Back to making worlds anew

Special to The Times

AFTER being absent from local stages since 2003, when "The Quickening," an ode to childbirth and its aftermath, was performed at the Ford Amphitheatre, choreographer Laura Gorenstein Miller is once again ready for her close-up. And as artistic director of Helios Dance Theater, she's coming back in a big way. For "The Lotus Eaters," scheduled to premiere Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, she has assembled a team of hipsters to help her create a mythological world based on Homer's "Odyssey."

On board are costume designer Rami Kashou, a "Project Runway" finalist; composer Rob Cairns and singer-songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips (voted best male vocalist by Rolling Stone in 1995); and painter and set designer Alison Van Pelt, whose work has been collected by, among others, Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler.

Gorenstein Miller, 39, has a ready explanation for her decision to put Helios, the company she founded in 1995, on hiatus. "After 'The Quickening,' " she says, "I started getting some really nice commissions. I also had two young sons I wanted to be with, and because I did not have the day-to-day operations of running a company, I put Helios aside for a while."

But having created works for such troupes as Milwaukee Ballet and ABT II, the second company of American Ballet Theatre, the choreographer says she wanted to dip her toe into L.A's dance waters again. "If I left for too long," she points out, "it would be hard to get gigs and be presented."

A bit of synchronicity also accounts for Helios' reemergence. Several years ago, Gorenstein Miller says, she was looking at some gold jewelry in the shape of fruit charms and discovered they had been inspired by Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "The Lotus Eaters."

After researching the poem, she recalls, "I felt really passionate about it and could envision the whole thing as dance. Then I got the offer for Cerritos and I pitched them the idea."

The dreamlike result -- decidedly not set in ancient Greece -- currently lasts 45 minutes, but it's also scheduled to be presented as an extended, evening-length work at Santa Monica's Broad Stage in April. For now, eight scenes depict male sailors stranded on an island inhabited by female lotus eaters. The latter, dispensing their mind-numbing fruits to the seamen in order to quell their desires to return home or go to war, were conceived as strange, alien creatures.

"Are they women? Are they insects? Are they animals? I'm playing with the boundaries of what is beautiful and what is exotic," says the choreographer. "I was enticed by that movement vocabulary and wanted to explore that."

At a recent rehearsal at the Westside's Dance Studio One, 10 dancers ages 20 to 31, nearly all new to the company, were stirring about in what seemed to be a self-contained universe: To the sounds of Cairn and Phillips' taped score -- the opening motif features thundering drums with a hint of jazz -- the men were deployed in a group canon, lunging fiercely with military-like swinging arms.

Having leapt over one another in a quest for territory, they then worked up a sweat as they coupled with the women. Hoisting their precious cargo -- now to Phillips' song "Heavenly," his voice ethereal and plaintive -- they ended the scene with daring lifts and acrobatic releases.

Phillips, who knew Gorenstein Miller from their student days at California Institute of the Arts (where she earned a bachelor of fine arts in choreography), says they hadn't been in contact in recent years, nor had he ever composed for dance. But having written music for TV and films, as well as recorded albums and performed at local venues such as Largo, he was up for the challenge.

"It calls for a very dynamic approach and for something that puts across a feeling of sensuality and longing," he says. "These songs are longer than any pop song I've written, and yet I'm using traditional song forms. You can tell a story with movement, with words or with instruments, and this is an interesting marriage of all these things."

Gorenstein Miller's collaboration with clothier Kashou recalls such pairings as choreographer Twyla Tharp and designer Norma Kamali. But like Phillips, the Israeli-born Kashou, a specialist in draping fabric, was a virgin when it came to dance.

"Laura called and said that my aesthetic marries well with the theme of the work," Kashou says. "The costumes sway along the body. They look like they're for Grecian goddesses who are almost from another planet."

Gorenstein Miller's interest in creating singular worlds -- featuring not only provocative costumes but also intriguing sets and original soundscapes -- has been an abiding one, and "The Lotus Eaters" promises to continue the trajectory that has earned Helios praise in the past.

Of the 2003 work "About Anne: A Diary in Dance," inspired by the story of Anne Frank, a Times reviewer wrote that it was "stylish and affecting," adding: "At its expressionist heart are scenes of danced longing, familial angst and confined celebration."

A seedbed of talent

ONE OF the dancers in that piece was Maria Gillespie, who performed with Helios from 1998 until 2006. Gillespie, who formed Oni Dance in 2005 and teaches at UCLA, credits Gorenstein Miller with being pivotal in her development as a performer and with nurturing her own choreography. In fact, Helios has proved a seedbed of local talent. Dancer-choreographer Paula Present is another former member who has gone on to success with her troupe, Ptero Dance Theatre.

"As artistic director of my own company, I work with people I admire as human beings, not as machines," Gillespie says. "I got that from Laura, because we supported each other as family members."

These days, Gorenstein Miller acknowledges the tremendous effect motherhood has had on her. "When I'm in the studio, I really cherish the time of being in there. I'm more focused because I know that I have limited hours in the day," she says. "But this is a struggle for me -- trying to be a good mother, trying to be a good artistic director and a good choreographer."

Still, she says, work is both vital to her and a great escape. "Of course, it's hard to get too lost in the production because I pick up my kids right after rehearsal -- they give me perspective."

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Helios Dance Theater and Backhausdance, Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. 8 p.m. Saturday. $20.-$38.50. (800) 300-4345 or www.cerritoscenter.com.

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