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Modern? No, That's Too Old-Fashioned

Choreographer Kitty McNamee stands history on its head in her Hysterica work.

September 03, 2000|JENNIFER FISHER | Jennifer Fisher is a regular contributor to Calendar

Choreographer Kitty McNamee may be rehearsing in the studio that once was home to Bella Lewitzky, California's modern dance icon, but she's not about to claim modern dance as her aesthetic turf--at least, not exactly.

"I don't mind making something that looks a bit modern," says the artistic director of the L.A.-based Hysterica Dance Company. "But if somebody says, 'That's so moderne,' I know I'm in trouble."

Sitting outside the hillside Studio City rehearsal space, McNamee explains the difference. Said with a campy flair, moderne is code for taking yourself too seriously and creating movement that's a bit too stern, in a style of the past.

"I always get concerned when people think my company is a modern company, because it's not," she says, momentarily furrowing her brow. "I call it contemporary, because to a lot of people, modern dance is old-fashioned, and I don't feel that what I'm doing is old-fashioned."

In fact, what McNamee is doing with her upcoming evening-length work, "Noir" (at the Ford Amphitheatre on Friday), starts with something old-fashioned, a clutch of classic film-noir images--the fraught female in flight, menacing music, lurking men in shadows, femme fatale types.

But, as has been noted in several favorable reviews of Hysterica's performances--all in the Southern California area--McNamee tends to take familiar images and slant them in unfamiliar ways. The Times' Lewis Segal, describing last year's 50-minute "Water and the Well," noted the way her dancers embodied the contrasts in McNamee's style, "giving pop dance cliches maximum credibility and then showing the exploitation and fear underneath."

To describe shorter Hysterica works (at Open Fist Theater in 1998 and on shared programs at the annual Dance Kaleidoscope festival, at Highways and at a Palm Desert choreography festival), critics have tended to use words like "pop-influenced," "theatrical," "sassy" and "ironic." McNamee's own favorite description seems to be "edgy."

"I think what I mean by that is current and aggressive," she says, citing as a few of her influences Edouard Lock's manic and super-cool Montreal troupe, La La La Human Steps, and theatrical German choreographer Pina Bausch.

But McNamee also acknowledges the influence of jazzy American dance-makers Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, which you can see in the gestures that pop up in her eclectic style--hands that flip downward like animal paws, hips that angle while the upper body takes on a lyrical stretch.

The eight members of Hysterica, who are going over a portion of "Noir" with McNamee's assistant, Ryan Heffington, while she talks, bring a variety of backgrounds to the work. A few have extensive ballet training, some have been more focused on jazz, and there are moments when it looks like they could attract serious attention dancing at a club.

"I think I'm particularly lucky to have the dancers I have," McNamee says. "They also work commercially [in TV ads, rock videos and concerts], and they're very of-the-moment, very contemporary, culturally. I think it brings a fresh edge to my background, which is very ballet and modern."

McNamee's background also includes other experiences that feed into her work. She began her performing life in a high school drill team, and later trained to be an actress in New York, joining the Open Fist Theater when she moved to Los Angeles in 1992. Five years later she formed Hysterica.

"Acting wasn't my destiny," she says. "I didn't feel the kind of connection that I feel to choreography. And I didn't particularly like the process of trying to be an actor, so I just came back to my roots."


Although she grew up in Ashland, Ohio, fairly dance-deprived, that didn't stop McNamee from having detailed daydreams of life with a company. Oddly enough, she didn't dream of onstage stardom, but of running the show behind the scenes.

"Even before I started taking dance classes at 15, I would sit in my room and pretend I was touring Europe with my dance company," she says. "I'd take my mom's blank deposit slips from her checkbook, and I would pretend to write checks for hotels and restaurants for the company.

"It's weird, but I would have this whole fantasy trip. I was always the choreographer and in charge when we were touring. I even had a fake name--Jasmine Peters."

McNamee laughs, looking younger than her 32 years. She talks about other ways her Ohio dreams were fed, including the films noir that inspire her current work--movies based on Raymond Chandler novels or directed by Alfred Hitchcock or starring Humphrey Bogart. Since her other favorites were musicals that featured Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, maybe it was inevitable that she would combine dance and film images.

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