Susan Marshall was hailed as the major dance discovery of the Los Angeles Festival in 1987, but her troupe, which is based in New York, hasn't visited the Southland in two years--and won't make its Orange County debut until Thursday.
At the Irvine Barclay, as part of the theater's Feet First contemporary dance series, the eight-member company will dance Marshall's "Contenders," created in 1990 and later revised, and her most recent work, "Fields of View."
"Contenders" has been cut by about a third. "There are some pieces that come out and you don't ever touch a hair," the 36-year-old choreographer said last week on the phone from Montreal, where her company was in residence. " 'Contenders,' from the day it premiered, I can't keep my hands off it."
Company turnover is part of the reason. "Every time there was a change of a dancer, I reworked it for (the new dancer)--and then (sometimes) decided to cut that section."
In that sense, she noted, the piece was typical of "all my early pieces, (which) were very tailor-made to the dancers who created them with me.
"As it happens, my work has been evolving to more dancey dances. Because of that, I feel it doesn't have to be reworked so greatly when a new person comes into it."
Set to an original score by Pauline Oliveros, "Contenders" shows life as a contact sport. It grew out of Marshall's memories of high school gymnastics.
"My gymnastics career is a real source of humor to me," she said. "I had things I was strong in, but that didn't save me from a lot of embarrassing moments."
It was the "arbitrariness" of gymnastics, she said, that inspired the events in the dance. "You know, 'We're going to vault over a horse' . . . . There's something so arbitrary about it. But people do it as if it's the most important thing in life.
"There's a real parallel to how we live our lives. Our life jobs seem as arbitrary and bizarre.
"There are always a number of practical concerns that precede the conceptual," she added. "I wanted to work in duets because I was enjoying that format, but I also wanted to make a work for eight people. Because of the darkness in (my) previous works, I also wanted some moments of humor. I came up with the idea of competitive structures."
Impressions that the contenders are expending their lives in relentless competitive activities "are all in the right vein," Marshall said. But beyond that, "I feel one admires these people. They are very heroic. They don't give up. They keep trying. For me, that's optimistic."
Marshall was optimistic when she headed to New York after graduating from high school in Hershey, Pa. where she'd grown up. She studied for two years at the Juilliard School and left without graduating to devote herself to dancing and choreography.
"The choreography took off first," she recalls. By 1985, "people really began paying attention, and things began developing real quickly."
She developed her own dramatic and complex movement vocabulary by, she says, remaining independent of any single company. "When you manage not to work with a major company, that's really avoiding a very key influence. It's also my nature. I saw a lot of dance before beginning to work. I take a little from everyone."
What made her unusual was that she didn't see other dancers as projections of herself. "I'm not someone who choreographs off my own body. The nature of the way I work (means that) I need to see what I'm doing. As a result, I'm never in a premiere. So my own dance career is stepping into other people's parts when they leave or if someone gets injured. It has its rewards but also its frustrations.
"Plus, as artistic director, it is very hard to maintain top physical condition. It's just too hard."
Two of the dancers who have been with her since 1985 may be retiring in the fall. The thought of their departure inspired "Fields of View" (set to Philip Glass' Fourth String Quartet). But some viewers have responded to the work, premiered at the University of Texas in September, as if it were an AIDS piece.
"I don't know what that means," Marshall said. "I know very few pieces created by myself and other people in New York that don't have an undercurrent of death or loss or separation. That's certainly true for me, for everything I've made in the last three or four years."
Even so, she wanted to strike out in a new direction with this work.
"What I hoped to do was structure a non-linear narrative, something that didn't evolve in a linear fashion but was (still) about something. My work prior to this had a substantial underpinning of being very linear, which I found confining.
"A device I came up with was time--time in the way we experience it internally. In the present moment, we might be thinking of the past or thinking about the future or what I should have said sometime in the past.
"In that sense, time is quite fluid. I wanted to create small dances within the dance that recurred, were told and retold and foretold and were revisited. That was the way I was approaching it thematically. The movement was developed with the dancers in collaboration."
She says it is the collaboration that, despite its "pure and abstract surface," makes it "a very deeply personal work both to me and the performers."
That is "because the company has so much shared history. It's a community of eight loving people." The piece "parallels my company's life in some sense. So I have a lot of affection for it.
"There are themes of separation and loss in the work," she stressed. "But the essential quality is joyous because of time coming back on itself. So things that seem lost are not lost."
* Susan Marshall and Company dance Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. $25. (714) 854-4646.