Helios Dance Theater’s leader dreams vividly
For Laura Gorenstein Miller, the ability to feel intense fear has both artistic and practical benefits. When embarking on a new project, “I’m always terrified, but that’s part of the motivation. It’s why I still make dance, because I don’t let that fear stop me,” she said.
As she prepares for the world premiere of her latest work, Gorenstein Miller continues to abide by this philosophy but with an acute awareness that the professional stakes have been substantially raised. Her company, Helios Dance Theater, which she founded in 1996, will become the first Los Angeles-based contemporary dance group in more than a decade to appear as part of the UCLA Live season at Royce Hall when it performs “Beautiful Monsters” on Saturday.
Booked by David Sefton before he resigned as UCLA Live’s artistic director in May, the multimedia, 65-minute show sets a new precedent for the presenting organization, which has mostly solicited works from internationally prominent dance companies.
Inspired by Gorenstein Miller’s childhood obsession with vampires (long before Stephenie Meyer penned her bestselling “Twilight” series), “Beautiful Monsters” mines the different mythological aspects of the bloodsucking creatures. Filled with other literary references, including from “Romeo and Juliet,” the dance depicts seduction, romance, death and nightmarish dream states through vigorous movement that fuses classical ballet and modern release techniques and sensual partnering maneuvers constructed of both intimate gestures and acrobatic lifts.
The work also serves as a prime opportunity for the 41-year-old choreographer to not only to put on the best show possible but to make a statement about “the caliber of artists in Los Angeles and owning the fact that we live here.”
“Why are we perceived as less than?” she said, referring to the notion that Los Angeles contemporary dance can never compete with works produced in New York and other cities with exalted reputations for dance. “My response to that is there is a power to being in Los Angeles, with definite advantages.”
To that end, the production credits for “Beautiful Monsters” reads like a mini who’s who of Hollywood talent. Gorenstein Miller’s husband, Chris Miller, an animator and director of “Shrek the Third,” has created a two-minute animated film that runs toward the end of the show. Composers Paul Cantelon and David Majzlin, both of whom work in film and television, provide original music. Costumes are by Rami Kashou of “Project Runway” fame, who worked with Gorenstein Miller on her last work, “The Lotus Eaters,” while Los Angeles-based visual artist Sharon Ellis agreed to convert her 2003 painting “Water” into a scenic backdrop.
“L.A. can be so industry-based that you often don’t see collaboration like this,” said Miller, who said he felt initially skeptical about working with his wife because he didn’t want to detract from her choreography. In the end, “this was a thrilling experience for me because in animation everything is so planned, but here, I’m tying a piece of animation to an evening where anything can happen.”
Cantelon, whose film credits include “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “New York, I Love You,” has similar sentiments about the unpredictability of live performance, which he feels adds new layers of meaning to his music. “It’s thrilling to see the notes one has written come to life in dance,” he said. “Plus Laura’s work is extremely musical … her movements become expressions of the notes themselves.”
Unlike Cantelon, whose previous collaborations with dance artists included the late Rudolf Nureyev, Ellis had no previous experience working with choreographers. A landscape painter who participated in the Hammer Museum’s 2007 “Eden’s Edge: 15 L.A. Artists” show, Ellis agreed to the project after watching Helios’ work and finding it “emotionally involving. What she [Gorenstein Miller] does is so in line with what I want my paintings to do, which is to have an emotional impact,” she said.
Gorenstein Miller’s preoccupation with emotional states was on full display at a recent rehearsal, where she instructed her dancers to milk certain movements for vulnerability, foreboding and other qualities. “Take ownership of her,” she told dancer Chris Stanley, who plays “the vampire” in a duet with Melissa Sandvig (a Season 5 finalist in “So You Think You Can Dance.”)
The principal dancer in “Beautiful Monsters,” Sandvig plays “the mortal” who undergoes transformations of death and rebirth. In the duet with Stanley, she approximated lifelessness by dancing with stiff legs and a slack upper body. In a different scene, she performed a series of seductive undulations punctuated by jerking movements intended to evoke a person fighting sleep.
Throughout the rehearsal, Gorenstein Miller, a tall, blond, no-nonsense woman, could discuss exactly what she intended to depict or suggest in every section. “Here’s my homage to flight and soaring,” she noted in one scene. “And here’s where I’m exploring how I can make parts of the human body look like wings.”
“I’m the type of choreographer who doesn’t care to make abstract movement,” she observed in a separate phone interview. “Storytelling is what helps organize my thoughts as a choreographer. I don’t just go into the studio and tell my dancers to start moving. I go in and say, we’re going to do a scene about a girl trying not to fall asleep.”
Ultimately, Gorenstein Miller has her childhood to thank for the creation of “Beautiful Monsters.” Growing up in Milwaukee, she would listen to other kids tell ghost stories and other tall tales in her backyard and “be fascinated. But I’d regret it at night. I had very vivid nightmares and I would sleep with the covers covering my neck so the vampires couldn’t get me,” she said. “I still sleep this way.”
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