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An Interview with Laura Karlin of Invertigo Dance Theatre

by Jessica Abrams
October 16, 2014
Jessica Abrams: Tell me about this experiment and how this is such a big departure not only from what you do, but also from what normally happens in Los Angeles in terms of dance?

Laura Karlin: So, we are trying this grand experiment of having a three-week run of the show ["After It Happened", at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles] and we're having nine performances total over three weekends and really the biggest goal was to start a conversation around how dance is presented in Los Angeles and really to see if we could maybe expand the paradigm of how we think about presenting dance here because I really think that, well, there's nothing wrong with a show that lasts one or two nights, but I think that having the option – of having it on the menu – to do a longer run is so valuable. It allows you to deepen the relationship with the art that you're creating, and just having the dancers and the musicians… just really everyone has learned so much. I can see from week to week the show evolving in a way that's really satisfying and really lovely to see. But it also allows us to deepen our relationship with audiences and with the press. Just the idea of giving the press three weeks is very meaningful to them and also allows word of mouth to really develop; and that's been the biggest thing that we've found – that we've gotten word of mouth, and you have to have a longer run in order for that to happen.

JA: Tell me a little about the community outreach work that you've been doing to get people in.

LK: We've really done as much work as we could – although I really wish we had more resources to allow us to do more. We're bringing in a group from Inner-City Arts [A leading arts education provider in the heart of LA's Skid Row]. I taught master classes at Pierce College and Santa Monica College and with Contemporary Modern Dance Collective and we partnered with Culver City High School's Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. It was really great – we actually had for the whole second weekend a group of high school dancers come in and perform a five-minute pre-show for "After It Happened". It was called "Yesterday's Tomorrow" and it was choreographed by Sadie Yarrington who is a dancer in the piece and one of our leading teaching artists for our education program. And it was great because I love giving younger dancers the chance to be on a professional stage and to see what that feels like because it can really be magic for them; but it also allowed us to reach out to audiences that wouldn't necessarily connect with us otherwise, and it felt like a real win-win for everyone, and that's what you want with community outreach.

JA: Let's talk about your inspiration for the piece.

LK: In 2011, I was in Barcelona and we saw this photography exhibit of a photographer who had been in Haiti about a year after the earthquake had hit, and it was so compelling to see a community after most of the cameras were gone, after the initial shock had passed, to see this community on this tipping point of rebuilding and at the same time having settled into a new version of normal. I just came out of this photography exhibit and sat down and wrote for about an hour while my very understanding husband went and did something else for a while. A bunch of images had stuck with me and actually informs what happens within this piece in a very, very direct way. There were kids playing soccer—it may have been grown-ups. It was just a group of people playing soccer, some of whom were missing limbs – but they were playing soccer and it wasn't about anything other than getting that ball. And there were kids playing and blowing bubbles amidst what was very obviously wreckage. And there were images of grief and trauma, but there were also images of play and of intimacy and hope. There was one image of a woman who had cut holes in this blue tarp. I don't remember if it's the Red Cross or UNICEF or who it is that brings in these blue tarps, but you see them in photographs of natural disaster sites – but seeing the blue tarps creating roofs and then seeing this woman who had cut a couple of holes in it and is wearing this blue tarp. For her, I'm sure it was very functional, but she's also wearing this amazing straw hat and she's turned her head to the side you just see her hands folded across her belly. She looks so dignified and elegant and fragile and strong and beautiful and that's actually the inspiration behind the dress that you see in the show which is made entirely out of blue trash bags and packing tape. And if you watch on the side throughout the show you see the dancer building the dress – I mean, she doesn't actually build it; it took our costume designer like eighteen hours to do. But it's the idea that women find a way to feel beautiful in almost any situation and children find a way to play and we all find a way to grieve, whether it's in a very external and aggressive way or a very internal, private way. So there just seemed like there was such a breath of possibility in this context.

JA: Can you talk a little bit about your influences and background as a dancer?

