Dancing on the edge

Times Staff Writer

It’s a time for celebrations and farewells at the California Institute of the Arts. This week, students brought onto the stage of REDCAT downtown a multi-screen video display honoring a quarter-century of achievement by the CalArts Dance Ensemble. Meanwhile, the exhibit’s artistic director, Cristyne Lawson, sat in the Disney Hall theater’s green room speaking of her 27 years as dean of the CalArts school of dance -- a period about to end with her retirement.

Educational dance in the Southland tends to fall into distinct realms, with students interested in theoretical issues gravitating to UC Riverside, ballet aspirants heading to UC Irvine and world dance followers looking to UCLA. CalArts has never ignored these specialties, but Lawson has focused its vision on contemporary, experimental and multimedia work: the future of the art.

“Our approach to creativity is unusual,” she said. “We have composition [a.k.a. choreography classes] for four years, so it’s something that students constantly get, along with technique and performance. Also production: They learn how to produce dance, to be able to exist in the world.


“We’ve had dance video for 25 years. We have a gamelan orchestra made up of dancers, which is our contribution to music, and a lot of other things that are very unusual because we’re in a situation where we can be unusual. The interdisciplinary work we do in terms of film, video, design -- I don’t know where else we could do it.”

Lawson describes “25: A Video Installation Celebrating the CalArts Dance Ensemble” as more than 25 hours of taped dance edited down to about an hour -- including some still photos. “We have four different videos going at the same time, and when you stand in the center, the sound is really incredible. Plus we have a live musician,” she said.

“Some of the videos we had to send out to try to get them boosted because we’ve had about eight different formats since we started the dance ensemble.”

As she explained, the ensemble was formed with faculty professionals so they could continue to choreograph and perform while teaching. She became its artistic director in 1978, overseeing a who’s who of contemporary dance.

The list of featured artists who can be glimpsed in “25” numbers nearly 60 and includes internationally celebrated artists -- among them Paul Taylor and Donna Wood -- as well as such leading lights of the Southland dance scene as Loretta Livingston and Sean Greene.

Lawson’s departure comes at a time when CalArts’ dance program has gained new visibility outside its home base in Valencia because of the existence of REDCAT, which the school runs under an arrangement with Los Angeles County. But Lawson said she’s never felt estranged from local dance.


Indeed, this born-and-bred Angeleno can cite major L.A. credentials, starting with her early training here at the Ruth St. Denis School and with Lester Horton. At age 10, she toured California with St. Denis’ company, then studied with another Southland dance doyenne, Carmelita Maracci, before going to New York for training at the Juilliard School.

Her career as a professional dancer included performances with the Martha Graham Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (as Ailey’s dance partner), the Donald McKayle Dance Company and Maurice Bejart’s Ballet of the 20th Century.

Now 69, with three grandchildren, Lawson continues to choreograph widely, at home and abroad, and over the decades has developed a special fondness for the supremely flexible CalArts Modular Theatre.

“The REDCAT might now be the [CalArts] window on L.A.,” she said, “but the reason I stayed at CalArts for so long is because I’ve been able to do multimedia work in the Modular Theatre that I don’t think I could do anywhere else in the world.

“There’s also a proscenium theater [on campus], which is a lot better for dance than the REDCAT.”

Like many others in the Southland dance community, Lawson initially hoped that REDCAT might become the contemporary dance center that other cities have but Los Angeles doesn’t. However, it’s very expensive to produce work there, she said, and because the REDCAT presenters “bring people in from everywhere, it isn’t as if it’s available for local artists to any great extent.”


The consequences are familiar.

“I feel that it’s really hard for our students to stay in Los Angeles,” she said. “And they don’t -- because there’s no way that they can work consistently here over a period of time to get to the next level of development.

“In fact, it’s easier to be successful in modern dance in China or Europe right now when it comes to starting a company, having performance venues or finding some way to produce your work on a regular basis.”

Whatever the location, she said, a performance space must be right for choreography and production design.

“For me, modern dance is a chamber art form. I don’t particularly like dance on a grand scale, and the intimacy that modern dance has produced is what has made me want to continue working in it.”


‘25: A Video Installation Celebrating the CalArts Dance Ensemble’

Where: REDCAT, Walt Disney Concert Hall,

631 W. 2nd St., L.A.

When: 8:30 p.m. today and Saturday

Price: $15

Contact: (213) 237-2800 or