As a college dropout in New York in the late '70s and early '80s, Rosanna Gamson toyed with the idea of pursuing poetry as a career. She studied with such poets as Stanley Kunitz, Louise Gluck and Charles Simic and vicariously shared the experiences of friends enrolled in writing programs.
Eventually she decided to return to academia -- this time to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in dance. But her flirtation with poetry may help explain her current direction in the "only slightly more practical" vocation of choreographer. "I really like the work I'm doing now," she says, "where there's always a written, textual component."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, November 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Brontes: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about choreographer Rosanna Gamson's new work, "Ravish," said that between them the three Bronte sisters wrote six books. They wrote seven.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Brontes: An article in the Nov. 11 Calendar section about choreographer Rosanna Gamson's new work, "Ravish," said that among them the three Bronte sisters wrote six books. They wrote seven.
In fact, Gamson, 48, who relocated from New York to L.A. in 1996, has long sought inspiration from literary sources. Her work has taken cues from "The Arabian Nights," Greek mythology and Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." More recently, the evening-length "Aura," which she made in collaboration with Mexican choreographer Cecilia Appleton and first performed in 2004, took its title and inspiration from a novella by Carlos Fuentes.
But with her latest work, "Ravish," premiering this week at the New LATC, Gamson has embarked on what might be her most ambitious effort at page-to-stage transformation. Based on the lives of the Bronte sisters, the hourlong multimedia piece blends movement, text, video and an interactive floor linked to computer software that generates images by tracking the motions of the dancers. If all goes according to her plan, "Ravish" should "engage the audience in the way you are engaged when reading a book," Gamson says. "With some dances, you can just watch them and let the movement wash over you. In this case, there's the added complication of technology, text and image. The audience is going to have to do some decoding."
In other words, do not expect a story ballet, the dance equivalent of a biopic or the kind of movement piece that might feature extensive monologues adapted directly from "Jane Eyre" or "Wuthering Heights." Rather, if a recent rehearsal was any indication, Gamson has chosen a more abstract and allusive approach to the Brontes, their prodigious literary output and their tragic deaths. (All of them died from tuberculosis before the age of 40.)
In one section, Gamson's cast of four women and one man mutter barely audible, often unintelligible sentence fragments as they perform rigorous movements that alternate between frenzied and labored, ecstatic and foreboding. Often, they dance apart from one another, spinning in circles and looking like children who lose themselves in games involving imaginary worlds. Sometimes, they wrestle and play variations on Follow the Leader. Frequently, they crash to the floor and at certain moments scream in horror.
To this, add video projections of young girls at bedtime, poetic texts written by Gamson and the interactive floor designed by Flavia Sparacino, which creates the effect of letters forming words that appear to follow the dancers as they move across the stage.
"I wanted to capture this moment in adolescence before you become socially inhibited but when romantic love is in the picture -- the time when girls feel like they can do anything, when they form these intimate, passionate friendships and play elaborate games," says Gamson. "The Brontes and their stories happened to fit what I wanted to communicate."
Dance's literary tradition
Gamson is certainly not the first choreographer to mine the literary canon for her own purposes. Ballet's distinguished Antony Tudor and modern dance icon Martha Graham loved making dances from Greek myths. Jose Limon's 1967 "Psalm," one of his signature works, was inspired by the novel "The Last of the Just" by Andre Schwarz-Bart.
In 1990, French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj drew international attention for his "Romeo and Juliet," which re-imagined the characters in a modern police state, and the dances of Dutch choreographer Beppie Blankert have drawn from authors including Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. And locally, there's Gamson's colleague Heidi Duckler, who's showing her latest rendition of the Beowulf legend this weekend at Cal State L.A.'s State Playhouse.
But although classical dance has a long and rich tradition of story ballets based on Shakespeare, fairy tales and myriad other written sources, melding the literary with the kinetic can be a trickier business for contemporary choreographers intent on avoiding literal storytelling, clunky allusions and other pitfalls that lurk in the challenge of adapting something from one artistic medium into another. Even the most accomplished choreographers have met with critical derision for working with narrative. Twyla Tharp's 1995 "How Near Heaven," for example, which drew from Emily Dickinson's poems, was pronounced "almost totally opaque" by New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce.