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ORANGE COUNTY CALENDAR: ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT, LEISURE
| Dance

Forward Thinking

Livingston's 'Steps' Takes a Look at the Rise of Modernity

May 09, 2000|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One thing you can count on in choreographer Loretta Livingston's full-length "Two Thousand Steps," it doesn't have 2,000 steps in it. It may have more.

The work is the first mainstage commission by the Orange County Performing Arts Center, which presents the premiere at 8 p.m. Friday.

So what does the title mean?

" 'Steps' can mean dance steps," Livingston said in a recent interview in the courtyard of her Los Angeles condominium. "But they also mean process. They can mean architecture, where one thing forms the base for another and there's a level change or a direction change."

And in fact, change of direction is exactly what Livingston and the center regard as particularly important. They're investigating what happened in the 20th century that left so many people bewildered by modern art.

"Modern anything," Livingston said. "You can look at the head scratching at modern painting. You can look at ears being covered in modern music. You can watch people walk out of modern dance concerts.

"Somewhere along the line, there was a gap, and that gap interests me, because I think that the components of modern art-making are not foreign to human beings."

From the Renaissance up to the 20th century, painters have given viewers a perspective and a focal point, Livingston said. And music had an arc that listeners understood.

"Dance had a soloist, principals and the corps. There were many things that we accepted that were tenets, basic proposals and practices from the Renaissance to the 20th century.

'But this [modern] idea of, 'Well, wait a minute. Let's not have a central focus that I, as artist, tell you. You can choose.'

"Suddenly the audience [flinched]. But in life, we chose all the time. We're walking down a street and we choose to look at something very interesting to us. We're selective. That's not foreign to us."

So it won't be foreign to the new piece, either.

"Two Thousand Steps" focuses on key ideas Livingston and her collaborators (scenic designer James Taylor, costume designer Martha Ferrara, lighting designer Stephen Bennet and composer Murielle Hamilton) identified as critical to the 20th century.

"Movement as personal language," Livingston said, beginning a list.

"Invention rather than following a syllabus. Very different use of the body. Freeing of restrictions, both garments and history.

"Freeing of the foot. Freeing of the torso. . . . Working to non-narrative instead of narrative. Working by accumulations instead of linear [plot]. . . . Abstraction, which was happening in painting, in writing, in music [and] in dance."

The work is for eight dancers and six auxiliary cast members, who "serve in the tradition of Asian theater, where there's a helper on stage who might hand a prop or take a prop or do a set up. It's very much a group piece."

The choreographer won't be dancing in it, however.

"It didn't need me, it didn't call for me. I knew that. I needed to direct it," she said.

A native Californian, Livingston, 50, had been a soloist with the Lewitzky Dance Company in Los Angeles for 10 years before starting her own company in 1984.

She quickly became known for her thoughtful, inventive work, which won numerous honors, including six Lester Horton Dance Awards.

But in 1997, Livingston suspended work with her company.

"I needed to rest," she said. "I wanted to reflect."

That didn't mean totally stopping work, however. She began taking commissions, creating, among other works, "Si, Se Puede/Yes, You Can!" for Gema Sandoval's L.A.-based Danza Floricanto/USA in 1998, and this commission from the center, which hopes to expand its audience for modern dance.

Creating movement was not a problem for her.

"For me, that comes easy," she said. "The challenge is to have it serve these ideas."

For all the seriousness of the ideas, she said, the mood of the work is playful.

"I've worked in the spirit of an invitation, in the spirit of provoking and captivating, in the spirit of just opening a few windows, just opening a few doors and letting anyone in the audience feel that fresh air and choose."

She's not indifferent to audience reactions, but she doesn't want to tell people how to interpret her work.

"We don't have to underestimate people. They're deep. They're interesting. They're complex. They bought a ticket, for God's sake. They want to see the work. And work, hopefully, of all disciplines moves us in an interesting way."

* Loretta Livingston's "Two Thousand Steps" will have its world premiere at 8 p.m. Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $8. (714) 556-2787.

*

Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at chris.pasles@latimes.com.

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