by Lara J. Altunian
Despite The New York Times’ recent declaration of Los Angeles’ status as a dance city, companies and choreographers have long been making LA a hub for captivating and original work. Among them is REALITY dance theater founder David Roussève, whose avant-garde style of performance has been evolving since 1988. His approach to topics such as the AIDS crisis, homosexuality, and civil rights are explored through post-modern dance, and often mixed with multi-media design. The result is a collection of memorable pieces that resonate with audiences, and which add beauty and historic value to LA’s continuously advancing dance scene.
Roussève’s most recent piece, Halfway to Dawn, is an amalgamation of his diverse interests and styles. Premiering at the REDCAT at the beginning of October, the piece examined the life of jazz musician Billy “Sweet Pea” Strayhorn (1915-1967), the virtually unknown genius behind classic songs such as “Lush Life”, “Take the ‘A’ Train”, “Chelsea Bridge”, and “Satin Doll”, all of which were originally thought to have been solely written by Duke Ellington. The fact that the majority of jazz fans have not heard his name is in no small part due to his marginalization as an openly gay African American with strong ties to the Civil Rights Movement. During his lifetime, Strayhorn was known for holding intimate and risqué LGBT parties in his 1940s Harlem apartment, along with the close relationship he later developed with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom he arranged special concerts and benefits.
Roussève was drawn to Strayhorn because of their similar passions. Strayhorn’s composition of some of the most famous jazz songs within the American vernacular is emotionally embraced through Roussève’s style of choreography. Typically known for contemporary dance works, Halfway to Dawn is a callback to his early jazz roots and musical theater days dating all the way back to his childhood in Houston, Texas.
“My father was a jazz musician,” says Roussève. “I started dancing because I thought I wanted to do musical theater. I started off with jazz when I was maybe 14. [But] this is the first time I’ve ever gone back and hardcore referenced the jazz beginnings. And when we started this piece, I had a moment of thinking, ‘Oh my God, are you really going to do this?’”
Roussève started to focus to modern dance after he enrolled in Princeton University, from which he graduated magna cum laude as a Guggenheim Fellow for Creative Arts in the U.S. and Canada. Shortly afterward, he decided to move to New York. There, he was able to explore everything the experimental dance world had to offer.
“I got enmeshed in the downtown dance scene and avant-garde dance, Contact Improv, Release, modern dance,” says Roussève. “I think reflected in my work [are] those early years in New York where I really focused on dance training. [I had] this interest in musical theater and kind of the ‘wow’ of commercial dance. [I was] also really intrigued by post-modern experimental dance and pushing new boundaries. People like Bill T. Jones or Bebe Miller who were trying to say things with their choreography.”
After several years of performing and working on the East Coast, Roussève’s life took a sudden turn when he decided to move to Los Angeles in 1996 after being asked to join UCLA’s Dance Department.
“I had never considered being in academia but the department seemed like such a radical experiment it was interesting to consider,” says Roussève. “I was here on tour with my dance company and they invited me to come in and speak with them and eventually offered me a tenured position. I took it, never having heard of tenure, and then I was essentially bi-coastal for 10 years, but still working at UCLA.”
Roussève has established himself not only as a choreographer, but also as a writer, a director, and a filmmaker. He has applied all three skills to thirteen evening-length dance works since founding REALITY, including three commissions for the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams (1992), The Whispers of Angels (1995), and Love Songs (1998). His list of dance films includes Bittersweet (2005) and Two Seconds After Laughter (2012).
Some of the artist’s most famous pieces came to fruition after he established himself as an Angeleno. Saudade (2009), a show co-commissioned by Yerba Buena Center, UCLA/Live and Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, focused on the bittersweet joy and sorrow experienced by African Americans in the south. Its successful run resulted in his receiving a “Bessie” (New York Dance and Performance) Award, and two LA Horton Awards, helping him garner national attention as a choreographer from Los Angeles.
Stardust (2014) is arguably the most well-known of Roussève’s recent pieces, at least before this latest foray into Strayhorn. Intimacy within technology is the main theme, partially showcased via an urban, gay, African American teenager’s unanswered texts and tweets, displayed on a screen behind the dancers. Another ode to the ignored, the protagonist is never seen onstage, but his pain is felt through the movement, each shift and pose representing his complex emotional journey. It was also the first piece Roussève decided not to be make himself the protagonist of in order to focus more on his directorial role. In fact, Halfway to Dawn is the first work he did not perform in at all.
“I can really focus not on what my body can do, but on what their bodies can do — developing phrase material on my body, but then seeing it taken to a new level on their bodies,” says Roussève. “It’s actually really satisfying.”
Roussève’s main collaborators for Stardust, Halfway to Dawn, Saudade, and many of his other works are Cari Ann Shim Sham and d. Sabela grimes. Shim Sham has additionally worked with Roussève on Two Seconds After Laughter, and Enough? The latter is a short dance piece recently included in a dedication to another great African American Angeleno choreographer, Lula Washington, who was honored at Forde Theatres in June of this year. Their long-standing working relationship began when she was a student of his twenty years ago, and has grown into a professional partnership since then.
“He’s the best to work with,” says Shim Sham. “He just really allows me to bring my best artistic vision to fruition. He really trusts all of the collaborators that he works with and he lets us do what we do best. He supports us.”
Fellow choreographer grimes has also stated his eagerness to work with Roussève, with whom he shares a similar vision and perspective when it comes to approaching projects like Halfway to Dawn.
“As soon as David called, there was no hesitation,” says grimes. “He is so steeped in moving his narratives through the multiple layers of his composition. The last two times I’ve worked with him, he’s given me a formidable challenge of being bumped up against legends in American music. The last project was Nat King Cole (Stardust) and here we are with Billy Strayhorn. It’s something that helps me stretch as an artist.”
Roussève’s desire to present Strayhorn’s name to the masses and publicly tie it to his acclaimed music is the very crux of what Roussève strives to do with much of his work: serve the underserved. His fascination with Strayhorn began after he was asked to work on the jazz legend’s Rose Colored Glasses—an abandoned c. 1959 musical he and Broadway heavyweight Luther Henderson. Roussève’s piece never truly took off, but working on it forever changed his perspective on Strayhorn. His decision to come back and combine it with his other artistic interests is a result of maturation.
“It just felt like it was the right time,” says Roussève. “I felt like there was something about Billy Strayhorn that I found really appealing in the bittersweetness of his life path. I’ve always obsessed with philosophical questions, and as I’ve gotten older, more so. Looking back on what you’ve done [is] at the core of Billy Strayhorn’s life. Is it [about] writing this amazing body of work? Is it being known for writing this amazing body of work? Is it that he lived his personal truth rather than having fame? As I started to really think about those questions about life and the nature of life, Billy Strayhorn popped back into my mind. His life raises all of those questions about the meaning of life.”
David Roussève/REALITY will be taking Halfway to Dawn on tour starting November 9 in San Diego, California as part of UC San Diego’s ArtPower Dance Series. He has a future dance film coming out called Twit, based on a screenplay he finished in 2017 based on Stardust.