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The Offbeat Goes On : Yoshiko Chuma and her School of Hard Knocks turn common conceptions about dance and music on their ear.

Victoria Looseleaf reviews dance and music in Los Angeles

Yoshiko Chuma has a fondness for metronomes. In her slightly fractured English, the choreographer-dancer explains how, “even if you put them at the same speed, each one is different, like you and me.” And then she pushes the life metaphor further, to include the inevitable: "[Wound] metronomes, after half an hour, almost start dying.”

Chuma’s fascination with these timekeepers has also played a part in many of the 50 works she has created in the 16 years since she founded the School of Hard Knocks, or SOHK, a New York ensemble of dancers, musicians and artists. Rooted in the avant-garde and taking cues from street life, Chuma’s boundary-blurring work is punctuated with elements of risk and eccentricity.

This Saturday, in her Los Angeles debut, Chuma brings her latest opus, “Unfinished Symphony,” to the Japan America Theatre. Ninety minutes long and equal parts music, dance and controlled chaos, “Unfinished Symphony” makes use of a dozen metronomes, whose oscillations not only provide rhythmic thrust but also create a music all their own.

The work, which won the 1998 Bessie award for musical score, is the fourth in a series of Chuma’s pieces that rethink the roles and relationship of musicians and dancers. Like many SOHK pieces, it weds a screwball sensibility with technical virtuosity.

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Speaking by telephone from New York, Chuma, who has worked with such disparate musicians as former Labelle singer Nona Hendryx and composer Tan Dun, explains her ongoing fascination with multiple art forms. She considers music watchable; dance, something to hear. There is, in fact, a rather long passage in “Unfinished Symphony” that is danced in silence, with only the dancers’ breathing audible, accompanied by their feet slapping the floor.

“Musicians are very articulated--the sound they make is connected with where they put their fingers,” Chuma says. “It’s a very physical thing, otherwise they cannot make any sound. [To] speed up the sound, they have to go very fast. Their fingers are a choreographically articulated element that the body has. A good musician has good movement, and that includes the conductor. Conductors are incredible,” she says, "[and] each conductor has a totally different movement. It becomes a dance for me.”

Much of the movement in “Symphony” is rife with Keystone Kops-like antics. Pianists Nicky Paraiso and Simon Deacon battle over a concert grand’s keyboard, each trying to plunk out snippets of Chopin or Gershwin--when they’re not hammering out modern dissonances or running around the piano bench. Paraiso and Deacon, along with two other musicians and three dancers, including Chuma, cavort about the stage, occasionally conjuring visions of musical chairs. Collectively these performers are known as Crash Orchestra, a subgroup under the SOHK umbrella.

Contributing to the machinations are four members of Tokyo’s Aska Strings Project, who up the madness ante by rapidly handing their bows to one another in a relay motif.

The shots are rigorously called by Chuma, a compact 48-year-old who sports a ‘90s Prince Valiant bob. Whether strategically planting herself between cello and cellist, or assuming a conductor’s stance--waving her arms furiously to elicit an intriguing cacophony of sounds and muscular moves from her company--Chuma is never far from her work’s kinetic center, the absolute ringleader of what dance writer Marcia Siegel calls her “rapscallion vaudeville.”

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Chuma, who dabbled in film in her native Japan, had purely theatrical aspirations when she arrived in New York in 1976. Several months later she saw Robert Wilson’s groundbreaking opera-cum-performance art piece “Einstein on the Beach” and had an epiphany. The budding experimentalist threw herself into every aspect of the performance scene: She studied contact improvisation with Steve Paxton, took classes from Merce Cunningham and absorbed the work of Lucinda Childs. She also discovered the outrageous humor of the late playwright-actor Charles Ludlam.

By 1980, she’d won a commission from the Venice Biennale, a piece she called “The School of Hard Knocks.” A collaboration between her husband, filmmaker Jacob Burckhardt; musician Alvin Curran; and herself, this early work featured the panoply of sounds, surreal imagery and the kinds of hyperactive moves that would later become the artist’s stock in trade. Chuma soon appropriated the name for her company, because, she says, she liked the sound and concept of the American idiom.

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In 1984, Chuma was awarded a Bessie for company achievement, and has since gone on to international acclaim, giving performances throughout Europe, Japan and in Hong Kong. Over the course of the company’s history, more than 1,000 people have performed under her direction, in situations ranging from theatrical dance concerts to street performances, parades and large-scale performance-art spectacles. Alumni of the company have gone on to prominence, including saxophonist-performance artist Dan Froot.

Among current members of the troupe is bassist Robert Black, who also belongs to the New York-based new music group Bang on a Can, and cellist Robert Een. Een has worked with Chuma for six years and serves as music director for “Unfinished Symphony,” as well as performing in the piece. Besides hoisting his $20,000 instrument over his head at one point and twirling it around like a minuet partner at another, Een is faced with Chuma pirating his bow from him, then having to grab it in return.

“It is difficult to be able to move well and perform music beautifully too,” notes Een, who has not only had some dance training but also has worked as a choreographer. “The relay business is the most exhausting,” he admits, referring to the bow-passing scenes. "[Then] there are moments that we’re afraid our instruments might get damaged, but we have learned certain techniques so that doesn’t happen.”

“The work [SOHK does] is energetic and fun and irreverent,” he says, “but ultimately it is quite beautiful.”

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Tim Miller, artistic director of Highways in Santa Monica, agrees. He first encountered Chuma in New York in 1978.

“She seemed like an enormous, interesting fact of life. I’ve always loved her kind of wild, jagged, high-energy movement--her great non sequiturs and surprises.”

To create an ensemble in which music, dance and theater mix so irreverently and fluidly, says Chuma, is a particular kind of challenge, one that requires rehearsals and more rehearsals.

“The music universe, they can get [things] together much quicker,” says Chuma. “You can go to E-minor, [but in] dance we cannot do that. Sometimes [for] three seconds of movement we have to spend two hours. For the audiences, it’s 90 minutes--one piece. For us, it’s a breaking down of 35 or 36 elements.”

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Chuma regards “Unfinished Symphony” as one piece of a much larger picture: “We are never going to finish,” she says and laughs, “and the metronomes--they are ticktocking.”

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Victoria Looseleaf reviews dance and music in Los Angeles, and her unauthorized biography of Leonardo DiCaprio, “Leonardo: Up Close and Personal,” was just released.

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“UNFINISHED SYMPHONY,” Japan America Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St. Date: Saturday, 8 p.m. Prices: $9-$18. Phone: (213) 680-3700.


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