Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Everybody Dance at the Stone House

This past Wednesday I witnessed 45 remarkable minutes of dance…and 60 of the performers didn’t know the steps when they showed up at noon for the 12:35 show. Louise Reichlin’s LA Choreographers & Dancers have been partnering with groups of local students to create Dance at the Stone House at the Sun Valley Youth Arts Center for three years now, and each performance is truly a miraculous achievement in communication, mathematics, spatial organization, time management, community building, education, and most certainly, dance.

Inspired by the architecture, artwork and history of the SV Youth Arts Center or “Stone House,” built in 1925 and classified as a City Cultural Historical Monument, the dance comes with some assembly required. It all happens in a 45 minute whirlwind of meticulously choreographed activity that culminates in a performance involving five company dancers (Danielle Catone, Samantha Hoe, Steven Nielsen, Sung-Yun Park and Katya Sussman) and, at the noon show on Wednesday, 60 fourth and sixth graders from Rockdale Elementary School.

Students emerge from the buses already grouped in eights or tens – the lumberjacks, the logs, the stonecutters, the swimmers, the animals, the musicians – and team spirit blossoms almost immediately. Musicians arrive at the seating area jamming on their air guitars, drums and keyboards and, in true cool musician style, kick it in the back row. A swimmer sits by me with the rest of his aquatic friends and, after inspecting some ocean-themed tiles made by young artists here at the center, yells out his decision: “a killer whale!”

During the next half hour of controlled chaos, the groups disperse to gather inspiration for their movement inside the Stone House and to work with company dancers onstage in carefully staggered five minute intervals. I get to be an honorary log, and while exploring the house we discover lots of ways that we logs secretly support and form the framework for the stone masonry. Stepping back outside, I catch sight of lumberjacks stomping after Nielsen across the outdoor performing space, taking a few menacing whacks mid-air, and shouting “TIM-BER” in surprising unison. Unfazed by this threatening display, the other logs boldly follow Sussman into the stage area to learn their movement. Dropping down into low lunges, they become floorboards, and when they reach heads and arms into gently sloping curves they recall the wooden window arches.

I love how much Reichlin and her dancers expect of their young collaborators. In five to ten minutes of rehearsal, each group learns where to “pre-set” before the dance begins, a cue for entering, and several eight-counts of movement that travels in a specified spatial pathway. (Don’t ask me how the grown-up dancers keep track of these discrete parts while teaching them out of order and context. It’s still a mystery.) But because there’s so much to be done in so little time, the kids have to call upon their best problem solving skills – negotiating space with their neighbors and finding ways to do the movement, like a tricky kick and roll up off the floor, that work for them.

During the practice “mark through” we first glimpse the dance as a whole and begin to believe that all these parts could, possibly, fit together. When students see how their movement weaves through the company dancers’ cartwheels, jumps, complex floor patterns and fancy footwork, their focus intensifies in preparation for the final performance. And they do it! The music starts, Reichlin’s dancers tread several quick passes through the space, and lumberjacks move into position for their big entrance. Swaggering onstage, their nervous grins widen as their chops, felling only imaginary trees during rehearsal, now cause Park to tip backward and topple to the floor. Later on, when logs bow their heads to form arches, stonecutters haul their heavy burdens down an assembly line and then slather, slather, slather the rocks to the wooden frame with cement. Swimmers swish and animals crawl curving paths through the space, and musicians join in for a Mardi Gras-style parade – inspired by a painting inside the Stone House – before everyone takes a bow.

I’m sure all involved would offer their thanks to Los Angeles Cultural Affairs and the LA County Arts Commission for making this amazing program financially feasible in such tough economic times. And of course, thank you to Louise Reichlin and LA Choreographers & Dancers for modeling the tremendous collaboration that’s possible when professional and budding artists come together for even three quarters of an hour.

Photo of previous Dance at the Stone House performance by Steve Fobalvarro

Used with permission of:

© Louise Reichlin, Los Angeles Choreographers & Dancers

© Department of Cultural Affairs, Sun Valley Youth Arts Center

All rights reserved.

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