Dare to Dance

Interview with Sarah Elgart

0 Screen shot of Lillian Barbeito in "Motherlode" a music video for Angela Luna. Choreographed and directed by Sarah Elgart

“I’m interested in the democratization of dance and theater, and redefining what constitutes a stage—both aesthetically and socially.”

That’s Sarah Elgart speaking, a force of nature who has been at the forefront of dance in L.A. as a choreographer, director and producer for more than three decades. Still model-thin with blue eyes and long blonde hair, Elgart has not only engaged audiences with site-specific projects that have transformed bus terminals, airports and museums into veritable action paintings, but she’s also choreographed for film, commercials and television, working with high-profile directors that include Catherine Hardwicke, David Lynch and J. J. Abrams.

Elgart’s latest effort to democratize dance is the international online film festival, Dare to Dance in Public, which recently launched on Adam Leipzig’s online publication, Cultural Weekly. The idea grew from ScreenDance Diaries, a weekly curated column dealing with the intersections of dance and film that Elgart began writing for Cultural Weekly last December (and is still doing so), as ScreenDance Diaries is also co-presenting this unique festival.

A dance activist, Elgart is encouraging people to take to the streets, film their forays and submit the finished product that will be viewed by a panel of industry judges.

“It’s an idea I’ve had in my head for a long time,” explained Elgart, who worked in various capacities for a number of years with Dance Camera West, the L.A.-based festival dedicated to the junction of cinematography and choreography that was founded in 2002.

“I think that Dare to Dance in Public says exactly what it is,” Elgart continued, “and it also has to do with my own site work. By putting dance in a public space, you democratize the material. You create something, and if it’s integrated into a space where anybody can encounter it, you’re allowing people to come upon something they didn’t know existed. You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Elgart’s numerous site-specific works include, “FlyAway Home,” performed in 2011 and 2012 at the Van Nuys LAX bus station that had a four-story stainless steel scrim, transparent architectural volume, glass elevators and neon balconies.

“It provided a spectacle that if I duplicated on stage, would have cost thousands of dollars,” recalled Elgart. “But because of this site I was able to produce what I did on that scale. And because it was a bus terminal, unsuspecting passengers and audience were able to see it. The whole experience made for a much more democratic form of grand spectacle.”

Elgart also believes that dance is constantly integrated into real life. “When we walk down a public street, in New York or any crowded area, you see a lot of movement that can be [dance] or live like dance.”

Indeed, Elgart explained that she subscribes to a quote from Twyla Tharp who once proclaimed: “Often people come to me and say, ‘I know nothing whatsoever about dance,’ and I’ll say, ‘Stop right there, you got up, you walked over, you’re already an expert.’ All movement is, in fact, dance.”

This idea, noted Elgart, also figures into her earliest lifetime experiences. Born into a family of artists—her father was a painter and art professor at UCLA for more than 30 years; her mother was both a painter and dancer—Elgart referred to herself as an “art baby.”

She added: “Back then art was the religion, and my parents would watch all these art films by Truffaut and Fellini. There were these moments that weren’t choreographed, but looked like dance. These images stayed with me and still inspire me today.

“All of that is there in Dare to Dance. I love the idea that we’re born with an instinct and that dance,” she gushed, “is a life force that lives in us. You see a child before they’re pre-ambulatory and when they hear music they’ll start bopping to it and expressing themselves that way.

“In this country, there aren’t a lot of arenas to dance with abandon, and over the course of a lifetime, as we grow, we get disconnected from that original instinct that lives in us.”

That instinct naturally led Elgart to site work, which holds a visceral appeal for her, one aspect being the notion of responding to architecture and space. “I love painting space with movement and media in order to make magic out of the mundane. Scale and gravity are big preoccupations and I like bringing the highest points of a building or space to the eye at street level and the street level eye to the sky.”

It was the sky that also played a part in Elgart’s 2013 work, “Everywhere Nowhere.” Taking place at LAX’s outdoor courtyard on the arrivals level between terminals 1 and 2, the work featured a score performed live by composer Yuval Ron, with set design (wrapped trees and projected bird imagery), by her husband, visual artist Stephen Glassman.

Elgart, who still takes ballet classes three times weekly and moves with the grace of a gazelle, also performed in that work, which was free to the public, another reason she prefers onsite locations to a theater. And it was in her investigation as a choreographer that she began looking at pedestrian gestures and pedestrian space, which is what ultimately took her off the stage and into the communities, be it working in prisons or with homeless women.

Last January Elgart began writing about the prison experiences she’d had between 1981-1984 in her ScreenDance Diaries column. Called, “Poetry + Murder: My Time with the Manson Women,” these writings grew out of Elgart having taught movement to women in both minimum and maximum security facilities. In the latter, two of the inmates happened to be the notorious murderers, Susan Atkins, who died in 2009, and Patricia Krenwinkel.

“I was young and a professional dancer,” Elgart recalled. “I hadn’t been to women’s prisons before and it scared me, but I was challenged by things I was afraid of, so I went right to it. I was fascinated by these women,” she added, “the way they moved, the way movement was used in the prison—in their carriages. [As for] Susan and Krenny, I wasn’t given a dossier on anyone I was working with, and those classes were the most compelling.”

