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Space, movement and Rudy Perez

The postmodern dance guru turns 80 with a new work performed by his ensemble in Pasadena.

October 21, 2009|Victoria Looseleaf

Seven dancers move in unison to the throbbing of minimalist music. Twitching spasmodically, the performers then indulge in a series of backward bends and sideways swooping. As the sun streams into the studio at Westside School of Ballet, it illuminates the dancers' dispassionate faces, their movement free from any lyrical or psychological elements.

Indeed, this is the signature style of postmodern guru Rudy Perez, who turns 80 next month. Perez, having decamped from his native New York to Los Angeles more than three decades ago, is celebrating the milestone by -- what else? -- creating new work. Presented by Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts, which is also commemorating its 20th anniversary, the Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble is giving free concerts Friday and Saturday at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

"I've been doing it for so long, I can't imagine not doing it," Perez says during a rehearsal break, referring to working into his ninth decade. "I just wish I could do it more."

Early love of dance

Of Puerto Rican descent, Perez, like many Latinos of his time, danced socially. He surprised himself and got hooked, beginning modern dance studies before making his way to the doyenne of the art form, Martha Graham. After studying with the legendary choreographer for five years in the '50s, Perez became entrenched in New York's experimental Judson Dance Theater. Judson, founded in 1962 by David Gordon, Trisha Brown and others, defined boundary-breaking "downtown" aesthetics, and was ground zero of what would come to be called performance art.

"With Judson," recalls Perez, "I was able to find my own way as an artist, because it was so far removed from where I'd come. I had to let go of the Graham training and just do it. It was a real eye-opener to see people working differently -- and certainly not dancing -- but sitting in a chair and being very sparse, for example. I liked that."

Perez also studied with and was mentored by Merce Cunningham, whose radical notion that music, choreography, sets and costumes could exist independently of one another was something the young dancer could relate to. He formed his own company in New York, Rudy Perez Dance Theater, which was more task-oriented than technique-driven, and the troupe toured the United States, Germany and Canada in the 1960s and '70s. Perez's solo works from that period, "Countdown" (1964) and "Coverage" (1970), became part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater repertory. ("Countdown" would also become the title -- and centerpiece -- of a 2005 documentary on Perez that later was broadcast nationally on PBS.)

Heading West in 1978 to teach at UCLA, Perez found himself embraced by the dance community. While taking on other teaching gigs, including at Cal State Long Beach, the California Institute of the Arts and USC (which houses his archives), Perez founded a dance troupe in his adopted town.

Having choreographed more than 50 works since moving to L.A., he inspires near rabid devotion from company members.

Jeffrey Grimaldo first danced with Perez in the Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble in 1986. Two years later, Anne Grimaldo joined the troupe. Today, the long-married couple has a 9-year-old daughter, and they unabashedly refer to themselves as Perezians.

"Rudy has taught tons of kids who are now working professionals around the world," Jeffrey Grimaldo says. "I feel privileged to have been part of that, as Rudy is an important link to the past, and he's teaching future generations. To be able to say we have a master with us in L.A., with its spread-out dance landscape, is extremely important."

The press has taken note as well, with glowing reviews the norm. In 1987, The Times cited Perez as "the conscience of Los Angeles dance."

That he continues choreographing is something of a minor miracle. Not only is the arts economy dire, but Perez also has been visually impaired for the last decade. Moving slowly and burdened with hazy vision at best, Perez says the work keeps him going. The Armory engagement is particularly meaningful, because it was there, in 1992, that the Center first presented "The Dance-Crazy Kid From New Jersey Meets Hofmannsthal."

Jay Belloli, director of gallery programs at the Armory, points out that that was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with Perez. "This is a major late 20th- and early 21st-century choreographer. How Rudy uses space, how he uses movement, how he uses movement as defining space, how he uses music, how in recent years he uses written text -- it's extraordinary. L.A. is lucky to have him," said Belloli, who plans to retire next year, "and this is one more wonderful thing to do with Rudy before I leave."

The site-specific concert is dedicated to Cunningham, who died in July at age 90. It features two works with original music by longtime collaborator Steve Moshier, performed live by the composer and his Liquid Skin Ensemble.

Past and present

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