FOR EVERY CHOREOGRAPHER the prospect of presenting his or her first full evening of work represents a thrilling and terrifying creative milestone. This month choreographer Dana Lawton “takes the plunge” with the premiere of her first self-produced show at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. A beloved dance educator who has inspired and nurtured countless young artists through her teaching at St. Mary’s College and Shawl Anderson Dance Center, Lawton is also an accomplished dance maker whose work has been seen at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, West Wave Dance Festival, Women on the Way Festival, and numerous other local venues. Bringing together a dynamic team of collaborators and dance artists, she is creating a piece that is both a culmination and new beginning.
A founding member of my original company, Janice Garrett & Dancers, Lawton has graced my life with her ebullience and spirited artistry. I sat down with her recently to discuss the unfolding of her choreographic journey and her upcoming show, Beyond this Moment.
Janice Garrett: Having worked for years creating individual pieces how does it feel to be tackling a full evening of work?
Dana Lawton: The biggest challenge for me has been developing a cohesive thematic thread. The question I had to ask myself throughout the process was, “Is this one story or a series of poems?” I believe I have done a bit of both. Thematic movement material is introduced at the beginning and each dancer has a distinct gesture/phrase, but as the piece unfolds those gestures/phrases become shared vocabulary. This is a metaphor for how we influence each other and develop a common language that connects us to one another.
JG: Tell us about this production and the impulses and ideas that are driving it.
DL: I am inspired by my beautiful dancers to showcase their individuality and talents as movers. Each is so distinct in how they tackle movement ideas and express themselves physically. The dancers range in age from 24-58, so each is at a very different place in their lives, both personally and physically. This approach creates richness to the human experience and I am able to explore concepts. For example if we are working on Ashes, a section about loss/death/mortality, each person will have a different relationship to the concept based on their life experience.
JG: What in particular has inspired you to make this piece?
DL: It’s selfish really. I want to be in the same room with my dancers and musicians as much as possible. The best way to do that is to have a BIG project and rehearse all the time. Also, I felt ready to delve into aspects of myself and make connections regarding the ways in which I look at and experience the world. Ashes is about a deep loss for a woman I loved, whereas Yoshi’s Cake is a birthday present for a friend. Meditative, sweet, bitter, grieving, celebratory… the emotional tapestry of my life strung together.
JG: In every artist’s life, there are critical junctures that reflect a lot about who they are as both artist and individual. This project seems to be one of these “junctures.” Will you talk about the significance of this production to you both personally and professionally?
DL: I earned tenure at St. Mary’s and don’t have to prove to the College that I am a working artist, the College knows/believes I am. Professionally, this comes at a time where I am secure and feel lucky to have the opportunity to explore. This new place in my life creates the space to focus on my artistic side. In past years I have also become inspired by peers Randee Paufve and Nina Haft, who work in the Collegiate world but also make exciting, inspiring, well-crafted work. I was curious to challenge myself on both a professional level (Can I afford this? Will the dancers maintain interest throughout the whole process?) and the personal level (Am I in the studio making meaningful dance?)
JG: Tell me about the timing on this project. It seems like this is a very timely undertaking for you. What is it about this particular time in your life that has given birth to this show?
DL: The stars lined up. I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical from teaching and thought this would be a perfect opportunity to really delve into the process of dance making. I have a devoted group of dancers who were all willing to go on this journey with me and some funding came in from St. Mary’s. My children are older so I don’t have to be home as much as when they were babies and can spend more time in the studio and my husband, Jon Lawton, is part of the musical process so we get to work together. It’s been a gift.
JG: You’ve always nurtured a sense of community in your creative and personal life. With this project, you’ve brought together a very special group of collaborators and dancers. Tell us about the artists you’ve chosen to work with and what compelled you to engage each of them in this particular production.
DL: Community has been a huge focus in all aspects of my life. In every class I teach I ask the dancers to turn to some they don’t know and say, “hello,” this creates a sense of belonging and connection to others cultivating engagement rather than competition. In recent years my choreographic process has included either live music and/or original composition. I worked with my brother, Sean McCue, and his musical partner, Michelle Beauchesne, for the duet Inside. It was a tremendously satisfying experience. Jon has played music off and on with Bill Flores, a tremendously talented musicians currently on tour with Jeff Bridges. Each has their own distinct style of music and I wanted to bring them all together to see what they would compose. I love the diversity of bluegrass, blues, classical and indie rock and it has been incredible to watch them find a cohesive musical score that both celebrates individuality and the collective whole.
JG: Can you share a bit about the contribution that these other artists are making to the piece? I’m curious how you work with your collaborators and the role that they play in both the making and performing of the work.
DL: Musically I knew there were specific songs I was interested in using for the piece. That was easy. However, there were sections I choreographed without music and asked the musicians to watch and improvise. This would go on for several hours until organically, through exploration, dancers input, and my feedback we would come to a decision that made sense structurally for the section and the whole of the piece. I will admit there were times working with the musicians and the dancers that I felt like I was trying to speak different languages. The musicians got better at translating my interpretive dancing into musical notation and the dancers learned to count 6s, 5s, 7s over 8-count measures.
JG: Any sense of a next step after this? Where do you think this project might lead you?
DL: Dana Lawton Dances has been invited to perform in France next summer at an arts festival. Touring, that’s the next step. I feel confident that we will all still like each other by the end of the show so I have no doubt traveling together will only deepen our bond.
Beyond this Moment will perform at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave, Berkeley, on Oct 3-5, 8pm and Oct 5, 3pm. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com/event/414803. More information at danalawtondances.org.