end, he founded the six-person Donlavy Dance Company.

Donlavy's other great love, his life partner, died of AIDS this past April. His partner, whom Donlavy declines to name, was a television publicist and Voices' executive director, and the inspiration for much of Donlavy's work. The life the pair forged together was eradicated--not only by the disease, but by interference from his "spouse's" family, who separated them in March. Donlavy was removed as executor of the will, but worse, he had no knowledge of precisely where or when his lover died until after the fact.

"I actually started mourning a long time ago," Donlavy quietly says, "and then last December my body completely shut down because of stress."

In effect, the young artist suffered a breakdown. He lost 18 pounds, went home to his mother in South Central and lay in bed for 10 weeks, doing little but watching soap operas and talk shows.

"I thought about quitting completely, but I wanted to see Voices happen. It was my priorityto put it up--with or without me in it. So I called my friend, choreographer Phyllis Douglass, and asked her to co-produce and oversee the series. Then we auditioned the dancers and through Voices, my dancing came back."

Rebounder? Indeed, rehearsing his new work, "Ever/Last," a pas de deux with company member Cari Riis, Donlavy looks strong and graceful. Set to Luis Bacalov's Oscar-winning score from "Il Postino," the work begins with a Pablo Neruda poem.

"It's about hope," Donlavy pronounces, "and it transcends gender. At first I was apprehensive about performing, but getting sick for me was quite possibly the best thing. I don't want anything negative now--just the positive. This is payback," he adds, "because there's something magical about a [dance] studio."

In addition to Donlavy, Voices 5--which concentrates on contemporary dance and on providing a showcase for new faces--will feature work from nine choreographers. Among those premiering works in the series are Jenny Ballard, Cindera Che, Sharon Feid and Phyllis Douglass.

"It's a program of young choreographers who are getting their first major break in being presented," explains Al Nodal, Cultural Affairs Department general manager. "We're always looking for high quality proposals; this was one of them. I saw the tape and it's very well-produced, with high energy and very high quality. The thing they put out looks really good."

"Series like Voices in Motion are great for us, because we can't program everybody," says Don Hewitt, director of Dance Kaleidoscope, the granddaddy of series that focus on Los Angeles dance. "It gives some of the other artists a chance to be seen."

Donlavy, as a soloist dancing his own work, will be among those featured in Kaleidoscope later this summer, and there are other signs that he may be breaking out of the "emerging" category. Donlavy Dance Company has appeared at Highways and in the Black Choreographers' Moving Toward the 21st Century series.

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