Waldo’s ‘Culture Shock!’ Fuses Dance and New Age

Super Bowl Sunday may seem an inauspicious time to schedule a performance of works as exotic as multi-ethnic music and dance. But Elisabeth Waldo, composer and conductor of “Culture Shock!,” has a history of charging ahead with her projects and trusting that an audience will follow.

The six-piece program, complete with llama-bone flutes and a variety of other pre-Columbian instruments, will begin at 3 p.m. in the Japan America Theatre.

Waldo will bring together her largest troupe ever--six dancers and 11 musicians--for Sunday’s performance. The two-hour program includes works derived from several cultures, among them pre-Columbian Indians of Central and South America, California Indians of the Mission period and Chinese at the time of the silk trade.


All of the music was written by Waldo, who has recorded five albums and is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. All of the musicians are classically trained, she said.

Most of the choreography is by Miguel Delgado, whose credits include “Corridos” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and the movie “La Bamba.” The dancers are Asian, Latino and Anglo.

Waldo’s development as an ethnomusicologist is reflected in Sunday’s program. Although she declines to give her age or state how long she has studied the music of other cultures, Waldo says that she began collecting pre-Columbian instruments on visits to Central and South America in the 1950s.

Her early compositions were for primitive instruments only. These included tortoise-shell drums, clay whistles and flutes, rattles made of dried fruit, and a rasp fashioned from a human bone that is rubbed with a seashell.

The sounds produced by the instruments are alternately eerie and soothing. Distinctly primal, they call to mind the sea, wind and the cries of animals and birds.

Later Waldo added modern Western instruments to the compositions to produce a fuller, more melodic sound. The aboriginal instruments used Sunday will be augmented in this way. A one-time violinist with Leopold Stokowski’s All American Youth Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Waldo will play violin for several of pieces during “Culture Shock!”

In recent years the composer has fallen under an Eastern spell, just as she was influenced earlier by American Indian music. Where she once traveled in Mexico and the Southwest, studying with natives who played primitive violins and guitars, in the past decade she has made five trips to China.

Sunday’s program will include ancient and modern Chinese selections. A Chinese harp and harmonica from the 9th or 10th Century are among the instruments to be played.

“I’ve dedicated so much of my life to learning about and loving the music from these other cultures,” Waldo said. “It’s all coming to fruition now because people today are fascinated by new and strange sounds that are made authentically, not from electronics.”

Waldo said her work also appeals to people interested in California history, because it depicts the area’s development from Indian to modern times. She studied Indian and Hispanic culture with her late husband, Carl S. Dentzel, director of the Southwest Museum for 25 years until his death in 1980. The museum has been a repository of Indian artifacts and a study center since its founding in 1907.

Waldo puts on programs regularly at schools and museums. She appeared twice last year at the Annenberg Theatre in Palm Springs. Her latest project is the Multicultural Performing and Visual Arts Center, a space she is building in Northridge to foster the appreciation of non-Western art.

Her troupe of musicians and dancers has been in rehearsal the past few weeks for Sunday’s program, and Waldo remains unconcerned about going head-to-head with the Super Bowl. There is interest enough for both, she contends.

“People who want to dream a bit and have a spiritual side can do that with this music,” she said.

“Culture Shock!,” 3 p.m. Sunday, Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles; (213) 680-3700. Tickets $15 and $12, $8 for students and seniors.