Choreographer Rosanna Gamson and her company, Rosanna Gamson/World Wide (RGWW), recently announced the release of a three-minute video entitled LAYLA MEANS NIGHT that is currently streaming on Vimeo. Shot at the Hotel Alexandria through the support of the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture and the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs LA DCA), the video is free to the public through the support of a grant from LA DCA.
Born in New York, Gamson studied composition with Hanya Holm, Bessie Schonberg, and Phyllis Lamhut, performed internationally with Andrew DeGroat & Dancers, in works by renown choreographer and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer, and in workshop performances of Robert Wilson, to list just a few. Gamson also writes poetry having studied with poets Charles Simic, Louise Glück, and Thomas Lux, and has had her own poetry published in several literary magazines and journals.
The creator of numerous evening-length dance theater works , Gamson continues to expand her creative ideas through improvisation and group-authored performance practices; practices that led her to the creation the game system GO that she teaches around the globe. In addition to her work as a choreographer, Gamson created the Choreographic Residency Program TERRA NOVA, a program that has provided valuable support to many new and established dance artists in LA. Gamson teaches composition at CalArts in the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance where she serves as Assistant Dean and Program Director of the MFA in Choreography.
RGWW’s press release stated that it was the Persian tale of Shahrzad or Scheherazade that was the inspiration for Gamson’s Layla Means Night. It is the fabled story of a clever bride “immortalized in One Thousand and One Nights who saved her own life through storytelling”. The video opens with “Yeki bood, yeki nabood” (“Once there was, once there wasn’t”), the Iranian traditional folktale opening, the equivalent of “Once Upon a Time.” The work then concludes with a traditional Iranian story ending “and then the crow flew off and was never seen again.”
However, it also informs us that the genesis of this work springs from several sources, among them “the centuries-old stories of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgin travel companions; Gilles de Rais, credited for being the inspiration for the legend of Bluebeard; Islamic tile work; the formal complexities of Islamic art; Sufi calligraphy; and quasicrystalline design”.
RGWW did not release this beautiful and provocative 3-minute video Layla Means Night, until recently. The company did a beta test at the Alexandria Hotel where the video was shot, but Layla Means Night was only in a more extended version in San Francisco at ODC Theater in October 2013, but not in Los Angeles.
I asked Gamson to go into more detail regarding the beta test that occurred at the Alexandria Hotel.
“It was an interactive event where the audience was split up, men saw one show and women saw a different show simultaneously so we needed to try that out. Also, there was eating and drinking involved ” She said. “So, it was a shorter experience with two groups. In SF there were three groups, longer, and it was in an entire building.”
She explained that RGWW divided this interactive piece into three rooms at the hotel in LA, but in San Francisco there were nine rooms making it a fuller and more expansive experience for the audience. Gamson said that the company performed excerpts of Lalay Means Night, approximately twenty minutes, at the Music Center’s Grand Performance in 2014, but not the interactive version. “And we did a NOW festival version at some point. I just couldn’t get anyone interested in a fully mounted production in Los Angeles.” She added.
Gamson shared a longer version of the video with me in which audience members were seen observing several female dancers dressed in long red dresses performing in front of a sheer white curtain. The camera shifts to the other side of that curtain to reveal what the audience in that space were viewing. There, an amazing and mysterious performance of shadows cast by same women was unfolding, providing two audiences simultaneously watching the same performers with two entirely different visual experiences.
In the same press release Gamson stated. “The story of Shahrzad is about balancing on the knife’s edge between keeping your listener entertained and transforming him through the power of your storytelling. With the release of Layla Means Night on video, we have the different kind of opportunity to engage one-on-one. How does our storytelling alter under our audience’s gaze? How might we shift the lives of those peering at us from behind their screens?”
Since founding RGWW in 2000, Gamson has brought together skilled dancers, singers, actors, musicians, and visual artists from diverse backgrounds and countries. She is a master at blending the talents, cultural traditions, and the ideas of the artists that she collaborates with into a stunning visual tapestry. Throughout their history, Gamson and her company have incorporated its cross-genre, bi-national, and international collaborations in Lithuania, Poland, and Mexico, and toured in North America.
RGWW has twice been awarded a production grant from the celebrated New England Foundation for the Arts National Dance Project, the latest being its one-hour repertory work, Sugar Houses that “pulls a deconstructed narrative from “Hansel and Gretel” through the devices and structure of the horror genres”. The world premiere of Sugar Houses was scheduled for March of 2020 at REDCAT but was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting quarantine.
We are quite fortunate to have such a versatile and creative artist who lives and works in Los Angeles; one who collaborates with dance artists, musicians, composers, writers, poets, actors, and visual artists to produce incredibly beautiful and inspiring art.
The performers in Layla Means Night included Carin Noland and Andre Tyson, with Megan McCarthy, Rosanna Tavarez, Drea Sobke, Michael Gomez, Jay Jackson, Rachel Butler Green, Gisele Johnson, Alexandria Yalj, Alice Holland, and Hannah Rutherford. The original score was composed by Houman Poumehdi and Pirayeh Pourafar and performed by Poumehdi and Pourafar, joined by the Lian Ensemble. The video features costumes by Lilia Lopez, cinematography by Francesca Penzani, editing by Barnaby Levy, and choreography by Rosanna Gamson.
You can view Layla Means Night here or on Vimeo by clicking HERE.
Written and compiled by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.