In partnership with The Original Farmers Market, TARFEST and Launch/LA, Laurie Sefton will present three performances of BREATHE, A Drive-In Dance Event in the north market parking lot on Friday, October 2, 2020. Performances will occur at 7:00pm, 8:00pm and 9:00pm. BREATHE will feature choreography by Sefton, an original score performed live by Bryan Curt Kostors and Lighting by Dan Weingarten. Sefton is the Artistic Director of Clairobscur Dance.

I reached out to Sefton to find out more about the genesis of the work and the performance and she agreed to a telephone interview. Fortunately for Sefton, the performances sold out within 72 hours after tickets went on sale, but I chose to go forward with the interview because of the theme behind BREATHE.

Sefton took part in the survey that I did on the effects of the pandemic on dance in Los Angeles. Part of her initial response to everything shutting down was not to rush into producing work online and decided that doing so was not for her. She waited for an inspiration to come and when it did, she did not hesitate to act. She related that she was busier now than before the pandemic and working on several projects at once which includes working with a number of other leaders in the LA Dance Community on an organization to bring more funding and visibility to the multicultural landscape that is the Los Angeles dance community. This not only a result of the COVID pandemic shutdown, but also in reaction to the State of California’s Assembly Bill 5 (AB5). Another part of this organization that she and Mack found themselves pivoting toward was finding a way of dismantling racism in the field of dance.

“As we had some very, very contentious, difficult, emotional conversations, it’s led all of us to look at ourselves and where we come from and who we are, and deal with the systemic racism that we have been indoctrinated into in this country,” Sefton said. “The white supremacist ideal that has been indoctrinated into us since we were children.”

BREATHE by Laurie Sefton - Dancer Merritt Miller - Photo by Laura Jane Williamson

BREATHE by Laurie Sefton – Dancer Merritt Miller – Photo by Laura Jane Williamson

Earlier this year Sefton shared with me an experience that she had when she first left her home at the beginning of the pandemic. Suddenly she felt that she could not breathe and for the first time in her life experienced a panic attack. She reminded me of this during our interview.

“This whole piece is about the shortness of breath and that George Floyd was suffocated,” Sefton said.  At a time when we all are thinking about breathing and wearing masks, Sefton said that she hears people say ‘just take a deep breath’ when talking about the difficulties of wearing masks.  “And that is the most loaded word right now!”

BREATHE is about all of the above and she struggled about putting those ideas in with the problems with the postal system, politics voting, the man in the White House and how he is not helping Americans, and new things every day that 2020 seems to be placing before us.

“This is the moment for artists to make people look, to make people think, to see, to reflect what is going on in society,” Sefton stressed. She does not feel that this is a time to be making work that simply entertains. We discussed how some artists’ practice is not built on issue based work, but often built on purely emotional, physical or intellectual ideas. Making kinetic work that moves beyond entertainment or “pure movement” but takes on what is happening in the world around us is not easy. It not only takes time, but a particular talent to train one’s dancers to express these issues without simply mimicking gestures.

Zoom rehearsal for BREATHE by Laurie Sefton - Photo courtesy of the artist.

Zoom rehearsal for BREATHE by Laurie Sefton – Photo courtesy of the artist.

BREATHE will be performed in a parking lot with the audience sitting in their cars, insuring that they are safely distanced from the performers and each other. Sefton said for a long time she has been thinking about different ways to have an audience listen to music during a performance other than simply sitting there with the music being played through the theater’s speakers.

“The reason I decided to do this piece as a drive-in was not simply because it was the popular thing to do,” Sefton said, “but because I had this really specific idea about how I wanted the audience members to hear music.” She has been in discussion with her composer, Bryan Curt Kostors, and others and they are creating a new way to make this happen and although Sefton did not want to go into details for this article, I could hear in her voice that she is extremely excited about this particular project. It is a way to make dance more interactive without having the audience join the dancers onstage. Her new idea will not be unveiled at the premiere of BREATHE, but at a future project.

Kostors’ original music score for BREATHE will be performed live and broadcast via an FM radio station accessible to each car, but the audience will be taking part in the performance by lending their headlights into the lighting.

“It’s not just to turn their headlights on and then enjoy the show,” Sefton emphasized. “ Her Lighting Designer Dan Weingarten has devised a way to cue the audience when to their car lights on, when to turn them off and when to use their high beams. The audience will be active participants in lighting the performance.

BREATHE by Laurie Sefton - Dancer Dominique McDougal - Photo courtesy of the artist.

BREATHE by Laurie Sefton – Dancer Dominique McDougal – Photo courtesy of the artist.

Sefton explained that approximately 90% of the work was choreographed one-on-one with the dancers on Zoom. There were a few rehearsals when more than one dancer was learning the material but still on Zoom and each dancer in the safety of their own home. Because I know a little more now about how Zoom works and the problems that come along with it, I questioned Sefton on the hurdles she faced choreographing and working with her dancers during rehearsals for BREATHE. She said that it had been both a positive and challenging experience.

“Last week we started a two week intensive rehearsal period with the entire group,” Sefton explained. “ I went into rehearsal last week with only phrase work and 30 minutes’ worth of music – 28 minutes and change worth of music – to create an entire piece.” She started on a Tuesday and by that Saturday Sefton stated that she had most of the work done. Needless to say, she was extremely organized prior to rehearsals beginning.

BREATHE by Laurie Sefton - Dancer Leah Hamel - Photo courtesy of the artist.

BREATHE by Laurie Sefton – Dancer Leah Hamel – Photo courtesy of the artist.

