Jessica Koslow

Jessica Koslow

Henne and Hutter Collaborate on Cave”¦ at Diavolo

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A limber male dancer stands on his hands, his legs split into a triangle; leading actor Brad Culver yells out nonsensical sounds, warming his vocal chords as he stretches his mouth. When the five-minute break ends, Kate Hutter, the artistic director of LA Contemporary Dance Company, huddles with three women, demonstrating how red ribbons flow from their hands to the ground.

Hutter’s collaborator, Aaron Henne, artistic director of theatre dybbuk, watches from the front, his 72-page script in hand.  The co-directors (Hutter is also choreographer, and Henne the writer) are holed up at Brockus Project Studios at the Brewery, rehearsing Cave”¦A Dance for Lilith, their third collaboration, which opens tonight next door at Diavolo Performance Space, running Friday through Sunday until November 18.

Aaron Henne

The dance theater piece experiments with the collision between text, movement and music. “After our first collaboration Body Mecanique in June 2009, I thought it would be great to continue working together,” says Henne. But for their next joint venture, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a piece that’s more narrative, more like a play, where the dance is as much text as the play itself? We bandied that idea around a lot. Finally, about one and a half years ago when I decided to start theatre dybbuk, I was really interested in the first piece having to do with Lilith folklore and Hebrew Goddess mythology.”

Cave”¦A Dance for Lilith unearths the humanity behind the myth of Lilith, the Hebrew name for a demon goddess. All of theatre dybbuk’s projects are based on Jewish folklore and history. Some interpretations of Genesis point to Lilith as the first woman, pre-Eve. She intrigues; even True Blood made her a recurring character in its fifth season.

As we speak, it’s the eve of the 2012 presidential election. One candidate clearly stands out as a friend of the arts. “On a subconscious level, this has been informing the piece,” Henne says, referring to the nation’s current political climate. “The piece is about the nature of conflict. It deals in mythic ways about Israel and Palestine. At the end of the day, one of the things the piece is exploring is perhaps conflict is born out of a desire to connect, and we don’t know how to do it. There is always separation between us.”

Kate Hutter

Hutter adds, “Arts are such a pursuit of bringing together people and community. I hope our country continues to take the direction that respects arts education and gatherings of this nature as something that promotes the welfare of our communities.”

Henne’s and Hutter’s collaborative process began to pick up speed six months ago. In March, the two began casting, which occurred before a single word was written. The idea was to keep the performers in mind as the project developed. Two months later, Henne, Hutter, Culver, female lead Julie Lockhart, composer Eric Mason, and two script development consultants had the first of what turned out to be a series of 10 three-hour meetings, where new research was presented and discussed, and a script was pieced together. The creative team brought the script to the cast of seven and let them play with the bits of dialogue and text. Day-to-day rehearsals started seven weeks ago.

LA Contemporary Dance Company performs a repertoire of modern, ballet and jazz. One of Hutter’s goals remains to collaborate with multi-disciplinary artists. Only five out of LACDC’s 20 members were selected for Cave”¦A Dance for Lilith. According to Hutter, there’s a lot of personality in the room. Part of the reason she chose the five dancers was because “there were artistic liberties these artists would take with me and be very vulnerable to in the room,” she says. “I selected them because of their experience with theatrical long-form narrative work. Performance-wise, they are some of the more theatrical dancers I work with.”

Tiffany Sweat, Julie Lockhart, Melissa Schade and Athena Sterig

Similarly, the two leads identify primarily as actors but, as Henne points out, “have wide and deep experience of movement-based theatrical work.” Culver is a member of Poor Dog Group, an eccentric collective of theater artists, and Lockhart has performed with Theatre Movement Bazaar, which mixes elements of dance, text, cinema and other media sources.

Lockhart walks briskly in a circle. Her striped, black-and-white leg warmers look like they belong to Pippi Longstocking. Lockhart and Henne are married — they were wed three weeks after Body Mecanique, which they both worked on, closed.

The stage for Cave”¦A Dance for Lilith is mostly bare. “The idea is really about human beings in space bumping up against each other, letting the body and voice express,” Henne says. Red ribbon and large swaths of red fabric are used as props, and dirt is scattered around the stage to suggest creation and the beginnings of life.

“And the very necessary bone,” says Hutter, “is Eve. We decided against dressing up anyone as a giant rib and making them dance around.”

Brad Culver and Tiffany Sweat

Performing at Diavolo was a very conscious choice for both directors. For LACDC, the venue is a space where the company premieres work. Hutter describes it as a home away from home. “The stage is large enough to put the audience on it as well as the performers,” says Hutter, “so it creates a surround sound experience.”

Henne, who is probably best known as the writer of LA Weekly’s 2007 “production of the year,” Sliding Into Hades, says the creators of Cave…A Dance for Lilith wanted a space that could provide both scope and intimacy simultaneously. “I am right there with you, smelling your sweat and seeing your muscles move,” says Henne, “and it also allows for the depth and width to create large movement vocabulary. As theatre dybbuk’s first show, going to a space familiar to LACDC’s audience and exposing my audience to a new place, it’s a natural fit. It allows for possibility and security.”

Before each rehearsal Henne and Hutter meet for anywhere from one to three hours. Their collaborative process is intense, and it works. They have great respect for each other.

Andrew Pearson, Brad Culver, Julie Lockhart, Athena Sterig and Melissa Schade

“He is not only a playwright, but an active director and mover, someone who understands performance as the end goal and not just what sits on the paper in his solitary writing mode,” Hutter says. “Which is a rarity, and [which] I found myself drawn to, as an artistic collaborator.” She admires Henne’s “amazing use of text to create abstraction and imagery that is so thick with texture and oddities. I never feel restricted. I feel inspired. I love using breath, voice and supporting movement with that. His work ethic is insane. It’s invigorating. Never once have I felt like Aaron has lost faith or trust in what we’re doing. That liberates me to not fear what the outcomes are. We get at each other and have hard discussions. The beauty of it is we’re coming from the right place, and we get through it.”

Henne is equally as complimentary: “I appreciate [that] on an aesthetic, artistic level, Kate has a remarkable ability to illuminate things I’ve written, to force me to look at them in a new way. My mind will open wide. I will see the work I wrote in a brand new way, and understand it differently. She has relentless curiosity. It’s a special quality when an artist keeps investigating — being forever dissatisfied. It is necessary for this kind of work — to keep questioning and looking, and sit with my questioning.”

Cave”¦A Dance for Lilith probably won’t be the last collaboration between theatre dybbuk and LACDC.

Cave”¦A Dance for Lilith, Diavolo Performance Space, 616 Moulton Ave, Los Angeles, 90031. Opens tonight. Fri-Sat 8:30 pm, Sun 7:30 pm. Through Nov. 18. Tickets: $20 ““ 25. cave.brownpapertickets.com.

***All Cave…A Dance for Lilith production photos by Taso Papadakis