Groundbreaking choreographer Rudy Perez, a trailblazer of postmodern dance, dies at age 93

Rudy Perez
Choreographer Rudy Perez, at 85, in the dance studio at the Westside School of Ballet in 2015.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
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Groundbreaking choreographer Rudy Perez, a pioneer of 1960s postmodern dance, died Friday, according to Sarah Swenson, a fellow choreographer, friend and member of Perez’s company.

Perez died of complications from asthma. He was 93.

Perez’s minimalist but wildly experimental work, marked by spare, precise movements, helped ignite a budding Los Angeles dance scene after he moved west from New York in the late 1970s. L.A.’s open spaces and natural landscapes inspired his innovative, site-specific works; and his interpretive abstract expressionism was so revelatory at the time, it opened up the dance landscape to new approaches.

“He came to L.A. as a major artist, a choreographic genius known for making his own rules,” choreographer Lula Washington told The Times in 2015, adding that Perez was an influence on her. “There was nobody here doing that type of experimentation then. He allowed other people to see the possibilities.”


Perez told The Times that his work sprang from the unconscious.

“Nothing is planned,” he said in 2015. “When I put things together, unconsciously, it comes from my lifetime experience up to that moment. Then ultimately, it turns out to be about something for someone, certainly for me. But I don’t expect for it to be the same for the audience.”

Choreographer Rudy Perez may be 85 and legally blind, but when he strolls along the sidewalks near Hollywood and Vine on a recent afternoon, his vision is crystal clear.

Nov. 6, 2015

For the record:

11:55 a.m. Oct. 2, 2023A previous version of this story said one of Perez’s parents was a Peruvian immigrant. Both his parents were Puerto Rican.

Perez was born Nov. 24, 1929, to Puerto Rican parents, and grew up in East Harlem and the Bronx with three younger brothers. He began improvising on the dance floor at an early age, with cha-cha and the samba, at family gatherings. His father was a merchant marine who traveled frequently; his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 7, at which point he contracted the disease and spent the next three years in the hospital, mostly bedridden.

“I think a lot of the pain you see in some of my work that’s very sort of contained comes from that experience, from being in the hospital and hardly having any visitors,” he once said. “It’s all very suppressed, but it’s there in my work.”

Perez studied with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham in the 1950s, as well as Mary Anthony, but found his voice in New York’s ‘60s-era, avant-garde dance scene. He was part of the experimental collective Judson Dance Theater with Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown.

His first choreographed work, “Take Your Alligator With You” (1963), parodied magazine modeling poses. Three years later, he put together his first solo piece, “Countdown,” which featured Perez in a chair smoking a cigarette. He recalled that initially audiences weren’t sure what to make of his unique form of dance. But eventually, he broke through the largely white dance establishment of the time and won over audiences.

Perez moved to L.A. in 1978 for a yearlong substitute teaching job at UCLA and formed a dance company shortly thereafter.


“In L.A., I felt freer; I was able to go beyond,” he told The Times. “I wanted to get away from the emphasis on dance, and work more with theater and natural movement.”

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Dec. 5, 2022

In recent years, Perez’s vision had been severely impaired due to glaucoma and macular degeneration. He continued working every Sunday with his Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble at the Westside School of Ballet. During the early days of the COVID pandemic, several dancers in Perez’s ensemble kept the workshop going over Zoom. They have since moved it to MNR Dance Factory in Brentwood.

“Rudy was so pleased that we continued the workshop,” said Anne Grimaldo, who danced in Perez’s ensemble for 35 years. “Even when his eyesight was going, [Perez] could still ‘see’ like a fine-toothed comb. He’d say, ‘point your toes.’ ... He could see everything with extreme detail.”

Shortly after she graduated with her master’s degree in dance from UCLA in 1988, Grimaldo met one of Perez’s dancers at an audition. He told her to come to his class. Grimaldo hesitated; she had heard Perez had a reputation for being tough. She eventually ended up going. “Right away he said he wanted me in the company,” Grimaldo said. “And I never left.”

A man looks on as a dancer practices.
Rudy Perez, rehearsing with his dance ensemble in 2015, at the Westside School of Ballet.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

“Rudy changed all of our lives,” Grimaldo added. The workshop “wasn’t just dance: It was theater, it was choreography, it was improvisation. It was up to a performance level and professional. You didn’t sit down during a break and lean against the bar. When we first started out we’d always wear black. And the company was very tight. It was like a collaboration with all of us and Rudy and his direction.”


“Rudy was a titan of minimalist movement,” Swenson said, “achieved by just being himself, unique in his approach and product. Fierce and demanding in the studio, he secretly had a tender heart, and I’ll miss that more than anything.”

Perez insisted his dancers take Pilates, Grimaldo added. “Now I’m a Pilates instructor,,” she said. “I met my husband, Jeff, in the company and we have a daughter. ... I mean, everything I do and what I have is because of Rudy and my connection with him.”

Throughout his career, Perez created dozens of pieces, including work for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. He was also a teacher whose influence — at the USC School of Dramatic Arts and the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, among other places — lives on in generations of choreographers and dancers.

Dance critic Lewis Segal told The Times that Perez’s vision sparked “a real firestorm in L.A.” in the late ‘70s. “Teaching it and choreographing [in his style], he made a difference,” Segal said. He added: “It encouraged people to really go with their instincts, to go for broke.”

Rudy Perez brings us into a day of rehearsal in L.A., offering insight into what makes movement work.

Nov. 6, 2015

In November 2015, UC Irvine presented Perez with a lifetime achievement award during “The Art of Performance in Irvine: A Tribute to Rudy Perez.” Perez’s dance ensemble debuted work there that he’d choreographed for the event: the three-piece performance “Slate in Three Parts.” A month later, Colburn School restaged Perez’s 1983 piece “Cheap Imitation.”

Among his many honors, Perez was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and L.A.’s the Music Center/Bilingual Foundation’s ¡Viva Los Artistas! Performing Arts Award. He held honorary doctorates from the Otis College of Art and Design in L.A. and the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, and his archives are part of the USC Libraries’ Special Collections.


“I’ve been very fortunate,” Perez said in 2015 of his long-running career. “I’ve always been told, ‘Grow old gracefully’ — and I’m good at that. At this stage of my life, sure, it’s hard, but I’m striving for excellence. I wanna go out with a flash.”

He is survived by his brother Richard Perez, his niece Linda Perez, and nephews Stephen and Anthony Perez, as well as his longtime friend and caregiver James Kovacs, numerous former Rudy Perez Ensemble Members, collaborators, and friends. A memorial for Perez is being planned.

Times arts editor Paula Mejía contributed to this report.