October 17, 2018

Blowing up his set, a choreographer steps beyond his Indian-Jewish roots

The dancer and choreographer Lionel Popkin, who is of Jewish and Indian descent, finds inspiration in his mixed heritage — two cultures that emphasize dance as a form of social expression. His projects take on big topics, like historic legacy and cultural appropriation, but are infused with whimsy and playfulness.

The L.A. premiere of his latest piece, “Inflatable Trio,” will be staged at the Skirball Cultural Center on Feb. 23, with additional performances the following two nights. Discussions will be held after the first two performances.

“Inflatable Trio” dissects the daily rituals of life and of home. The performance takes place on and around an inflatable plastic living room set, the type you might find in a college dorm room. The three dancers — Popkin, Carolyn Hall and Samantha Mohr — deflate, refill and rearrange the pieces throughout the show. They wrestle with them, jump on them, throw them around and drape themselves on top of them.

The dancers’ interactions with the plastic furniture suggests the impermanence and ever-changing nature of our domestic and social lives. It’s also a meditation on breath and breathing, an act that’s central to life and to dance.

“The piece itself became a question of: What are the systems of support that we use, in terms of how we buoy ourselves up, and how effective or how fragile those are,” Popkin said. “The furniture itself looks very solid. But as soon as you pull the plug, it just completely vanishes. And that became a metaphor for how we intake air and support ourselves and then how it expels and we siphon out like a balloon.”

In some sections of the piece, the dancers butt up against one another, wrestle and roll around — scenes that are both intimate and confrontational. In other sections, they take the place of the inflatable furniture and hold one another up in an intricate and constantly shifting arrangement.

Popkin spoke on the phone from Oberlin, Ohio, where he was working with Tom Lopez, who teaches at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and composed the music for “Inflatable Trio.” The multimedia performances also feature video art by Cari Ann Shim Sham and costume design by Maria Garcia.

Popkin, 47, was born and raised in Bloomington, Ind. His father is a Jew from New York and his mother is Indian.

“By traditional law I’m not Jewish, because my mother wasn’t, but she was still the president of the local Hadassah chapter, in her sari and everything,” Popkin said.

His family attended synagogue, he became bar mitzvah, was part of the Zionist youth movement Young Judaea, and attended Tel Yehudah, a summer camp in the Catskills.

“When I was at camp there was a lot of Israeli folk dancing. That was done a huge amount and I enjoyed it. I loved it,” he said.

When asked what it was like to grow up with his feet in two cultures, Popkin pointed out that it was more like three cultures.

“There is the iconography and imagery and food of India, the religious and social aspect of the Jewish community in Indiana, and then there was also Midwestern America,” he said. “For me, it just created this sense that there’s always another way to look at things. And as an artist, that seems to be an incredibly important principle.”

Popkin’s work often grapples with these issues of cultural identity. His multimedia work “Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” considers the legacy of modern-dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis, who was born in New Jersey but borrowed heavily from South Asian cultures in her solos. In the piece, Popkin uses a leaf blower to blow items of clothing around the stage, a metaphor for St. Denis’s habit of incorporating styles from different cultures into her work. The piece asks whether it’s ever appropriate for someone to appropriate styles of art that are native to a culture different from the artist’s. It also takes on the issue of how European cultures often stereotype Eastern cultures in ways that can be patronizing.

“I lived in India for about six or seven months when I was in college and I realized how American I am, even though in Indiana, I didn’t feel very American, because I’m the son of immigrants and there was a sense of displacement, of not quite getting involved in the local culture,” he said.

Popkin started training in college and joined the Trisha Brown Dance Company in New York. He currently serves as the chair of the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA, where he has been a professor of choreography and performance for the past decade.

Popkin’s choreography has been presented at local venues including the Getty Museum, REDCAT and Highways Performance Space and Gallery. His work also has been performed around the world, at Danspace Project and Abrons Arts Center in New York, London’s Palace Theatre and the Guangdong Dance Festival in China, to name a few.

After choreographing a decade’s worth of performances that examined his mother’s Indian heritage, culminating with “Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Popkin sees “Inflatable Trio” as a shift from a broader cultural perspective toward our everyday relationships.

“My past work has been much more about cultural identity,” he said. “I wanted to create this domestic setting and see what it was like to work within a close family unit.”

Lionel Popkin’s “Inflatable Trio” will be performed Feb. 23-25 at the Skirball Cultural Center. For more information, visit this story online at jewishjournal.com.