Bullying, Angst, Adolescent Identity: Laurie Sefton & Clairobscur Dance

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[dropcap]Laurie[/dropcap] Sefton’s choreography can feel like watching a teenager’s diary come to life. At a Clairobscur Dance Company rehearsal — of which Sefton is the founder and Artistic Director — dancers shake and shimmy like young adults out on the prowl for a place to party (or, start a rebellion), while a rock ‘n’ roll score rages on like a torrent of teenage hormones.

In another piece, young men and women curve into each other’s chests and backs, creating a sensuous human-orgy-caterpillar with their limbs.

In another, a soloist evokes the image of a suicide by hanging — her arm outstretched to the ceiling above like a rope dangling from a rafter, her head tilted at a fatal incline, seemingly broken, her body precariously balanced on the ball of her foot — all while an electronic hum roils on.

Peer pressure, sexuality, suicide — the stuff of late nights out and dark nights in; the chaotic situations caused by the hormones and folly of youth; the intimate moments that only you and your journal know about — these are the concerns of Laurie Sefton’s choreography.

Though her work may have a youthful edge, it is far from juvenile; there are many elements of her storytelling not limited to themes of a particular age group — from drought and climate change to bullying and sexual awakening.

Part of Sefton’s preoccupation with the dark and destructive corners of daily life may come from being the mom of two adult children — a twenty-year-old daughter in college and an eighteen-year-old son in high school — and the challenges they have faced as young people.

The longtime L.A. choreographer, who’s been working professionally in the area since graduating from UCLA in the ’80s, says her work often comes from a personal place and when she speaks of her choreography, she discusses how her children have influenced it.

For instance, her newest piece, “Girl, Get Off” comes out of her observation that her children and the young dancers she works with are resistant to claiming a strictly heterosexual identity.

That type of peer pressure intrigued her.

“There’s a lot of pressure for them not to be thought of as heterosexual,” she says. “So the work is from a woman’s point of view — what it means to explore your sexuality.”

Meanwhile, her 2012 piece “Bully” was created in direct response to her son’s encounters with a violent kid at school.

“My son was bullied,” says Sefton, “and it was really bad and I didn’t know and one day he said he didn’t want to live anymore and he didn’t want to go to school.”

“He was 10 or 11,” she continues, “And I found out later that he was kneed in the groin every day by a kid at school — every single day, nobody saying anything. So after things were resolved, I just started doing some research about how people become bullies. How does it happen? And what’s the connection between the bully and the victim, and are bullies often victims, and what does that lead to?”

Those questions led to the creation of “Bully,” a multi-part exploration of the impact of peer-to-peer harassment on young psyches that’s physicalized in a very visceral way.

One of the dance’s soloists — the one who looks like she’s hanging herself in one moment — also imitates the motion of cutting her wrists and choking herself.

While those movements may sound too raw to stomach, (Sefton says her son can’t watch the performance), their evocative nature is what creates a resonant, and poignant, quality within the work.

Even when Sefton tackles less taboo topics, such as climate change, they have a personal touch.

In her piece, “desiccated earth / California,” dancers tiptoe throughout the space, rubbing their fingers together as if searching for signs of moisture in the air, or sampling the dryness of some sand taken from the desert floor.

“I was trying for ‘desiccated earth’ to make the movement look like California feels,” explains Sefton. Which movements evoke water or the desert, or the way that light hits a California landscape?

Sefton reflected upon her California upbringing to develop “small details — hand gestures — that kind of brought this idea forward,” she says.

For Sefton, the answers — and often the devils — are in the details of dance.

“I always feel that these issues are important to talk about, and that’s what art’s supposed to do,” she says. “It’s supposed to make people think about these things.”

A flick of the wrist, a turn of the head, and a taut toe are her ways of talking back.

NOW PLAYING: no option, choice, preference, March 18 at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center.

Christina Campodonico

Christina Campodonico

Christina is an arts journalist based in Los Angeles. Her writings have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The Argonaut, where she is a staff writer. She loves reading, writing and watching other people perform.