Dancing across gender roles

David Parsons' in-progress dance piece, "EK90," officially celebrates the 90th birthday of a world-renowned artist. But to Parsons, it represents the birth of a movement — one that's grown fitfully over the years and now looks to have more momentum than ever.

Last year, photographer Jack Shear commissioned a piece from Parsons in honor of his longtime partner, Ellsworth Kelly. With gay rights winning battles in both the United States and abroad, the topic came easily enough.

"EK90," which Parsons Dance will perform Sept. 5 and 6 at the Laguna Dance Festival, tells a coming-of-age story of a boy and a girl who eschew traditional gender roles. The sequence begins in early childhood, as the boy finds himself weak at sports and the girl shows indifference to dolls, then segues into adolescence, a violent confrontation and an ending that the choreographer won't reveal just yet.

Shear could not be reached for comment, but Parsons called "EK90" a symbol of society's increased acceptance of a once — and often still — marginalized group.

"This piece is about the inevitability that it's gonna come," the New York-based Parsons said. "It's gonna roll, and you're just gonna have to deal with it."

To craft the piece, which Parsons dubbed a "miniature screenplay," he enlisted the help of a genuine screenwriter: his friend Neil Cuthbert, whose credits include "Mystery Men" and "The Adventures of Pluto Nash." And like many screenplays, "For EK90" may go through multiple revisions: Parsons plans to officially premiere it in New York in January, which means it may change before and after its stop in Laguna.

"EK90," featuring music by Steve Reich, is one of several works on the docket for the ninth annual Laguna Dance Festival. The event at the Laguna Playhouse comprises five days of master classes, talks and performances by Parsons Dance and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

This year marks the festival's third time at the Laguna Playhouse, where it moved after making its previous home at the Artists Theatre. Founder and artistic director Jodie Gates, who has hosted both Parsons and Aspen Santa Fe before, called diversity a key part of the event, especially in an arts-heavy city.

"The festival really suits Laguna Beach," she said. "It's tailor-made for Laguna Beach. It really completes the artistic recipe in the community."

Among the other Parsons Dance works at this year's festival are "Caught," a strobe-lit piece that the choreographer introduced in 1982, and "Round My World," an abstract six-person dance that centers on the theme of globalization. The latter piece, featuring music by cellist Zoe Keating, will have its West Coast premiere in Laguna.

Aspen Santa Fe, which is based in Colorado and New Mexico, will present three works: Trey McIntyre's "Like a Samba," Jorma Elo's "Over Glow" and Alejandro Cerrudo's "Last."

It won't be the first time the company has crossed paths with Parsons Dance. According to executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty, Aspen Santa Fe has commissioned a piece from Parsons and has some of his work in its repertoire.

Even still, Malaty considers the companies largely different — Parsons Dance heavily modern, Aspen Santa Fe rooted in classical ballet. The two styles, he said, complement each other.

"That's why it's great programming," Malaty said. "People will see two companies side by side."

If You Go

What: Laguna Dance Festival

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: Sept. 4 through 8

Cost: $60 for adults, $35 for students for performances (master classes sold out)

Information: (949) 715-5578 or lagunadancefestival.org

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