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Entertainment & Arts

How a queer-centric, Alan Turing-inspired dance made it to an L.A. stage

Invertigo Dance Theatre at the Broad Stage
Dancers from Invertigo Dance Theatre rehearse the world premiere of “Formulae & Fairy Tales” at the Broad Stage.
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Choreographer Laura Karlin first envisioned “Formulae & Fairy Tales” while driving around L.A. in 2007. She was listening to an NPR interview with Janna Levin about the novel “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines,” in which Levin compares the lives and tragic ends of eccentric geniuses Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing.

Raised in L.A., Karlin made frequent visits to England growing up and was familiar with Turing, the British artificial intelligence pioneer. But in that moment, something else clicked, and flashes of choreography flooded her mind. She pulled her car over and began filling pages of ideas including a duet where two men share a bite of the same apple and series of binary code-inspired gestures.

That same year, Karlin founded Invertigo Dance Theatre. But she wasn’t quite ready to make the Turing-focused work.

“I didn’t really have the infrastructure within my artistic practice to make it happen for a long time, and I also shied away from it,” Karlin, 36, said while crew members worked through rehearsal at a Loyola Marymount University theater.

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The idea stuck, though. And 12 years later, after continuing to raise her company’s profile in L.A., “Formulae & Fairy Tales” will make its world premiere Friday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The company will tour the piece in 2020.

“Formulae & Fairy Tales” grapples with the life of Turing, the mathematician and cryptanalyst whose code-breaking work during World War II saved millions of lives. The work also makes a whimsical connection to Turing’s love of Disney’s 1937 film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Invertigo dance theatre rehearse
“Formulae & Fairy Tales” makes its world premiere at the Broad Stage.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As a gay man living in an era in which homosexual relations were illegal, Turing was persecuted by his government and chose chemical castration over jail in 1952. He died two years later after eating a cyanide-laced apple. (Turing received a royal pardon in 2013.)

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Karlin emphasized that it’s not “Alan Turing, the ballet.” And although the work has the potential to be esoteric, “we really wanted this to be inviting to a wide array of people ... without being condescending or overly simplified,” she said.

Karlin began working on material about 10 years after her initial spark. The goal then wasn’t to create a show. Karlin expected to end her three-week intensive with 10 to 20 minutes of choreography, but instead she and her dancers created nearly an hour of work.

The dance explores the idea of the binary — both in computer language ones and zeros and in life.

“We have male and female. We have gay and straight. We have right and wrong,” Karlin said. “This commitment to binary is something I’ve questioned for a really long time, partly because I’m queer and straight-passing.”

She began inviting others into the process — LGBTQ activists and computer scientists and mathematicians who helped develop formulas based on Turing’s work to use in the show’s set design. Working with one researcher, she helped to solidify a section inspired by Turing’s theory on morphogenesis, which describes how natural patterns such as spirals form.

“We’re not making work that touches different communities without integrated discussion and engagement,” she said.

Inclusion and equity are among the company’s guiding principles, Karlin said, noting she gives her cast of seven dancers choreographic credit for “Formulae & Fairy Tales.”

“We pay all of our dancers as employees, and that is something that is rare for a dance company of our size in Los Angeles,” Invertigo Executive Director David Mack said. “That’s the value Laura had very early on because she wants to — as much as she can — support the voices of the dancers and support sustainability.”

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For the Broad Stage’s director of artistic planning, Eric Bloom, Invertigo Dance Theatre is “a really important company within the local dance ecology for the last decade.” Bloom was interested in presenting Karlin’s work because of her “authenticity and passion for not only her own work but just the local dance scene in general,” he said.

Two men dance the “apple duet,” in an embrace and both biting into the same apple.
The “apple duet” from Invertigo Dance Theatre’s “Formulae & Fairy Tales”
(George Simian)

One of the show’s highlights is the “apple duet” — a piece that looks almost exactly how Karlin first envisioned it in 2007.

Passionate and intimate, two dancers stay connected through holding a bite of the same shiny red apple, moving around the stage with the fruit in their mouths. The apple makes many appearances throughout the show, including in a queer take on the fairy tales “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White.”

“With the apple duet, our hope is to allow a moment for that bite of apple, which is deeply tragic because it leads to the loss of this incredible man and mind,” Karlin said. “But to allow it also to be a moment of redemption and reclamation.”

Invertigo Dance Theatre's 'Formulae & Fairy Tales"
Where: Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Admission: $49-$79
Info: thebroadstage.org

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