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Fall Arts Preview

Earthly positions

L.a.'s The Place To View How The World Dances, Especially With Expert Translation As A Guide.

September 19, 2004|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Ever since the founding of the groundbreaking, multidisciplinary Denishawn school and company in 1915, world dance has been a major attraction on Los Angeles stages, a potent alternative to classical ballet and contemporary expressive movement as well as a powerful symbol of cultural identity for the region's many immigrant communities. Indeed, its prominence sets us apart from almost every other American city, where it forms, at best, a kind of sideshow or novelty act.

Besides being a haven for world dance choreographers more creative and adventuresome than those directing the official touring ensembles of many nations, the Los Angeles area has been home to artists and companies specializing in idioms forbidden in their countries of origin: China and Cambodia, for instance, during decades of cultural upheaval, and more recently Iran.

Thanks principally to the UCLA world arts and cultures department and its satellite projects, we've also become a major center for ethnographic study and intercultural collaboration. And each season finds tour groups, large and small, dancing on local stages for an audience that has grown beyond the simplicities of cultural tourism toward a deeper understanding of alternative artistic visions.

The coming world dance season offers everything from returning pioneers of the genre to companies never seen on a local stage. Some will arrive heavily theatricalized or even balleticized, others simply edited for presentation. Whole libraries exist detailing the history and performance lore of some of them. But whatever its unique history or social context, every dance is movement in space and must be inherently communicative -- or why perform it in front of strangers?

For potential spectators who still feel daunted, however, directors from a number of these companies are willing to discuss their idioms in basic, need-to-know physical terms. Many other ways exist to look at world dance, of course, but examining its body language and performance priorities seems a good place to start.

Many classical Asian dance forms, for example, derive from complex ancient court rituals and protocols but are defined by the ways they channel the body's energy. People seeing classical Balinese dance for the first time are often dazzled by the shimmering detail of the dancers' movements -- enhanced by the ribbons, fringe and jewels of their costumes. But CalArts teacher-performer I Nyoman Wenten, leader of the Balinese music and dance ensemble that will appear in California Plaza on Friday, says the essence of Balinese dancing lies in achieving a physical and expressive harmony. And that's something we can all understand and look for.

"How you move your head when you walk, the sculptural line of the body, the way you bring your energy up into your fingers, toes, facial expressions -- good dancers manage to smoothly control and harmonize all these things," he explains. "Without that intricate coordination, they look awkward to Balinese eyes."


To former dancer and master teacher Eung Hwa Kim, the basis of Korean classical dance is its fusion with breath rhythms: the measured rise, fall and continuum of life itself. "There must be a flow," she says, speaking through an interpreter, "and the breathing should show to the end of the fingertips." As a result, the dancers seem buoyed by the air they breathe, serenely floating in it.

"All of Korean dance is about circular movement," Kim says. "The stepping is especially circular -- rolling on the heels to the balls of your feet to the toes. And there must always be a perfect sense of balance." Her locally based Korean Dance Academy will share the stage of the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on Oct. 8 with South Korea's Samulnori percussion ensemble.

From Dec. 16 to 19, the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City will host a Pan-African Dance Conference. Dancer and teacher Nzingha Camara says the event will replace the stereotype of African dance as an undisciplined, polyrhythmic energy circus with the sense of "spiritual development and empowerment" within African traditions.

"In the first position of West African dance," Camara explains, "you are making a bow with your thighs to receive energy from the Earth. The drum was originally a sacred instrument, and the body was a vehicle to invoke divine energy and make a connection with the drum until they became one.

"I think the purpose and intent of African dance needs to be maintained along with the technique and expertise of it," she insists, calling the act of healing the key function of African dance. "That's the contribution it makes to world culture."


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