LK: In the dance world I'm really influenced by the dance theatre that was coming out of Europe when I was in my early twenties, so about ten years ago. Pina Bausch, Jasmin Vardimon I find to be a great inspiration. Charlotte Vincent, who is an incredibly strong choreographer and really integrates her performers, whether they're actors, dancers, musicians (that's an element that you see in this show a lot). Wim Vandekeybus from Ultima Vez. Those are the primary dance influences. I'm also really influenced by LA Contemporary Dance Company and Kate Hutter, as well as Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Burkett of BODYTRAFFIC just in the way that these people – and I think significantly these women – are running companies in Los Angeles. I really respect that they pay their dancers. It was one of the reasons I founded my company – in order to pay artists as fairly as possible which is why we pay our dancers an hourly rate for rehearsal and they are paid a performance stipend.

JA: Who are some other influences?

LK: I went to college at Cornell University, which is a very Cunningham-based school and did not find my home in Cunningham but was lucky to find what my voice as developing into and when I went to England in the middle of university and after university. It felt like coming home to a place where people were doing stuff that gave me a language for what I was trying to do. I was already trying to make dance theatre.

JA: It's Dance Theatre – that's how you would classify it?

LK: What I do is contemporary dance, but I think contemporary dance can mean a lot of things and it increasingly means everything and nothing at the same time; and what I do is so theatrical, whether or not people are speaking on stage (which they do in this show). But we always have a context for a sense of character or at the very least some sort of narrative, whether it's fractured or not. I'm not making ballets – I'm not coming in with a beginning, middle and end – but I think I'm at my weakest as a choreographer when I just have to structure bodies on stage without some sort of idea or theatrical root for it. I so admire choreographers who can imagine these elaborate stage set-ups and these exquisite developments of movement through space – I really enjoy it – but dancers as architecture, it's not what I make. I work best when I have a strong sense of the theatrical rooting of the scene or the theatrical context, and the kinetic impulses behind that.

JA: Can you talk a little bit about collaboration and your process?

LK: I work deeply, deeply collaboratively with the people that are in the room with me. I think the most important thing I do as the choreographer and the director is to get these amazing people in a room together — the dancers, the musicians, the set and costume designers – and everything has to integrate and I'm just really lucky that I have the people that I do who are willing to really go deeply into the process. In this show, everything is really, really integrated – to the point where one of the dancers, Hyosun [Choi] also plays cello in the piece. She's extraordinary – they're all extraordinary – but Hyosun is extraordinary to the point where if I needed to replace Hyosun I would need to hire both a cellist and a professional dancer. And she moves so seamlessly between the two roles. It's really funny because my musical director and I have custody battles over her. And then there's Diana, who's a vocalist and has the most beautiful voice and she also plays twelve kinds of percussion that are on stage and she has a scene where she has to act and remember lines and do choreography and she just stepped so willingly and enthusiastically into this role that really stretches her. And all of the dancers have to sing in the show. A couple of them have monologues.

JA: Did you audition them with that in mind, or were these company members who just happened to also be good singers and actors?

LK: I don't hire anyone because they can sing. We've never had a show where they've had to sing before. I hire people based on their willingness to stretch and to explore and to view challenges as an adventure. So like in comedy the rule is, you say 'Yes, and?" – that's kind of what I look for in a performer. Someone who will say "Yes, and?" – and that doesn't mean that they come into the company knowing that they are gifted actors. In some cases it's about finding out that they play cello — discovering a talent that they already have locked down and just there; and in other cases it's about seeing what they could be and giving them permission to grow into the space that you know they can fill.

JA: And that must allow you, within the creative process, to expand their role, when you see that they can handle it.

LK: Yeah. I'm a believer that my biggest job is to get the room full of the right people, and my second biggest job is to hold that space and to give permission and to give support for that. And beyond that, of course I do bring in movement and I do bring in ideas, but I think the biggest thing you can do is create the kind of environment and create the kind of company culture that's based on trust and respect and love of storytelling and a commitment to the craft of what we do. And that's what will translate to an experience on stage. Telling a story that's worth telling and telling it in a way that's worthy of the story. This is a story that I think is worth telling. It's both universal and deeply personal and I think that it's probably quite timely which is scary but true – and I think it's something we've either experienced in some way or are afraid of experiencing or that we have empathized with other people for experiencing. I think everyone has experienced loss to some degree and to know that there is a possibility to rebuild and the human capacity of creating hope and light and song in dark times is something worth celebrating even as we acknowledge the trauma.

JA: Thank you so much, Laura Karlin.
Laura Karlin

Laura Karlin

Photo © & courtesy of Joe Lambie

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