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Dance

Living in Two Worlds

Daniel Ezralow moves between dance for the art of it and for commerce, including the Oscars.

March 19, 1998|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Are you coming home tonight?" Arabella Holzbog asks her fiance, Daniel Ezralow, whom she's visiting on the Sony lot. It's a valid question in light of the pace he's keeping, preparing for this week's "Mandala"--his full-evening dance solo at UCLA's Freud Playhouse--and debuting as choreographer of the Oscars Monday night.

On Stage 24, the 41-year-old Angeleno rehearses seven male dancers for the Academy Awards bash. Sporting baggy jeans and a navy TriStar sweatshirt, he counts out the beats to a campy tango performed to music from "The Full Monty"--one of 10 nominated film scores. "Easy," Ezralow says. "Not too much. Your head snaps--but your body doesn't."

If the high-pressure, stylishly commercial Oscars are his day job, Ezralow is spending his nights on "Mandala"--a deeply personal, one-man outing he calls a "living movie." The dancer interacts with footage of a moving train, the California desert, a nude woman--images intended, he says, to "trigger the soul." The visuals are displayed on seven projection surfaces and four video screens, and the work is set to a new score by Michel Colombier.

Moving between concert dance and show business isn't that much of a leap, Ezralow maintains. With a resume that includes stints with Paul Taylor, Lar Lubovitch, Pilobolus and Momix, Ezralow's serious dance credentials are in order. But he's also acted in films, dabbled in theater and choreographed everything from music videos (Sting's "They Dance Alone," U2's "Even Better Than the Real Thing") to the Julie Taymor-directed "Flying Dutchman" at L.A. Opera.

"I like the idea of being a journeyman, a foreigner in a field," he explains, digging into some navy bean soup and chicken salad during lunch break at the Sony commissary. "You look at it differently from anyone else. I used to put on one pair of glasses for 'high art' and another for 'low.' But that's missing the point since it's all of one piece. Gil Cates not only produces the Oscars but serves as dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television."

It was Cates who tapped Ezralow for the Oscars, although an offer first went out to Debbie Allen, who choreographed six previous Oscar telecasts. But Allen was too busy starring in "Harriet's Return" at the Geffen Playhouse (where Cates is producing director).

"Someone fresh and new is a shot in the arm," Cates allows. "Danny is airy, athletic, contemporary--very new age. I also liked that he was still dancing--when he talked about his vision, he could demonstrate."

During their initial meeting, in mid-February, Ezralow and Cates also discovered that they had common aesthetic ground. ("He was pleasantly surprised," Cates said. "Most people think producer-directors are illiterate.") They're both fans of Laterna Magica, the revolutionary Czech-created multimedia production style first presented in the '50s. At Cates' suggestion, it inspired a dance number in the 1992 Oscars, and it has strong parallels with Ezralow's "Mandala."

" 'Mandala' is a voyage, a personal journey," said the dancer. "I react to screen images, changing worlds at the drop of a hat. I'm trying to shift perceptions through dance. I want to create a cross-pollination of the senses."

All of this is a far cry from the life Ezralow visualized, attending University High School in West L.A. and starting at UC Berkeley as a pre-med student. A dance class changed his focus.

"I studied with David Wood, the rehearsal director at Martha Graham in the '50s and '60s," he says. "And, while it was incredible, I told myself I had to be a doctor. In theend, however, dance infected me--I headed for New York one summer and never came back."

Starting out in the 5 x 2 Plus troupe, Ezralow joined the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in '78. After performing with Taylor and dancing and choreographing with Pilobolus in the early '80s, he became a founding member of Momix in 1983. Looking to expand on that group's "vaudevillian" approach, he and three other Momix alums started ISO Dance Theatre in 1986.

His highly athletic and flamboyantly theatrical style has been labeled "exciting" and castigated as "showing off." He has been commissioned to create works for companies as diverse as Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago and the Paris Opera Ballet. For his part, Ezralow is reluctant to pigeonhole himself. "My work is certainly not minimalist" is all he will say.

Though critics sometimes accuse him of a lack of focus, he says he's just interested in a lot. Right now, for example, he's working on two Broadway projects, a Hal Prince musical, "Parade," about Leo Frank, a Jew who was wrongfully accused of murder in 1913 in the South, and a musical based on a set of fairy tales with designer Jerome Sirlin ("Kiss of the Spider Woman").

Meanwhile, however, "Mandala" and the Oscars loom large. The solo piece, which he calls a work in progress, has been performed on tours in Europe and South America and has been in development for years. The Academy Awards show, in contrast, is a one-night proposition. In a matter of weeks, Ezralow has had to choreograph a medley of five dances, select a cast and ensure that the dancers--including himself in a couple of duets--perform at their peak. The real challenge, he says, is to convey his essence--in a very short period of time.

"Being watched by a billion people is nice," Ezralow concedes. "[But] if that's my goal, then I've lost my way. I have the ingredients [to pull this off] because of my crossover work. Now it's up to me to make a great meal."

BE THERE

"Mandala," Freud Playhouse, UCLA, tonight (in previews) at 8; Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. $10-$25. (310) 825-2101.

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