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One Foot in Art, One in Commerce

Sean Curran, an alumnus of Jones/Zane and 'Stomp,' kicks around ideas in his own troupe.


Sean Curran might be called a hybrid for dance's new century: He's been at the top of the serious dance game for nearly 20 years, having been a member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company for a decade, and yet he also knows the ropes of commercial dance, hoofing for the off-Broadway mega-hit "Stomp" for four years.

Adding spice to this mix, Curran, whose parents immigrated to Boston in the 1950s from Ireland, was a step-dancing whiz as a child.

What he's made from all this diversity is the Sean Curran Dance Company. Founded in 1997, the troupe features athletic, quirky and accessible dance, run through a decidedly postmodern mill.

One of the pieces coming up this weekend at the Irvine Barclay Theatre is "Sonata (We Are What We Were)," a work that was slated for DanceCleveland's opening night performance in July but was deemed too serious for an outdoor venue.

Curran the showman was sympathetic; Curran the serious choreographer was disappointed. "Outdoors generally means light, happy works. That's what they were thinking," he explains by telephone from his current hometown, Manhattan. "This piece is a response to Sept. 11. It's about a community having a shared sense of grief and loss. At the last minute, they wanted us to do 'Folk Dance for the Future,' which is my response to 'Riverdance,' and is kind of an old joke now."

Curran spent his childhood years literally kicking around at Irish weddings, Celtic dance festivals and retirement dinners in Boston. He moved to New York for college, earning a degree in dance from New York University.

Shortly thereafter, in 1984, he segued into one of contemporary dance's most respected ensembles, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. Within a year, he won a Bessie Award for his solo performance in Jones/Zane's "Secret Pastures."

"I always say that from Bill I learned a respect for outrageousness. From Arnie, I learned about art history and formalism," Curran says. "They were two very different artists, but it was a great way to learn how to make a dance."

By the time Curran left the company, Zane had died of complications from AIDS, Curran was battling alcohol and substance abuse (Curran says he's been sober for the last nine years) and Jones had achieved star status. Jones and Curran are somewhat tight-lipped about Curran's departure. The dancer says, "I left to do my own work." Jones says only that it was time for Curran to leave.

But Curran took a detour. "A casting director found out I'd left the company and called because he knew I did Irish step dancing. I was hired to be in the first New York City-based company of 'Stomp.' The thing that 'Stomp' taught me is that the more accessible it is, the more lucrative it is. If you're a modern dancer, your salary doesn't go up."

"Stomp" allowed Curran to save money and present his own choreography. The success of the annual shows he presented from 1995 to 1997 at Manhattan's St. Mark's Church encouraged him to form the Sean Curran Company.

"At the time, I said I'll never have a modern dance company," he said. "You'll have your hand out the rest of your life looking for help. Last year, I was pleased when I did my taxes and saw that we paid my four women and four men for 29 weeks of work."

The company of nine dancers, including Curran, who dances a little less since turning 40 last year, has been to Europe three times, has received grants from the likes of the Philip Morris Cos. and regularly receives commissions for new works. In addition to doing an annual season at New York City's Joyce Theater, the company averages about 10 domestic gigs yearly. In between, Curran has managed to squeeze in other choreographing duties, for the 2000 Broadway show "James Joyce's 'The Dead,' " as well as two works for Trinity Irish Dance Theater.

With appearances in Los Angeles last year and in Orange County this year, the Southland has had a chance to see Curran's newest work within months of its premiere. "Sonata," with music by Leos Janacek, debuted to strong reviews in March. The non-narrative dance features linked-arm ensembles, implying fellowship, as well as duets and smaller groups.

"I wanted to make a well-crafted, old-fashioned work in the tradition of Jose Limon," Curran says. "I've made a lot of dances to Janacek--I think I was Eastern European in a former life.

"The music is unruly, beautiful and ugly. I love the four-section sonata form--an opening, a men's section, a women's section and a resolution. There is a Balanchine-blue [background] with clouds, and tiny white children's chairs ring the space. I showed the video to a class at the Alvin Ailey School, and one of the dancers said the set reminded him of the Oklahoma City bombing memorial."

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