The Kelly-Strayhorn Theater continues an exciting season of dance with a new evening-length piece by choreographer and UCLA dance professor, Lionel Popkin. For two nights, this Friday and Saturday, Popkin and his dancers will perform his latest work, “Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”
Having grown up with an Indian and Jewish background, many of Popkin’s works have explored his own heritage. When his last three dances included Indian imagery, he decided to ask himself, “Why does this keep coming up?” Thus began the choreographic process of “Ruth...”
In addition to a good bit of self-exploration, Popkin looked at other contemporary choreographers who were working similarly. Eventually he traced his research all the way back to Ruth St. Denis, a modern dancer who created notable work at the turn of the century, all the way through the early 1960s. Once considered a “pioneer” of the art form, most scholars now think of her work as cultural appropriation.
St. Denis became interested in Eastern art early in her career. Although her work was quite stereotypical and inauthentic, she gained a large audience and made a name for herself in modern dance history.
Popkin’s research led him to the St. Denis archives, where he spent time going through her journals, old programs, and “kits” she used to notate and sell her dances. He learned that she had a strong connection to her main costume designer, and maintained relationships with all her behind-the-scenes collaborators.
Out of the research came movement exploration. Popkin and his two dancers created physical metaphors for what they had found. From St. Denis’s kits, they followed her dance descriptions, but used present day styles rather than copying her movement exactly. From there, Popkin says he became “freed from the historical data.”
As a choreographer, it was important to him to create something for an audience that may or may not be familiar with St. Denis. “The piece isn’t about her,” he says. “She is a conduit, hence the title.”
Throughout “Ruth...” Indian themes emerge mainly in the costuming, set and text. As for Popkin’s Jewish heritage, that comes through in the music, a live score of accordion and violin.
While Popkin had expected to feel judgmental of St. Denis, he surprised himself by coming out of the choreographic process with more understanding. He says, “She had an incredibly impressive career that very few women of her generation could have sustained. She fell into an artistic path and stuck to it.”
As for his conclusions about St. Denis's work, he wisely says, “It’s easier to come down on one side or another, but it’s more nuanced than that...the truth lies somewhere in between.”
Lionel Popkin presents “Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”
March 15th & 16th at 8:00 p.m.
Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Avenue, in East Liberty
For ticket information, click HERE. Prices vary.