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Working From ‘Memory’ Is Laura Dean’s Challenge

Just after Laura Dean guides you to her tiny office and through her company’s rehearsal studios littered with pianos, autoharps, xylophones and dance wear, she sits down and makes what sounds like a dramatic confession.

“I am not--repeat not-- a choreographer,” this 43-year-old, world-renowned choreographer of spinning, dervishlike dances declares with thudding finality.

That’s news. Aren’t Dean and her company supposed to be performing at Royce Hall, UCLA, on Friday and Saturday? If Dean’s not a choreographer, who’s making her dances?

But then Dean pushes her long reddish hair off her face and fixes an intent stare on you. It turns out she doesn’t mean that she’s stopped making dances, but rather that she hopes her latest work, “Memory,” choreographed to the music of Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti, is the last time she ever sets her movements to someone else’s music. “Memory” has its world premiere Friday on a program that also includes Dean’s “Magnetic” (1986) and “Equator” (1988).

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It also turns out that “Memory” is the first piece since 1985 that Dean has choreographed to someone else’s music. (She has previously worked with Steve Reich and Anthony Davis.)

As Dean is all too ready to tell you, she is less than happy about having decided to collaborate again.

“It’s OK, I can do it, I can function as a classic choreographer,” she says. “I can take a piece of music, take the ambiance from the music, take the structure from the music, take the tempo from the music and make a visual, but my real forte is as a composer/choreographer. And now, having made this piece, I’m really aware of that.

“The bottom line is that I make pieces of music and dance,” she says, speaking those last three words as one: “Music and dance.”

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“Memory” was created through an unusual co-commission from UCLA’s Center for the Performing Arts and Cal Performances of UC Berkeley, and while no one from these institutions told Dean to commission a score from an outside source, she seems to have felt that she needed a new musical challenge to spark her choreography.

“As a piece of music,” she says, “What Gismonti did for me is terrific. It was definitely my choice because I’m a big fan of Brazilian music, although I’m not sure if that’s because of the sound of the language or because it’s so frothy, so simpatico, more sensuous than any other kind of music around.”

Still, when Dean finally received Gismonti’s score and his working tape of the piece--originally titled “Natura"--she was struck by the music’s cinematic quality.

“I hate to sound critical, but I couldn’t really put a finger on the piece Egberto sent me,” she says. Indeed, Dean was so nonplussed by Gismonti’s composition that she renamed it “Memory” because “the ambiance and environments he goes into in a very literal, narrative sense shift the way things do when you watch a film.

“In film, you can have a street scene, then a living-room scene, and then, all of a sudden, you’re on top of a building--and all this in a time span of 10 seconds. Same thing with this particular piece of music.”

The only problem with this, Dean says, is that her own work, replete with dancers centrifugally spinning in tight circles and creating densely packed fields of energy and movement, relies to a great extent upon simple repetition, which Dean describes as “a very deep and very profound part of our humanity.” She then, paradoxically, breaks into giggles and a long riff about the influence of Einsteinian physics on her work.

“If you look at repetition,” she says, “there’s that wonderful saying that you can’t step in the same river twice, and a lot of the reason for that has to do with our language, which is changing all the time. It also has to do with the quality of how time functions with space, how it literally moves forward, backwards, sideways or whatever.

“Repetition is how we connect to these bodies we were given. It’s a word we made up, it does not really exist in the Einsteinian sense of intelligence, because it’s a linear concept we’ve imposed on a creative process.

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“The simple fact that we walk, that the most powerful thing the mind does is to pattern itself, shows how the body is really a symbol of time, which is also the beauty of aging. And Einstein taught us that time is the basis for space and that space is the basis for light.

“If there’s no time, there’s no space; no space, no light. But then light also needs something to cling to, it needs objects. So the word isn’t really repetition , it might be power , it might be energy. Einstein taught us that matter is energy and energy matter. That’s it. There’s no big question about what the universe is.”

Indeed, the more Dean talks about the role of repetition in her work and in life, the more it becomes clear to her that there’s really no great mystery to her own work.

“Repetition really frees the mind,” she says. “What does it free the mind from? It’s freeing the mind from ‘the personality'--the personality that makes us happy, that makes us sad, the personality that potentially stops us from learning.

“To me, that’s the common denominator for music and dance, music being time, dancing being space. The common denominator is tempo or pulse.

“In Egberto’s score, there are 33 changes in feeling, tempo and quality coming one almost every 15-30 seconds. The dancing absolutely follows that, and I wanted to do that, and it’s fine by me. But it does represent a very different use of time and space from what I was after before, so I had to go with his flow, so to speak.”

For a minute, Dean looks pensive, but then a stream of words pours out of her.

“I had a dialogue with Egberto Gismonti but for some reason that wasn’t enough. For me to get into where I want the body to feel physically, I like to work with repetition, with a pulse. It’s like setting up a vibration.

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“Instead of scratching on the surface of something, it’s like etching. You can get into it much deeper. I worked well as a choreographer with this score, and I’ll keep this piece in my repertory, but I’m learning as I get older, that I really am a composer/choreographer and that is altogether a different animal from a choreographer.

“I’m not saying that I’m closing the door to working with other composers in the future. But for my own company, I have a curious feeling that from now on, we’ll follow the idea of music and dance from the same source--from me.”


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