In her camouflage cargo pants, muscle T and with multiple piercings, dancer-choreographer Stephanie Gilliland looks ready for combat. Or at least ready to assume her place at the forefront of the rough-and-tumble world of hyperphysical dance. Indeed, having founded the locally based contemporary troupe Tongue nearly eight years ago, Gilliland, 52, has not only rolled with the artistic punches, she’s also been choreographing her own brand of iconoclastic dances for more than two decades.
Gilliland’s latest effort, “Tertium Quid,” an evening-length reworking of a high-voltage piece from three years ago, opens tonight at Santa Monica’s Highways Performance Space and runs through Saturday, repeating the following weekend. Inspired by a book on sadhus (India’s mystic holy men) and a fashion show by rapper-fashion mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, “Tertium” aims to push the boundaries with athleticism, muscular partnering and inventive movement language.
Like Gilliland herself, who began studying ballet as a child only to rebel against convention, the work is an exercise in extremes. “The name of the piece is Latin and has something to do with two opposites resulting in a third thing that exists between those opposites,” she says. “I’m exploring a pop cultural element like fashion, which is superficial and external, and the idea of meditation and ritual. There’s also an intimacy that is the spiritual journey, but then the athletic moments explode behind something else that’s happening.”
Gilliland’s own journey began in Hawaii, where she was born to a military family that moved frequently. Gilliland attended Colorado State University for several years before transferring to UC Riverside, where she graduated with a dance major in 1977. That same year Gilliland co-founded Urban Sprawl Dance Artists, with the company moving to New York City, playing rock clubs and underground venues under the name the Edge Dance Theatre.
Gilliland left the city in 1981 and soon thereafter, she says, had an existential crisis while living in a Canadian commune. “It was then I realized my passion was to be a choreographer, to make dances, but in my own time.”
Returning to Los Angeles in 1982, Gilliland began teaching at UC Riverside, a gig that lasted 15 years. During that period Gilliland formed two companies (in 1982 and 1992) and also began exploring solo work. Making a name for herself, Gilliland earned two local Lester Horton awards for choreography, and, in addition to choreographing modern dance, she made works for opera, television and musical theater in the States and abroad.
When she lost her UC Riverside job in 1996, Gilliland was devastated but says it was a blessing in disguise. That blessing allowed Gilliland to create Tongue, a troupe that Times dance critic Lewis Segal said “specializes in visions of the liberated, fearless, articulate body, aiming for a physicality so free it verges on the anarchic.”
Gilliland, who teaches at Idyllwild Arts Academy and recently received a second James Irvine Foundation grant, as well as a 2004 Creativity Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, stopped dancing two years ago because of a chronic ankle injury. It serves the work, she says, to step outside it, leaving her free to concentrate on her eight dancers.
Rehearsing at Diavolo Dance Theater’s industrial space at the Brewery, the troupe’s devotion to Gilliland’s crash-and-burn movement language is evident: Repeatedly hurling themselves to the floor in death-spiral fashion, the dancers, who range in age from 23 to 41, make thudding, thwacking noises with their bodies, creating a distinctive soundtrack.
Lyrical passages abound, as well, with Robert Een’s elegiac cello score accompanying a trio of men donning jackets -- around their ankles -- before executing one-arm balancing poses and feral backbends. Gilliland, who cites contact improvisation and Ashtanga yoga (a series of rapidly executed poses) as influences, coaches the kneepad-wearing performers as if she were a drill sergeant.
Helping Gilliland is rehearsal director Holly Johnston. Now 30, she’s been with Tongue since graduating in 1996 from Loyola Marymount University, where Gilliland was artist-in-residence for several years. There, Johnston teaches a free community class in Gilliland’s technique.
“We’re so committed to training,” Johnston says, “and everything you see comes from such a deep process.”
Since its founding, Tongue has performed in dance festivals in Mexico and Canada and continues to gain statewide recognition. Upcoming performances include Mount San Jacinto College at the end of October and a tour next spring with stops in San Francisco, Santa Barbara and San Diego. More important, Gilliland is pleased to finally be able to pay her dancers and focus on the future.
“It’s a modest fee, but hey, we’re paying them monthly. The vision for my work,” Gilliland says, “has been a slow process, and our next step is to tour nationally. I have this idea where I want an original movement language, and the ability of my dancers to move from one place to another -- radically. The only way they can do it is by doing it.”
This Tongue, in other words, continues to wag.
What: The contemporary dance troupe performs “Tertium Quid.”
Where: Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica
When: 8:30 tonight through Saturday. Also 8:30 p.m. next Thursday through Oct. 9.
Contact: (310) 315-1459