Stepping across traditional lines

Special to The Times

In these gender-bending times, it's been said that men are the new women. And to an extent, choreographer Edouard Lock, artistic director of the Montreal-based dance company La La La Human Steps, might agree. He says his latest postmodern ballet, "Amelia," was inspired by a couple of transvestites he knew more than 20 years ago.

Following in the footsteps of Lock's critically acclaimed "Salt" (seen in the Southland in 2000), the 100-minute "Amelia" continues the choreographer's foray into full-throttle, assaultive pointe work -- including by a 21-year-old male dancer, Billy Smith. It bowed last year in the Czech Republic and will have its U.S. premiere with four performances beginning Wednesday at UCLA's Royce Hall.

Speaking by phone from Montreal, Lock, who founded La La La Human Steps in 1980, says Smith's role in particular grew out of his memories of one of the cross-dressers, who called himself Amelia, but he adds that his use of pointe technique is not aimed at telling a story.

"I was quite young when I knew the transvestites," he says, "but they had a rich, comforting world at a time when everything seemed a bit unstable and unclear to me. They were a good memory for a long time, but in terms of what the audience sees in 'Amelia,' the use of pointe is basically a visual structure."

And if that prompts visions of drag ballerinas, Lock, 49, hastens to add: "It isn't treated as a joke. Billy has to have the same technique as the ballerinas, who are also on pointe. This is not tongue in cheek. It's something more serious."

Unfolding on a starkly lighted stage, "Amelia," in addition to featuring eight other dancers, makes use of projected images that Lock calls "electronic hand puppets," or something akin to a virtual ballet corps.

The score is also unconventional. Composed by David Lang -- co-founder of the New York-based new-music group Bang on a Can -- it includes lyrics from five songs written by Lou Reed for the legendary New York rock band the Velvet Underground. It is performed live by a cellist, pianist, violinist and vocalist, who sings, among other rock classics, "Heroin" and "I'm Waiting for the Man."

New York-based Lang, 46, highly regarded for his many operas, concertos and solo works, explains: "Ever since I was a squeaky-clean youth growing up in L.A., I wanted to set those texts to my own music. I did my own version of 'Heroin,' and I made a demo and sent it to Lou Reed. He loved it. So did Edouard.

"The songs are simple but kind of beautiful and inwardly directed, which is surprising when put next to this incredible, high-energy dancing. It creates this emotional landscape, something unexpectedly powerful," adds Lang, who has collaborated with Lock for a decade and composed the "Salt" score.

Power also radiates on stage from the Florida-born Smith. He learned to dance on pointe as a boy, it turns out, in order to strengthen his ankles.

The dancer, who stands 6-foot-1 in bare feet (size 12), says he now owns 50 pairs of custom-made toe shoes, all pale pink. Doing a pas de deux, he and Zofia Tujaka, both sporting black Armani suits, represent Lock's portrait of today's man and woman.

Says Smith: "This isn't 'Swan Lake.' It's pretty intense what we do -- rapid movements while going up and down on pointe. The pain is what's difficult, but it's worth it, because Edouard takes the physicality of dancing to a whole other level."


La La La Human Steps

Where: Royce Hall, UCLA

When: Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.

Price: $25-$45

Contact: (310) 825-2101

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