Crusade Comes Down to Earth for Loretta Livingston

"I know I can't save the world," says locally based choreographer-dancer Loretta Livingston. "But I can make through my dance a saving note and dedicate my life to the true guardianship of our planet."

All through her career as a prominent member of the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, Livingston remained involved with ecological issues. And now, at 39--after marriage to fellow Lewitzky dancer David Plettner and with a 4-year-old company of her own to run--she says she has found "a deeper ecological resolve."

"I feel a commitment to seeking a greater balance on the planet," she explains, "to recognizing what is essentially important in life and honoring it. We have to make this a personal crusade."

Livingston understands that people are inundated with dire ecological warnings. "They are so Cassandra-like," she says. " 'If you do this, our whales, our environment, our humans are going to die.' We cannot possibly respond to all of it. We cannot. People become numb."

Her attempted solution is to reach people through her choreography in "Don't Fall, Pomegranate," Livingston's first solo since "Balances" in 1983.

"Pomegranate" premieres in tandem with her new quartet, "After the Burning," at the Japan America Theatre on June 24 on a program that also includes such familiar company pieces as "Apogee to Perigee" and "Paper, Scissors, Rock."

The program is co-sponsored by the Japan America Theatre and partially underwritten by a $5,000 grant from the City of Los Angeles. The company has also recently received a three-year, $45,000 grant from the Irvine Foundation for expansion of management, marketing and audience development.

Noted for her sweepingly kinetic forays into feminist issues and states of emotional balance, the Paso Robles native says she originally had no intention of exploring the darker subject matter of "Pomegranate" when she began to create a solo in 1987.

Instead, she opted for a "light, nostalgic view of my growing up years in a nurturing family which embraced the ideals of honesty and independent thinking. For that piece," she says, "I chose three sweet, yet slightly ironic, love songs from the Ink Spots."

What she calls a "rite of passage" transformation ensued when illness, a knee injury and the loss of several friends to AIDS intervened, creating tremors of readjustment in her life. Later, Livingston resumed the construction of her solo, but "the undercurrents changed me, making the use of those songs artificial," she recalls.

"I felt that the earth wasn't stable beneath my feet--not because of the earth, but because of the people on it."

Somehow, listening to the Ink Spots' "If I Didn't Care" brought the realization that everyone and everything she loved could be "wiped out in such a thoughtless way," she remembers. It made her decide to create a piece about a survivor. "I needed to reaffirm life," she says. The task was how to do it with relevance.

She rejected an autobiographical (and, to her, more emotionally narrow) format for the easily identifiable horrors of Hiroshima. "It represented the fact that we can, if we wish, finally destroy our planet in the blink of an eye. It was a warning. I use it," she says, "as a reminder that we have a choice."

The fuel for her solo came from Livingston's immersion in survivors' journals. Working through a depression that was caused by the memories she absorbed as she read, Livingston sketched movement, asked herself questions about the experience and slowly created a character whose body language was culled directly from descriptions of physical reactions to the bombing.

"I wanted the character to touch people at a very deep level of their psyches," she says. "The event had to be more accessible than my own recent passage."

As the solo progressed, the needs of the character to express herself and her story of survival caused Livingston the performer some emotional discomfort.

At one point, the images of washing off debris, black rain and burns inspired a ripping away of her costume and going mostly topless. The partially nude image is not one that Livingston deliberately sought.

"I realized that the reason, choreographically, was that nudity looks so vulnerable. I also had the idea that if I were (this woman), I'd want to peel my skin off from the inside out because what had happened to me had been almost beyond comprehension." The bare breasts stayed.

No one, however, is likely to describe the result as topless dancing. The movement Livingston devised resembles a tortured insect on its back in a series of jerks and spasms which contort into the tentative wading-through-water-motion of a weakened survivor.

"It's an odd solo," she concedes, "sometimes physically brutal to see and to perform, not at all beautiful by traditional standards. It contains not one dance step, yet it is dance."

Livingston also sought to deal with the sequence of events in a "non-linear time sequence" by weaving the survivor's internal and external landscapes into chapters that smash chaos against tranquility, blending current time with memories of Aug. 6, 1945. "I want this piece to transform, not just represent history," she says.

Inevitably, some of the threads come from Livingston's own depth of feeling about "my responsibility to the planet." It is a responsibility that is now inseparable from her art: "In 'Pomegranate,' I try to blend everything into a fabric of experience that reminds people of how fragile every single life is."

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