February 18, 2020

CalArts dance dean creates site-specific ‘Fluid’ movements

When he first started out as a dance artist, Stephan Koplowitz often performed his work in senior centers, shopping malls and on public streets.

“I already had the sensibility of taking my work out of the theater into the outdoors,” he said. “It became part of my DNA.”

Though Koplowitz has gone on to create a number of dances for conventional theaters, he has become best known for his site-specific works, which at times have involved hundreds of dancers, thousands of audience viewers and locales as varied as the windows of New York City’s Grand Central Station, a German coal factory and the British Library in London. In these places, Koplowitz’s dancers have raced across narrow catwalks, wrestled with machinery and rolled between stacks of books. Uniting the works is Koplowitz’s quest to create compelling interactions between people, nature and architecture, and his results have frequently been critically acclaimed.

“Like a calm unfurling of the sea,” wrote one critic on the The Dance Insider Web site in describing performers successively “trickling and rolling” down steps in Koplowitz’s 2004 “Grand Step Project.” In that work, Koplowitz used 50 dancers to explore the kinetic possibilities of six major New York City staircases.

At 52 and the new dean of California Institute of the Arts dance program, Koplowitz is currently preparing to make his Los Angeles debut with what he calls his most ambitious project to date.

“I definitely have never done anything like this before,” he said.

The “this” refers to TaskForce, Koplowitz’s new company of eight dancers who will embark on a three-year exploration of public sites related to water in Los Angeles, England and Germany. The project, called, “Liquid Landscapes,” has as its premiere a weeklong series of performances in Los Angeles at the end of June and entails dancers performing a mix of set choreography and improvisational movement at the Los Angeles River, the Farmers Market, under the Spring Street Bridge downtown and at nearby California Plaza, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the Port of Los Angeles and the beaches in Malibu.

As they travel from site to site, the dancers will draw from three repositories of material: movements that will be performed at all the sites, rehearsed movement specifically for one site and structured improvisations that stem from interacting with a particular site.

“You could look at the dancers as water,” Koplowitz said. “Water takes the shape of whatever container it’s in, and we’re going to try to adhere to the shape of each site.”

Speaking by phone from his office at CalArts, Koplowitz comes across as gregarious and thoughtful. Though he hadn’t yet begun rehearsing with his dancers, he knew for certain that his latest work “is not a show. They’re more like events, happenings or installations,” he said, noting that other visual and performing artists will appear at the various sites and juxtapose their own work with the dancers’ movements. “This should add another layer of spontaneity.”

The dancers will have only three weeks of rehearsal time to immerse themselves in a process that Koplowitz has spent some 20-odd years refining.

“I am training them to live and breathe site-specific work, so I want them to take ownership of each site,” he said. Meaning, “I might give them parameters like, ‘Here are three ways of looking at this site, and here are three things we can do here.'”

In the past, Koplowitz has said he takes three elements into consideration when creating site-specific work, the physical site itself, its history and what he contributes as a choreographer. “I always attempt to create a bridge between these three elements, as well as communicating something about people,” he said.

Another iron-clad rule for Koplowitz seems to be “always taking the audience into consideration.” For example, people attending the Los Angeles River performance will be conducted along the banks as if on a tour, while office workers taking lunch breaks at the tables at California Plaza will be able to see the dancers communing with the Watercourt fountain from any vantage point.

“No one seeing my work should have the equivalent of a bad seat,” he said.

Koplowitz’s initial “aha” moment as a site-specific artist dates back to 1987, when he created his breakthrough work in Grand Central Station. Called “Fenestrations,” Koplowitz positioned 36 dancers so they could be seen performing through different windows of the famous train terminal.

Over the course of two nights, 16,000 people watched lines of dancers walking, running, leaping and collectively creating different shapes and patterns on the glass-encased catwalks behind the windows. Though the movements were often simple and pedestrian, critics lauded the work for its wit and clarity.

“I was inspired by the walls of the building and the homelessness that infused the place,” Koplowitz said. “And when I saw everyone in that terminal had a front row seat to the work just by tilting their head and looking upward, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that is powerful.’ There is this allure to make work on a scale where you can enter into a dialogue with the public in a way you can’t necessarily do in a conventional theater.”

Raised in Washington, D.C., and Paris, Koplowitz grew up with a father who worked for the CIA but also wrote music and poetry. His aunt was a professional opera singer, and he found himself drawn to all artistic mediums.

“I was interested not only in the arts but in how they connected to people,” he said, observing that while he doesn’t make “Jewish work, I would call myself a Jewish artist. My art has always been about what it means to be human and to have dialogue and exchange, and I’ve always associated this with being Jewish.”

Koplowitz majored in music at Wesleyan University and unofficially minored in dance. He went onto to receive his master’s in fine arts in choreography at the University of Utah, and though he remained passionate about music, “I wanted to plant my pole in contemporary dance, because it was an art form that fully encouraged the blurring of artistic lines,” he said.