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If It Bruises, It's Working

Mehmet Sander--whose works are generated from a collision of art and the forces of nature--likes being called a 'kamikaze choreographer' but denies all the 'prince of pain' stuff.

June 22, 1997|Jennifer Fisher | Jennifer Fisher is a frequent contributor to Calendar

The dances of Mehmet Sander regularly send writers scrambling for new words to describe the sound of bodies hitting hard surfaces--slam, ram, bam, crash, thud, thwack. Critics talk of "grueling group gymnastics" that "mortify the flesh," "bone-crushing" body bruising and "masochistic free-fall acrobatics." Vanity Fair settled for calling Sander's work a "Bataan death mambo" fashioned by a "prince of pain."

Sitting in a restaurant that's located between his loft home and his studio in Long Beach, Sander, 30, shrugs. "I don't find my work violent," he says.

He laughs when he's reminded of the "prince of pain" line. He thinks it sounds like a name for a leather bar in San Francisco, not for a serious choreographer. And ever since he saw the Merce Cunningham company at age 14, back in Istanbul, Turkey, he has wanted to be a very serious choreographer.

He calls himself subversive and "very stubborn"--indeed he's almost as well known for his combative politics, especially gay politics--as he is for the physicality of his work. But he now considers the point that he's "HIV+ and a Queer Choreographer From Istanbul"--which used to be prominent in all his publicity--to be made. Today, he's not wearing his "Dead Bigots Don't Bash Homos" T-shirt, just a plain gray one with tight black shorts and black boots. He is short and powerfully built and has a gentlemanly manner, a combination that might account for the fact that people find him--as he puts it--"intimidating but only at first."

The same goes for his work, he insists. Sipping an iced tea, he says that it might look painful at first, but it's not about pain, it's about risk-taking, speed, pure movement and survival. For Sander, bodies must go faster, stop harder and not show emotion to be in his world.

"But OK," he eventually acknowledges, gesturing with an arm that has a speeding bullet tattooed on it, "I understand that my work can be seen as violent, but to me, the universe can be violent too, if you think about earthquakes or volcanoes or other galaxies starting and bursting out."

Pointing to a scientific formula tattooed next to the bullet on his arm (F = M x A, or force equals mass times acceleration), he's moving into one of the areas he likes best lately--drawing parallels between dance and forces of nature that involve velocity, trajectory and collision. In the past, Sander has often cited architecture and mathematics as influences--many of his pieces take place inside and around geometric structures. But now he talks mostly about quantum physics.

"When I choreograph, I treat it like I'm a scientist in a lab, experimenting with solid facts that are reliable, like the laws of physics. I think about my dancers as colliding atoms and molecules crashing into each other. I call my dancers animate objects."


The latest dancer-objects to take on this role for Sander are not part of his own small eponymous troupe of weight-training, calisthenically correct performers but members of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago--better known for their mastery of the pirouette than the push-up. Sander's 1992 piece "Inner Space" will appear on a mixed program during the company's engagement this week at the Ahmanson Theatre. "Inner Space," the first of his works to be added to a major company's repertory, puts a trio of dancers inside a Plexiglas cube and features suspensions, balances and the trademark slamming and thudding. As in all Sander pieces, the score consists of only the amplified sounds of impact and breathing.

"I was mesmerized when I first saw it, and I made up my mind right away to have it," says Joffrey Artistic Director Gerald Arpino. Arpino encountered "Inner Space" in 1994 at a Cal State Long Beach appearance of the Mehmet Sander Dance Company, and finally acquired it for the Joffrey last year. Next fall, the company will also present Sander's solo "Single Space," and there is talk of commissioning an original work sometime in the future.

Like Sander, Arpino doesn't think that bodies crashing into one another, the floor or the wall transmit a message of pain or violence. Instead, when he sees thumping and slamming, he thinks of the heart beating with high adrenaline and how "the emotions take on this inner sound when we fight to release ourselves in whatever way."

Arpino also notes, with some resort to stereotypes, that men have been drawn to "Inner Space" more than women.

"It's the piece the men gravitate to," he says. "I think it's because it organically captures the male. It suddenly becomes what America's about. It's strong, it's powerful, it's athletic. Through its forms, its shapes, it's something men can relate to--not in an elitist way, like an abstract Balanchine work or Martha Graham. In this, they see the power of man within his own space and how he uses that space and releases himself, like a metamorphosis."

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