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Step by Step, She Makes Her Way Through Life

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“That’s a good question,” choreographer Rosanna Gamson calls out from the bleachers. It’s rehearsal time for her dance company, Rosanna Gamson/World Wide, and a dancer has questioned a gap in getting from one move to the next.

Gamson tries to think of an answer, not for the first time. Sometimes she doesn’t have one. Sometimes she says, “Well, we’ll just have to work that one out.”

Just a week before its unveiling, Gamson’s “Lovesickness” is still a work in progress--a thousand details being confronted, changed or tabled during rehearsals. Gamson has promised a closing speech to narrator Dana Wieluns, a speech that she must somehow find time to write in the next few days.

But Gamson, 40, doesn’t seem fazed by all these loose ends. She’s a veteran at connecting the dots. Three years ago, she arrived in Los Angeles, another artistic refugee from New York. This year, she won the local dance community’s highest honor, the Lester Horton Award for outstanding achievement in choreography, for “Grand Hope Flower,” a much-lauded free-associative inquiry into L.A.'s stardust appeal.

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Dressed in black trousers and layers of T-shirts, Gamson is a tall woman with straight red hair; large, horn-rimmed glasses; and a breezy manner. Clearly, she revels in the ongoing dialogue of ideas expressed through dance and, fortunately, she also laughs a lot.

At one point, standing among the dancers, she says, “You should all move forward with aplomb.”

The dancers stare at her. One jokes, “A plum?”

Then Vera Flores Celaya strides forward from the pack, her back straight, her head high. This flamenco dancer is the one performer who has been with Gamson for all three of her L.A. productions; she knows what aplomb is.

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Gamson moved to Los Angeles in 1996 because her husband, a video editor, could find more work here. In New York, she had had a modest career, performing with a number of modern dance companies and, about once a year, presenting her own choreography.

At first she hated Los Angeles--the sprawl, the decentralization. To survive, she decided to start a dance project.

Funding it herself, she rounded up performers--including six she knew from New York--and presented a new work, “Again Not Again,” at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. She called around to invite arts movers and shakers in the city. To her surprise, people talked to her.

“New York’s very hierarchical, it’s a ladder. It’s all about where you are in the pecking order,” Gamson observes. “Here it’s just this sprawl where everything’s mushing around, there’s no one way to do anything. There’s this huge opportunity.”

“Again Not Again” turned out to be an effective calling card. The Times’ dance critic Lewis Segal wrote, “For high ambition, deep intelligence and a spectacular sense of dance-theater metaphor, Rosanna Gamson’s ‘Again Not Again’ sets an imposing standard for companies working in local studio spaces.” Jordan Peimer, programming director of the Skirball Cultural Center, was deeply impressed. “It’s so rare to see someone who carries through that strong vision throughout the work,” he says. He helped arrange a commission for her to create an evening-length piece--which became “Grand Hope Flower"--for the opening of the Getty Center, in December 1997.

Gamson grew up in an artistic household. Her father was a musician; her mother, Annabelle Gamson, was a dancer and choreographer, known for her reconstructions of the works of Isadora Duncan. So dance was a natural choice.

She began studying at 3 and went through a succession of schools and programs, including tutelage under Hanya Holm and Bessie Shonberg and at Sarah Lawrence, eventually culminating in a master of fine arts degree in dance at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1987.

But her childhood dream of renown as a choreographer and company director met a few glitches. “At 18 I dropped out of Sarah Lawrence to be a star,” she admits ruefully. “And then I wasn’t.”

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Los Angeles has proved a turnaround. Because of the arrival of Gamson’s second child, “Grand Hope Flower’s” premiere was pushed back a year; it was performed at the Getty in September 1998, then remounted at California Plaza’s Watercourt in August.

The work, named after three downtown streets, was Gamson’s attempt to capture some of her feelings about her new hometown. On a grid drawn on the ground with tape, her performers spun through darkness, illuminated here and there by the on-off flickering of lamps. Meanwhile, they gave discourses on quantum electrodynamics, “Little Red Riding Hood” and the drawing power of L.A.

She used the fairy tale, she explains, as a Hollywood-wannabe metaphor: “It’s another story where you get lost in the woods and get seduced.” Visually, she saw the city laid out like a grid of light, and that light again connected to film and filmmaking.

“I feel like Los Angeles is the light capital of the world, this is the commodity here,” she says. “We take light, and turn it into image.”

Admittedly, her works are complex, both in their staging and in tackling big ideas. “I’m really pro-intellectual!” she announces proudly. “I think you can present a complicated thought and the audience will be pleased. I think people see faster and simultaneously. I think they can see how 12 people on stage are moving differently but have the same intention.”

Love, Loneliness and Artistic Change

“Lovesickness” is another ambitious multimedia opus. It tackles the roots of mental illness, the nature of love and existential loneliness.

“It’s about how much we all want to be loved and how we can never be loved the way we want,” Gamson says. One inspiration was a Freud case study about a governess who was prohibited from displaying affection toward her charges and became hysterical, developing an oversensitive nose.

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“I am being tormented by the smell of burning pastry!” she declares in Gamson’s interpretation.

These elements lead the choreographer to “Hansel and Gretel,” and their ejection from home and close brush with the oven, so their story is woven into “Lovesickness.”

Gamson culls her performers from many sources--the world of dance, of course, but also music, acting, mime. And they not only move, they clap, hiss, sing and speak. She is fearless about using every tool of stagecraft--including video projection--in “Lovesickness.”

During a 12-hour rehearsal marathon on Saturday, Gamson reports, those video sequences are finally starting to gel. She has even completed the closing speech, one that could stand for her own freewheeling creative process.

“Once I lost my way. No, more than once,” it reads at one point, “but I continue to change.”

* “Lovesickness” premieres Thursday-Sunday, 8:30 p.m., Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica, (310) 315-1459. $12. It will be presented at the Skirball Cultural Center next July.

*

“New York’s very hierarchical, it’s a ladder. It’s all about where you are in the pecking order. Here it’s just this sprawl where everything’s mushing around, there’s no one way to do anything. There’s this huge opportunity.”

ROSANNA GAMSON

Choreographer


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