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FESTIVALS: in and around Ventura County

Modern Dance Lessons

Santa Barbara festival hopes to clarify a misunderstood art form.


Dancer Doug Elkins was born to a mother who was half Chinese, was put up for adoption, raised in a Jewish household, began dancing to the African American rhythms of the hip-hop scene, quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hindu philosophy and David Lynch with equal grace, and lives in New York.

So he has just the right background to be a contemporary dance choreographer. And Elkins manages to incorporate that diverse background, along with other influences and experiences, into the pieces he creates for his touring Doug Elkins Dance Company, which will be in Santa Barbara next week.

If you're not quite sure what happens when this mishmash of culture, ethnicity and style is put to music, relax. You're halfway to appreciating Elkins' dance.

"Sometimes in my work I use everything from martial arts to someone jumping off someone else and, before hitting the floor, getting rescued," Elkins said. "Not that some of the dance won't resonate and comfort you, but it's OK not to understand everything. People spend a large part of their day walking in and through worlds they don't even recognize."

The Elkins company will be in town for the second annual Summerdance Santa Barbara festival, a joint program between UC Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara dance community, from Tuesday through July 24 at venues on and off the university campus.

Elkins and his dancers will participate in open rehearsals and performances Tuesday through July 11. They will be followed by return participants Doug Varone and Dancers, who will be in residence beginning July 14.

Patterned after the Jacob's Pillow dance festival in Lee, Mass., the Summerdance program allows these New York-based companies an opportunity to try out new work and present it to a public that may be lacking in dance nourishment.

"I tend to like sampling different styles of movement, layering--like vogueing under the sub-context of Scottish country dancing," Elkins said. "It's like the illegitimate marriage of a Gertrude Stein novel and a Bruce Lee film--languages bouncing off each other and coexisting."

Still don't get it? Great. You're on your way to being an Elkins scholar.

Elkins Summerdance performances will include "The Patrooka Variations," a 25-minute piece combining flamenco and break-dancing performed to bits of Bizet's "Carmen" and some guitar laments, with bits of James Brown and Prince tossed into the mix.

"It's a mud pie," Elkins said, "a postmodern burrito."

Elkins' "Center My Heart," which premiered in 1996 at the Dance Theater Workshop in New York, interprets a blend of music and melody that includes Islamic prayers, Persian love songs and Pakistani and Hindu gospel.

While at Summerdance, the Doug Elkins Dance Company also will present its West Coast debut of "Bipolar Bear," a piece Elkins described as a cross between the work of legendary contemporary dance choreographer Trisha Brown, musician James Brown and action filmmaker John Woo.

Similar to Elkins, choreographer Doug Varone aims to change perceptions and open imaginations with dance. Like his counterpart, Varone said he wants to teach the audience that there is no right and wrong way to interpret a contemporary dance piece.

"I think dance is the great misunderstood sister of the arts, because it has this mystery about it that if you don't have a particular knowledge, that you can't imagine what is being said and what is being danced," Varone said. "I think what people tend to believe is that they are not getting it right."

Varone said he enjoys finding ways to demystify dance for his audience and make it as accepted by the public as other art forms.

"I ask them, why do they allow their imaginations to run tenfold in a museum and run amok while they watch a film?" he said. "But with dance there is a great education process that needs to occur, and it begins by explaining that dance is what we do every day of our lives. Every move is choreography."

With that in mind, the Doug Varone Dancers will divide their time in Santa Barbara between dance concerts, open dance rehearsals and discussions of the creative process.

"We'll be doing some lecture demonstrations of how dances are made, how music is used in the creation of dance work," Varone said. "We'll be doing some in-school work with the summer school system in Santa Barbara."

Having participated in the Summerdance festival during last year's debut season, Varone is a relative veteran of the program. He said he was impressed with the way Summerdance unfolded in 1997 and doesn't see why it can't become a staple in the nation's summer dance festival diet.

"The thing that impressed me the most was that it broke down barriers," said Varone, who introduced the festival to the community on opening day last summer by leading his company through dances up and down State Street. "Dance was constantly happening in and around Santa Barbara--it was in people's faces, in their shops. We made dance seem like it was an everyday event."

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