Choreographer Loretta Livingston Strives for Apogee

Three years ago, locally based dancer Loretta Livingston made what she sees as a daring move to end her 10-year tenure in the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company and become a choreographer. But she feels she came into her own only recently when she realized that all the choreographic vision in the world was meaningless without the right dancers to help realize it.

"I felt a little in limbo when I hadn't found a voice apart from Bella's," she recalls. "I hadn't yet understood how a group of dancers could actually bring me the personal voice I needed."

But now, Livingston is accomplishing what she considers to be near-impossible for a fledgling artist in Los Angeles: maintaining a stable and closely knit dance company even though she can offer no regular salary to her dancers.

"It's like giving a foundation to a building that had none," Livingston says of the new structure she feels in her life.

During rehearsal for a program at the Wilshire Ebell on Saturday, Livingston lays out six quartz crystals on a time-worn piano ("to charge the space with good energy," she explains) and smiles warmly as her four dancers offer each other subtle correction with the quiet reserve of a well-behaved adult family.

Livingston's "From Apogee to Perigee" is the only work on the four-part program that was made expressly for her current group of five dancers. According to Livingston, this new work reflects her recent artistic growth.

"The title refers to the way we orbit around people and the closeness or distance which develops," she explains. "With the help of my dancers--my husband David (Plettner), Lori (Bryhni), who commutes each weekend from Modesto, Tony (Gongora) and Madeline (Soglin)--I let go of my old reliance on characterization, gesture and theatricality in the new piece and make way for a more full-bodied exploration in pure dance movement. It's a more daring and regenerating energy between individuals that I had always held back on before.

"I wanted to derive drama from emotion and movement rather than gesture. I wanted to dig and these dancers were there, ready with the tools."

Livingston says a breakthrough came "when, a while back, I was trying to make a solo for myself--a process I'm still involved in--and I was having real trouble. Basically, I missed other people. I turned to the constant in my life, David, and we made a duet called 'Paper/Scissors/Rock' where I felt an explosion of new movement material, a wildness in staging and spacing which would eventually find a home with a stable group of dancers."

Still, does Livingston worry that such stability might bring comfort and predictability instead of innovation--a slavish adherence to music instead of a playfulness with time?

"I'm trying to be aware of the pitfalls," she answers. "but I also have to take stock of my point of origin in mainstream modern dance. My dancers do pull me outside of my own limits. Some offer a real androgynous quality which is not conventional at all. All my life I've been obsessed with the mystery of relationships. I think there's an animal sensuality in this piece very different from the older 'Invitations.' "

In "Invitations" dancers combine a use of pedestrian walks and sudden falls and catches to comment on male/female relationships against the nostalgic backdrop of big-band music. But during a rehearsal of "From Apogee to Perigee," sensual caresses are exchanged without adherence to conventional ideas of male/female partnering--or even heterosexuality.

"Such risky intimacy could not come together with a group of people who had not worked together for at least a year," Livingston adds. "This closeness breaks standard boundaries."

Livingston believes that by "challenging the accepted dominance of choreographer over dancer" in the world of mainstream modern dance (where the individualized signature of the artist often earns more prestige than a given dancer's virtuosity), she can "give back something creative and spiritual" to her dancers. And with this vaguely democratic give-and-take, which she sees as more reminiscent of a "family than a dance company," she gains in artistic vision.

"The dancers aren't tools for choreographic ideas, but muses," Livingston says. "I actually dream about these people; when I hear music, I see them moving to it. I have no illusions that the company will last forever. But in the meantime, I've grown up as an artist."

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