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Real body awareness

Somatic movement, a focusing practice, is put onstage for SOMA Fest. It's truly spiritual.

September 21, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

On the stage of Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, three dancers are rehearsing a mysterious improvisational piece titled "Keeping Quiet," to be performed there this weekend.

Each begins in a private zone. Carol Swann sits apart from the others, a restless sibyl emitting strange nonverbal shrieks and cries. Melanie Rios Glaser moves coolly but intently through abstract postmodern combinations, eventually leaning against and then climbing onto Vitali Kononov. And he seems haunted by a sense of dread, speaking of shadows and periodically shattering the contemplative mood with bursts of intense physical or verbal energy that engulf the others.

Afterward, the three remind a visitor that the look and sound of "Keeping Quiet" is only one part of the picture, for they are preparing to perform in SOMA Fest, an experiment in bringing somatic movement -- normally a practice focused on intimate, personal body awareness, healing and transformation -- onto the stage in many forms. Process, not product, is what's essential.

"Somatic movement is not a dance technique," says Lila Hurwitz, who is also presenting a piece in the festival. "People use whatever technique they bring to it. It's very much about your own experience. And I'm interested in seeing what happens to deep, internal somatic work when you put it onstage."

Hurwitz is aware that other festivals have incorporated somatic practices -- the name was coined by an American philosopher and educator, Thomas Hanna, who died in 1990. But she says that none she knows about have focused on bringing those practices before an audience as performance experiences.

Not until now, that is, for along with classes, workshops and panel discussions taking place this week at Highways and the adjacent Continuum Studio, the three weekend performances will aim at what festival organizer and producer Teri Carter hopes will be "transformative experiences for artists and audiences alike."

"Somatic movement is about the ability to sense oneself deeply from within while moving, as well as being able to sense one's environment," she says. Her own structured improvisation in the festival, "Water Bear Exaptation," expresses these bedrock priorities in a more consciously theatrical manner than "Keeping Quiet," emphasizing a mystical, timeless atmosphere and dramatic interaction between Carter and others in her four-member cast -- especially Gabriel Orshan.

The pace is slow, the movement fluid, but at one point in their duet Carter stands at Orshan's side, her arms wrapped around him, and he suddenly jumps, carrying her with him through the air as if they're one being, bonded at the most profound level.

In moments like these, even an outsider who believes that all fine dancers are completely attuned to their bodies' capabilities begins to understand that these performers are a breed apart.

"We're trying to harness an organic phenomenon," Orshan explains, "and that's our body, which has its own intelligence." Carter speaks of "tissue intelligence" and how conventional dancers who remain committed to a specific technique imprison themselves.

"When you stay with a [dance] form," she says, "your tissues are not open and following their own impetus." And if that sounds a mite too touchy-feely for a demanding L.A. dance audience, SOMA Fest promises to offer powerful statements of its primal prerogatives.

Even in a preliminary rehearsal, an untitled improvisational solo by Cass Phelps displays a brilliant harnessing of the body, with enormous ripples traveling through Phelps' shoulders, back, chest, stomach and pelvis as if he's been flooded and expanded from within.

"The impulses that are feeding and informing my movement are electrical impulses," he says later. "We work with the impulses, allowing them to come forward in the most true way. That's our training process." He calls the result "an offering." "I do this at home, but the audience is an amplification."

Other festival participants came to somatic movement from specialized disciplines -- Orshan, for instance, who teaches Chinese martial arts. But Phelps had no dance background or conventional schooling. From somatic movement alone, and especially from Emilie Conrad, the influential head of the Continuum center, he gained dimensions of prowess and artistry (or what somatic specialists call "embodiment") that any dancer anywhere would respect.

More to the point, Phelps and his SOMA Fest colleagues are helping to restore the spiritual component of dance that inspired the pioneers of modernism but is in increasing danger of being lost in a culture dominated by showpiece technique.

"The audience was originally a witness," Phelps says, "and dance a way to tap into the eternal. I think of what I do as a form of sharing. Or prayers. And out of that comes stories."




Where: Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica

When: 8:30 p.m. today and Saturday

Price: $15 (students and seniors) and $20

Contact: (310) 315-1459, or


Where: Continuum Studio, 1629 18th St., No. 7, Santa Monica

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

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