The dancers performing in BREATHE are Ellen Akashi, Camila Arana, Leah Hamel, Ava Gordy, Dominique McDougal. and Alejandro (Aleks) Perez. Due to the subject matter of this work focused on the protests following the murder of George Floyd, Sefton had one-on-one discussions with her cast. She asked them about their experiences and if they had gone to the protests. She wanted to know how they felt about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. One of her dancers is a black male and so Sefton asked him how he felt about being in this work choreographed by a white woman, and his relationship with her being a white woman and his being a black man.

“We had discussions about our working relationship and respect and race!” Sefton said. “Really honest, hard discussions like this with every single dancer in the group outside rehearsal – one-on-one and personal.” She had one-on-one discussions with them about COVID, whether or not they had been out of the house or if they had seen anyone. She asked them questions about the rehearsal environment and process. If they would be ok touching or prefer not touching. During these talks Sefton was adamant that she was going to keep them safe and that they would be wearing masks and outside – no in-studio rehearsals.

Sefton admitted that having made the material for BREATHE on Zoom speaks more to the vision of the work than if she had made it in a studio. The dancers were living their stay-at-home experience as they were learning the work. She said that this experience had been fascinating too because of seeing the dancers in their home environment and how they react differently to her than they do during in-person rehearsal in the studio.

On the subject of space, the challenge of rehearsing a dance in one’s living room which has limited space in which to move is extremely limited is one thing, but the space in the Farmers Market’s North Parking lot where BREATHE will be performed is 130 feet wide by 40 feet deep, giving each dancer approximately 40 X 20 feet to dance in. Imagine creating a dance in your living room and then having that same movement cover a space such as these dancers will be working in.

BREATHE by Laurie Sefton - Dancer Camila Arana - Photo courtesy of the artist.

BREATHE by Laurie Sefton – Dancer Camila Arana – Photo courtesy of the artist.

“One of the talents of being a choreographer,” Sefton mused. “must be that we see the space in our head.”

I had a question regarding a written statement in Sefton’s press release for this work. “Ms. Sefton has a unique talent of taking intense topics and seeing them from all sides.” She admitted that this was in reference to BREATHE and since that press release she had asked herself if she was actually doing that or if she is only wanting to be doing that. It was a very honest statement to make.

“I’ve always felt that it’s important to leave points of access for everyone,” Sefton said. She said that a word used to describe her work that she finds to be a dirty one is accessible. She has acknowledged that some people may feel that way about her work, but she and I both disagree with that statement.

“This is a different time,” she said. “When you make a dance about bullying you really want to have the emotional connection to everyone. You want people who are bullies and who don’t often acknowledge that they’re bullies, to understand that what they may have done and the effects. You really want to represent both sides.”

“When you talk about immigration,” Sefton continued, “ you have people who are nationalists who want to exclude and keep themselves safe.” She was speaking about a work of hers titled Imminent Drift where she wanted people to create an access for people to realize that their ancestors may have immigrated to the United States and found a home here. She was hoping that seeing Imminent Drift, these people may find a bit of sympathy for others moving to the United States to create a new home.

The common access points for BREATHE that everyone has experience with are the pandemic and being sheltered-in-place, which is not simply a local experience, but a global one. Another smaller access point are the protests, which one of her dancers found difficult because the movement triggered an experience she had while protesting in LA a couple of weeks ago. She said, however, that following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, she inserted a brief section that is an hommage to “The Notorious RBG”. The one-on-one discussions have helped tremendously with dancers confronting these personal issues.

“Now I’m seeing that the manifestation of where we are in our world is physical for our dancers because they are physical beings,” Sefton said. “it’s physically affecting the way they move, the way they think about moving and being together in the space.” Dancing with a mask on brings about yet another challenge which adds to the focus of this work, the ability to breath.

“I think that this pandemic and the protests have led to a realization of my weaknesses,” Sefton said when we were discussing how differently people react to challenges. “Really looking inward at some faults and some weaknesses.” I will not share how she described these, but the pandemic bringing about a personal inner evaluation is something that I have heard expressed from many of my friends and colleagues.

One project for Sefton is that she has hired a cinematographer to turn BREATHE into a film. She will also be creating a short work in collaboration with a foundation in Warsaw which will also be filmed. The event is in celebration of composer, musicologist, graphic artist and professor Bogusław Schaeffer who died in last year. She hopes that BREATHE will be performed in numerous sites in and around Los Angeles. She sees this work as a way to celebrate all the glorious open spaces that make up this city that is in total contrast with how we have been locked down during the pandemic.

This is the second time Clairobscur has performed on Tarfest. The first time was in 2016 when they performed a section of Sefton’s work titled Particulate Change, which was about global warming. For that performance, Sefton used a larger cast than the original work and she had the dancers wear gas masks during the performance.

Here are the details for this performance of BREATHE, a drive-in dance event.

When: Friday, October 2, 2020 – Three show times @ 7:00pm, 8:00pm and 9:00pm.

Where: North Parking lot of The Original Farmers Market, 6333 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, CA 90036

To enter into the North Parking lot of Farmers Market, use the access road off of Fairfax just north of 3rd Street called Farmers Market Place. Enter there and then turn left into where the kiosk is located. There will also be volunteers to help drivers find the way to the performance site.

Again, we have been informed that all three performances were sold out just 72 hours after tickets went on sale. If you wish to try to obtain tickets to a performance, click HERE.

To visit the Clairobscur Dance website, click HERE.

Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Still from the trailer of BREATHE, captured by LADC.