Captivated by… is an interview series created by Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens to connect the ideas of Casa Captivating artists and thought-leaders to audiences worldwide.
Laura Gorenstein Miller is the Founder and Artistic Director of Helios Dance Theater, a Los Angeles-based contemporary dance company formed in 1999. Helios will perform in Casa Kinetic: Contemporary Dance Collective, a new commission from Casa Romantica, on April 21.
Helios has performed worldwide, participated in one of the first mixed virtual reality performances at the Sundance Film Festival, and recently debuted a newsworthy piece of choreography, Minor Obsessions. Casa Romantica spoke with Miller about Helios’ transformative journey, new works, and unapologetic love of communicating through movement.
This is the first of a three-part series on contemporary dance at Casa Romantica.
CR: What lead to the birth of Helios Dance Company?
LGM: I had always known that I wanted to both a dancer and a choreographer. I attended CalArts [a critically-acclaimed West Coast university for the arts] to master both. About a year into my dance career after graduating, it became clear to me that I wasn’t happy dancing for other people, and I wanted to focus on my own choreography. I did not want to spend my career performing repertory [a selection of existing choreography that a company performs each year]. It was a dream of mine to own a company that would perform my work, and perform new work every season. I formed Helios Dance Theater as the millennium began.
CR: What are a few high points in your trajectory as a choreographer?
LGM: One of my high points as a choreographer was when the American Ballet Theatre commissioned me to choreograph a piece for their studio company, and they decided to perform it with the main company as well. The work was called “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” which was the name of the Brazilian song that the dance was set to, and it was a pas de deux [a dance for two people]. I’ve also been honored to choreograph for animated films — I’ve worked with Dreamworks Animation to produce choreography for 4 films at this point.
Helios puts on a lecture series about how to choreograph for animated films, since it’s a question that I get asked about frequently. First, we show our audience the storyboards that Dreamworks gave us for a particular scene in which choreography was requested — they’ve been a wonderful help in lending us the materials. Then, Helios dancers perform a dance based on the my interpretation of the story boards and the notes from the film’s director. Finally, we show the audience a clip of the finished animated scene. It’s so fascinating to see the movement come to life in another way.
CR: Why is contemporary dance important?
LGM: The beauty of dance is that movement exists in all of us; it’s a universal language. Anybody can watch it and understand it , because we all move.
The beauty of contemporary dance, and of Helios’ choreography, is that there no wrong way to watch it. So if you are watching our Casa Romantica performance and it reminds you of your first love and what that felt like, and those memories wash over you when you watch, that’s wonderful. Maybe you will think of your relationship with a sibling, perhaps your support for each other. You will see that support in a physical way, and as you watch it might manifest in an emotional way, and that’s valid too. The beauty of contemporary dance is that there is no wrong way to watch it. The choreography that we are presenting at Casa Romantica has a soundtrack of everything from Aretha Franklin to David Bowie, and people can even just connect to the musicality of our movements and enjoy watching that aspect.
CR: What is the biggest misconception about contemporary dance?
LGM: People are afraid to come see contemporary dance performances because they think they won’t understand — that it will be too esoteric. And in fact, it is so accessible. Our audiences are pleasantly surprised at how comfortable they can become about contemporary dance.
I think that popular dance programs on television like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With The Stars have been a great blessing. They’ve opened a mainstream audience to the idea that dancing, including contemporary dance, is an exciting art form.
CR: Tell us about Minor Obsessions, the work that you premiered in March 2017 in Los Angeles.
LGM: Minor Obsessions will be making its Orange County premiere at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens. Minor Obsessions can best be described as hyper-romantic, fiercely physical duets. The title is somewhat of an oxymoron and certainly an understatement [laughs], because when you watch the performance, it’s obvious that there is a major obsession between each of these pairs. We will perform 3 duets.
CR: What can you tell us about your site-specific work commissioned by Casa Romantica?
LGM: Our site-specific choreography will be performed outdoors on the Ocean Terrace. The nature of the work will be about relationships, featuring 6 dancers. Casa Romantica is a beautiful, architectural gem on the coast, and we are inspired by the opportunity to use the site and the architecture in our story.
Helios Dance Theater believes in taking dance outside of the theater cube and bringing it to unexpected places. We hope that our commissioned work will deepen our audience’s appreciation for the beauty of contemporary dance, but also of this special place.
Casa Kinetic: Contemporary Dance Collective is happening on Friday, April 21 at 7:00 PM at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens.
Check back next week for part 2 of our interview series on contemporary dance, featuring The Assembly Co-Founder/Artistic Director Lara Wilson.