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The power of partnership

Three L.A. choreographer-composer teams are making an impact on stages here and beyond.

June 19, 2003|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

Among the landmarks of dance history are some works in which the talents of dance makers and composers seem to have fused: the epochal Stravinsky-Ballets Russes "Rite of Spring"; Martha Graham and Aaron Copland's indelible "Appalachian Spring"; the classic 1965 collaboration between Merce Cunningham and John Cage, "How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run."

The dance work being done locally these days may not approach those giddy heights, but as it happens, Los Angeles is home to some thriving -- and intimate -- choreographer-composer teams. Their collaborative strategies provide a range of answers to the age-old chicken-or-egg question: Is it the music that drives dance, or does movement propel music?

Hae Kyung Lee and Dancers, now in their 14th season, not only have been a vibrant presence on the local scene but also perform regularly in both Lee's native South Korea and Europe.

After dancing in Germany's Tanzwoche International Dance Festival last year, in fact, the five-member company was invited back, with Lee commissioned to create a new work.

The result, a 30-minute triptych called "Caught Between Boundaries," premiered at the festival in April. The work, which Lee also presented in Seoul this month in preparation for mounting it at Cal State L.A.'s State Playhouse on June 28, is a dark, physically demanding piece that deals with struggles between emotions and reality.

Lee calls it a departure from her recent playful forays into aerial, water and trampoline-based pieces. But when she was asked to make it, there was no doubt who would write the music: her longtime collaborator and life partner, Steve Moshier.

Their pairing began 12 years ago when Lee, who always uses original scores, found herself desperately searching for a composer when the one she had planned to work with had to drop out. Fortuitously, she had been given a tape of Moshier's work. She liked what she heard, and the duo has been a team since.

As a choreographer, says Lee, who will turn 50 in September and still boasts a sleek dancer's body, her primary goal is the expression of "atmosphere or feelings."

"I describe this, and he goes to work," she says. "A lot of collaborators work closely checking each other. For us, we go in our own directions, then come together. Steve's music is very universal, very deep, and when you have the same collaborator a long time, it's easier -- you don't have to explain much."

Indeed, their work together brought Moshier, who has also written for theater and the concert stage, a Lester Horton dance award in 1996 for outstanding achievement in music. Although he comes out of the Philip Glass-Steve Reich school of Minimalism, he describes his sound as neo-romantic and goal-oriented.

"Hae gives me an attitude, a tempo, a length," says the 51-year-old composer, "and then I'll start working. Sometimes she'll videotape the rehearsals, and I may play her something to indicate a certain melodic or rhythmic idea. I'll make an electronic version and, if it's not the right thing, then I'll go back and work with it. But most of the time we've been pretty lucky."

A more recent such coupling, former Joffrey Ballet dancer Josie Walsh and her husband, rock musician Paul Rivera, have been married four years.

Walsh is artistic director and choreographer of Myo Dance Company, a 3-year-old troupe of contemporary ballet dancers that has pushed the envelope by adding aerial feats and martial arts moves to its pointe-work arsenal -- all accompanied by Rivera's five-piece band, Surve.

Walsh and Rivera first linked up artistically with "CarniVinyl," a series of performances at the El Rey Theatre in spring 2001. This was followed by the multidisciplinary "Avalon," their take on the King Arthur legend.

Besides boasting a dozen well-drilled dancers, the production featured actors and singers, with Rivera grinding out guitar licks perched on a pair of stilts. Times dance critic Lewis Segal, writing about the November 2001 show, likened it to a Las Vegas production in miniature, with "big ambitions and plenty of talent to realize them."

This year, Walsh and company (21 in all) are tackling Margaret Mitchell's Civil War classic with the spoofed-up "Gone With the Whim," opening Friday for a limited run at the Ivar Theatre.

In addition to Walsh's edgy stamp, the work features the ballerina as Vivien (as in Leigh). All music was composed by Rivera and Bobby Tahouri, Surve's keyboardist-arranger.

Says Walsh of the 10 numbers written for this two-act extravaganza: "We have good chemistry. I usually go to Paul and Bobby and say, 'For this show, this scene, this is the vibe; this is what I need.' They give me a scratch draft -- an initial track -- and I'll say, 'OK, but now I need this.'

"They come to rehearsal, watch and compose to my movements. Then they digitize the rehearsal tape into the computer."

The 31-year-old Walsh notes that not only choreography but also characterizations are built this way. The glue, she says, is the music.

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