Elgart said that when she learned Atkins was dying, it deeply affected her. “I had never fully explored how impressionable that period of time was—in my life as an artist, as a creative person. I felt like I had to write about it, and in order to do that I had to go back and visit the prison.”

With her probing mind and generous spirit, in 1990 Elgart founded La Boca Performance Space at the Sunshine Mission Casa de Rosas, one of L.A.’s oldest shelters.

She also worked with MADRES (Mothers and Daughters Reaching Empowered States), a group of transitional homeless women who collaborated with Elgart to create original performance works making use of gesture and raw movement.

All of those experiences, coupled with Elgart’s many gifts and determination, have brought her to Dare to Dance in Public. With her keen eye and natural flair for movement, Elgart said she wants to see films that are raw, with fearless and original performances. The beauty of the project, of course, is that nobody needs to be a professional filmmaker to capture dance in the streets and, conversely, no one needs to be a professional dancer to be the subject.

“I’ll see people standing and dancing on a street corner,” Elgart enthused. “I did a whole piece once, because I’d seen this preacher in downtown L.A. who had a rag over one ear and he would drag one foot and point. He had this way of moving, and I created a dance based on that. That was something I saw in public. If you are involved in dance, you have an eye for movement, whether it’s intended to be dance or not.”

Of course, Elgart not only has a trained eye, but a trained body. In her peripatetic youth, she studied with Martha Graham in New York and also spent a year in Germany in 1978 at the Folkwang Hochschule in Essen. There she soaked up lessons from disciples of choreographers Pina Bausch and Kurt Jooss, spending, she said, “enormous amounts of time researching and watching rehearsals.

“I’d only heard of Pina Bausch,” added Elgart, “but the first time I saw her work in Wuppertal, there was this crowd of people at the opera house and Jan Minarik was sitting with a fishing pole on the steps of the opera house. He looked like what then would have been called a hobo. I’d never seen anything like that—a performance that began outside of the theater.”

Returning to L.A., in 1979, she founded Sarah Elgart and Dancers, a troupe she had for a number of years. At the same time, Elgart was doing choreography for commercials and music videos, and, as of 1986, she had 35 music videos to her credit, working with artists such as Patti LaBelle and Santana.

That work also included choreographing films, a slew in the 1980s, such as Earth Girls are Easy and the still-remembered bomb, Howard the Duck, the latter directed by Willard and Gloria Huyck, the couple that penned American Graffiti.

By 1990, in addition to doing her community work, Elgart disbanded her dance troupe and snagged a job with Disney. Spending the next four years working on The New Mickey Mouse Club, Elgart jump-started a number of careers, casting, among others, Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell and Justin Timberlake.

Creating as if her life depended on it, Elgart formed Sarah Elgart/Arrogant Elbow about eight years ago. In September, 2014, the company opened the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara’s newly launched On Edge Festival with Elgart’s “Follow,” which took place in and around the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and Sunken Gardens. Using movement, media, sound and visual imagery, Elgart explored how human beings are hardwired to follow gurus and ideologies in the face of the unknown.

Several months later Elgart took elements of “Follow” and worked them into a dance film that were projected on the outside walls of the Electric Lodge Performance Arts Center, in Venice, California. That film was an official selection of the Canary Islands-based Festival de Danza de Tacoronte, DanzaTac 2015.

For Elgart, the criteria for a great dance film can be any number of things.

“The content can be remarkably moving, like the [award-winning] documentary Trash Dance, a film about finding beauty and grace in garbage trucks [and in the men and women who pick up the trash]. It’s similar to what I’ve done with special populations.

“The use of space,” Elgart continued, “the interaction with the dance and the camera—all of these things are considered when making a good dance film. It can also be an idea with a great musical score, or finding a great angle on a location and locking the camera down—or moving it. The dance, the cutting, the interaction with song and movement can jump out at you and make its own kind of piece.”

Submissions to Dare to Dance must be performed and shot in a public space, and be no longer than five minutes. They must also be uploaded and viewable online, where they will be judged in four categories: best interface of dance and camera; best original choreography; best use of location; and best overall performance. There is also one Audience Choice Award, which will be determined by the number of YouTube ‘likes’ received from the general public for a single submission.

In addition to herself, Elgart’s esteemed judges are: award-winning director Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, co-directed with Jonathan Dayton); choreographer/US Artists Rockefeller Fellow d. Sabela Grimes; dance agent Julie McDonald; and Tony Testa, who has choreographed for, among others, Janet Jackson and Ariana Grande.

“There are a million ways to skin a cat,” Elgart exclaimed, “and umpteen possibilities from moment to moment. It’s how a filmmaker chooses these moments and their vision is what I’m interested in. It’s about creating an awareness and inspiring people.

“If I can inspire just one person to go out and dance or find dance, that to me is success.  We should challenge ourselves and each other to find dance that lives in real life, and if it doesn’t, then make it, democratize it. I see what I do,” Elgart added, “as a kind of social service, because I think dance is a really important element in life, and people should be persuaded to reconnect with that instinct.”

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