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Performing Arts

A Collaboration as Fluid as a Dance

For 'Cross Roads,' a composer and a choreographer offered each other ideas and inspiration.

March 31, 2002|JENNIFER FISHER

When a choreographer sits in a music studio, or a composer watches a dance rehearsal, both movement and sound tend to take fresh creative swerves.

Or at least that was what happened when veteran dance-maker Donald McKayle and flutist-composer James Newton got together to make "Cross Roads," which has its West Coast premiere Friday night, during a two-day engagement of the Jose Limon Dance Company at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex.

On this late March afternoon, the two stylishly dressed collaborators have come to the second floor studio in Newton's airy, art-filled Chino Hills home to try to recall the mood of their early conversations about the work a few years ago.

The themes of communal conflict and forbidden love provided a starting point. "We would sit here and discuss ideas, sounds and qualities," says the mellow-voiced Newton, standing in front of a bank of synthesizers, keyboards, monitors and samplers. McKayle has a way of almost performing the process: His eyes light up as if dessert is being served, and he says, "I enjoyed getting inside of this and seeing what he was doing. I would hear a sound and say, 'Ohhh, do that one again.'"

"Cross Roads" has already engendered a certain amount of buzz at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts (last June), at the University of Texas at Austin (earlier this month), the two venues that, along with the Luckman, commissioned the work from McKayle and Newton for the New York-based Limon company. It was also performed at the Olympic Arts Festival in February in Utah. When the work appeared on a Limon program in New York in the fall, New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote about its vitality and "gem-like polish," calling it "a major piece, an allegory about the need for tolerance among different peoples."

Kisselgoff also noted that most modern dance companies of Limon's era--the early and mid-20th century--were not known for their incorporation of African-based rhythms, and that the inclusion of two jazz-influenced works on a Limon program (Billy Siegenfeld's "If Winter" was the other and is also on the Luckman program) seemed "somewhat surprising." But not to McKayle. Having spent many of his early dancing days under the direction of legendary modern dance founders Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Martha Graham, as well as Limon, he has seen many major choreographers change over time and incorporate new influences, just as he, at 71 and Newton, at 48, have drawn new energy and direction from each other.

"I think if Jose was still around today, he wouldn't be doing the same thing he was doing in the '50s," McKayle says, once he's settled into a white leather chair facing Newton in the composer's ground-floor kitchen-den area. "I'm not doing what I did in the '50s, so I don't think somebody like Jose would be stuck in one spot." As for comparisons between the spare, smoothly majestic Limon aesthetic and the often syncopated and layered mix of styles in "Cross Roads," McKayle points to a similar emphasis on the "theme and variation" structure.

McKayle, like Limon artistic director Carla Maxwell, thinks that jazz-inspired contemporary dance can coexist happily alongside iconic Limon works, providing a complimentary contrast with Limon's contemplative "Psalm," for instance, another piece that the company will perform at the Luckman in a restaged version (by Maxwell), with a newly commissioned score by Jon Magnussen. As for the company dancers' ability to go with the syncopated flow, McKayle says that modern dancers are trained for just about anything these days, and that the Limon performers were especially sensitive to nuance. "They were so absolutely fresh and open-faced," he says about the formative "Cross Roads" rehearsals. "They would actually give you themselves without touching themselves up first in a mirror--just letting it happen--so I think there was a kind of magic in the atmosphere and everybody felt comfortable."

As "Cross Roads" progressed and McKayle made several trips to the Limon company's New York studios for rehearsals, he and Newton exchanged audio and video tapes. At other times, they were in commuting distance of each other for meetings; McKayle teaches at UC Irvine and lives nearby, while Newton is a professor of music at Cal State L.A. and directs the resident Luckman Jazz Orchestra.

"Once he gave me a piece of music, I'd start choreographing so quickly, he'd have to catch up," McKayle says. "But sometimes, he was ahead of me."

"It was a very fluid process," Newton recalls. "It's like we started to finish each other's sentences."

As he watched taped rehearsals and discussed them with McKayle, Newton started thinking in terms of specific movement themes. He also got to know individual dancers' personalities and started to tailor his material to them. The process reminded him of Duke Ellington's way of composing with specific musicians in mind.

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