Lara J. Altunian

Lara J. Altunian

Lara is an LA-based dance writer and arts journalist. She is a master’s graduate from the University of Southern California who is interested in visual and interactive storytelling, and also loves reading, writing and crafting. Follow her on Twitter @larajian90.

Celebrating the Extraordinary in Times of Tragedy: Invertigo Dances After It Happened

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap] young girl sits on the floor waving around a small piece of blue tarp, which she watches float on a pretend breeze. Moments later, a large bird made of similar material glides across the stage. The mechanical wings flap slowly while dancer Hyosun Choi moves the wire-frame puppet up and down in zig-zagging motions. Choi maneuvers the bird above the girl, played by fellow dancer Irene Kleinbauer, who looks on with wide eyes as her imagination is brought to life around her.

Magical realism is the leading force behind dance theater group Invertigo’s latest piece After It Happened, which will be presented at Ford Theatres on September 30. This play-like portrayal of a community learning to deal with the aftereffects of a natural disaster explores a wide range of emotional responses to loss and how it affects the day-to-day lives of each individual.

The blue tarp is a device used throughout the piece — one of many handmade props used to tell the story, which sways between moments of humor and tragedy over the course of two acts. The material works its way on and off stage in various forms — from the bird puppet (embodying childlike wonder and escapism) to a rolled-up ball (used in an intense game of soccer) to a vibrant dress worn by dancer Jessica Dunn.

Many of these scenes, explains Invertigo Artistic Director Laura Karlin, were inspired by the pictures gathered and assembled by company members (and subsequently displayed along the front wall of their studio) portraying images of emergency relief responses to catastrophic events around the world. These images, she says, were the result of asking her troupe to bring in photos of life brewing in moments of devastation.

“The project really distills down to our experiences that are both about trauma and hope, and the thread that runs through it all, to me, is transformation,” she says. “How we grieve… how we respond [by doing] unspeakable things out of desperation, out of PTSD… and how we hold one another up… we find a way to transform our environments into something more habitable.”

Karlin founded the LA-based company in 2007, intending to produce work that “twists up ideas and images,” allowing seemingly unrelated elements to bring out new dimensions when brought together. After It Happened was conceived in 2011, after Karlin attended an art show featuring photography taken in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. From there, she worked to develop the first incarnation of the production, which ran for three (sold-out) weekends at the Odyssey Theatre in October of 2014.

After its successful run, Karlin felt a strong desire to expand After It Happened into the body of work it has become today. And with the incorporation of more scenes came the further development of another important aspect to Invertigo’s theatricality — live music. Karlin worked with musicians Toby Karlin (who is also her brother) and Diana Lynn (a specialist in voice and world percussion) to create rhythms composed from guitar strumming and a multitude of chimes, alongside Choi’s cello-playing. Lynn also taught the company members how to develop their vocal skills and blend powerful-sounding harmonies together.

While Karlin says that many performers, coming strictly from dance backgrounds, were nervous, having never sung or acted before, their combined artistic efforts effectively set the tone for some of the more somber moments, namely the portrayal of a traditional New Orleans funeral.

In the scene, a body is lifted out of a bathtub. (The bathtub, a piece of debris having washed up after the disaster, somehow intact, serves as a symbolic hearth around which the community gathers throughout the play.) The corpse is then moved overhead, and six of the dancers form a procession that occasionally breaks up into two groups: those who physically carry the deceased, and the remaining four, who dance around the duo with displays of outward kicks and quick floor sweeps — a chaotic contrast to their counterparts’ slow, weighted movements. Behind them, Lynn leads the harmonies, sometimes rising a pitch above the rest while playing a tambourine and jingling bells she wears around her ankles.

“Laura’s always inviting us to do lots of things at the same time,” says Lynn. Indeed, many of the company members must fill multiple roles in order for the piece to come together smoothly. Karlin adds that the piece requires nuanced performances to make it all work: “We’re on the razor’s edge in terms of tone. A bunch of these sections — it could be too melodramatic… too overwrought, or too cute,” she says.

Invertigo’s approach to creating art by way of bringing people together goes beyond artistic portrayal of community; their direct involvement with the public has been the basis for many programs and workshops, including one for set design that resulted in a fallen tree prop now used in the last third of the production. The tree is made entirely of debris — a commonly used material for set designer and visual artist John Burton, who taught the workshop.

“The point of this is that it’s all flood-found objects. That it would be things that perhaps were washed away from somebody’s home and down through the neighborhood,” says Burton. Workshop participants used materials from places such as Trash for Teaching, Goodwill, and various personal lenders throughout the city.

Karlin hopes that through public participation, Invertigo might be able to depict a unique side of tragedy. “Vulnerable people aren’t often given a voice to speak the things that are actually positive coming out of these situations: moments of extraordinary sacrifice and kindness, and moments where people fall in love, where people grieve in ways that are a little more private.”

For those who may not have a personal connection to the events that the characters have to adapt to onstage, Toby Karlin believes that “it doesn’t matter if you know anyone personally [affected] or not, because you will, or you might and you don’t know it.”

He continues: “A loss to someone anywhere is a loss to anyone everywhere.”

AFTER IT HAPPENED, September 30 at Ford Theatres.

invertigo-iconA night of virtuosic dance, live music and magical realism exploring how a community rebuilds and transforms after a natural disaster.

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