A Conversation with Laurie Sefton
Laurie Sefton is the choreographer and director of Los Angeles company Clairobscur. Sefton has an intensity in her demeanor and in her work. Her choreography is packed with movements, but each one has a specific purpose. There are quick, intricate gestures of the dancers' hands, shakes and pointing of fingers. Each dancer knows exactly what they are supposed to be doing, even where their eyes should be looking. This detailed and exacting direction doesn't take away from the dancers' individuality or personal artistic choice. Instead, it seems that Sefton takes the time to understand each dancer and make choices tailored to that person. Each dancer's purposefully directed and intricate movements come together to illuminate the meaning of the work.
Sefton started her company Clairobscur with a friend upon graduation from the dance department at UCLA. Her friend moved on from the company and Sefton herself put the company aside, moving to New York, marrying and having children, but came back to it after returning to Los Angeles. I asked her the meaning behind the name Clairobscur.
“Clairobscur is the French translation of the word chiaroscuro which is an Italian Renaissance painterly term. Pissarro and Caravaggio are two examples of Italian Renaissance painters who used that technique. What it means is that the source of the light that you see on the canvas is out of the frame and a lot of what is happening, although highly illuminated and seemingly obvious, is partially obscured."
"There is always something very obvious in my choreography, you see the lines you see the aesthetic. You may say to yourself that this is about [something], but in my work there are always three or four other layers underneath. You have to look very carefully to see and ask what is this really about? You may never know what it is exactly, and I don’t always tell the dancers what all my ideas are.
My work is very gestural. Those gestures come from an idea that’s born at the beginning of the piece, what the piece is about, and sometimes you will see them and sometimes you won’t notice them. The idea of Clairobscur is that some of the work is subliminal, like you are going to get the emotional effect of what happens in the piece whether or not you actually see it."
Most of Sefton’s work is issue-based, dealing with subjects such as climate change and bullying. I asked her why she does this kind of work and how she chooses the topics.
"As a choreographer I felt that I needed to do work that meant something because otherwise I would be creating commercial work which I think can be more about pure entertainment, or movement without content, without consequence."
“I try to work with something that matters to me, something that I am connected to in some way. For instance, I created a piece about bullying...one of my children came home one day and said that they didn’t want to go back to school. It turned out to be a case of bullying that had been going on unnoticed for some time. Nobody knew and my child got to this point where they said that they didn’t want to live anymore. When a child gets to this point there is a significant problem. So when I figured out what had happened I was able to address the problem. I felt that there was a much more complex connection between the aggressor and the victim and so I started doing a lot of reading on the topic."
"I created a piece about climate change [Desiccated Earth/California]. I just felt that it was really significant especially since we’ve had this drought in California for five years, the place where I grew up. We are [performing] the piece again and I think it's even more significant and more important now than ever because of what is happening with our current administration."
"So they're all about personal things… while a topic like homelessness is a timely issue, I don't have a connection to it and I don't think if I created a work on that subject it would be genuine. Movement always comes from your body, from who you are and where you are at that time and place. It's a reflection and illumination of everything around you.”
Sefton’s new work Girl Get Off will premiere at the company’s March 15th performance. I asked her to explain the story behind the piece.
“My daughter is twenty and in her second year of college and I'm seeing with kids her age a lot of pressure to identify sexually and not necessarily as straight, because it's no longer cool to identify as just a heterosexual. Instagram has a list of seventy-five things you can identify as and there is a very clear definition for each. I have heard kids say, 'I am this, I am that.' How can you be sixteen to twenty and decide? How can you when you’ve had little sexual or life experience, make these hard and fast decisions about sexuality. These decisions seem more fluid than ever. This generation seems more open to the fact that just because you’ve had this homosexual experience doesn’t mean that you are not heterosexual.…So my kids have shared things with me and it made me feel that this is a really important, significant issue, because sexual fluidity, which is a new subject among teens is something you have to kind of roll with and figure out. So, the new piece comes from them.”
Rather than the music being the primary inspiration for her work Sefton is inspired by an idea of a piece. I was curious how she chooses music that works for her choreographic ideas.
“Most of the music I use is composed for me. I have different collaborators...sometimes I work with composers and I tell them the idea and they send me something and it's perfect and sometimes it isn't working. It's actually a rewarding process because we get to have a creative conversation about what a certain part would mean, and what the music would be like, and what kind of instrumentation, and how many layers to have in the music. Because my choreography is very dense I like the music to be very dense in the same way. There are a lot of different lines of different things and different rhythms all going on at once. I choose the movement to go to one line and then another. As a dancer you have to be able to hear all of the different lines in the music, which can be complicated and difficult."
Sefton is a very hands-on choreographer, as interested in directing and developing her dancers as she is in choreographing. I asked her how she goes about choosing dancers to work with.
“I'm not a fan of auditions because I don't feel that you get to see enough of the person. The material is so difficult that you can't really absorb it. Even if you can learn it in a short amount of time you can't dance it full out because the work is too hard. They've all come to me in different ways...I see things in dancers that I like and I ask them to come in and see if they work well in my choreography. You also have to be really smart, not just technically able, but smart in your body. I don't count out my music most of the time, so my dancers have to be musical, and that can be a struggle. Like the piece we are doing right now, the music is four different levels of counts, it's all in eights but one eight is overlapped over another eight so you have to know which layer you are listening to. So they all come to me in different ways which has actually been pretty neat."
I asked Sefton about her creative process when choreographing a new work.
"My creative process is different for every piece. I do that on purpose to make the work different, because if I stood up and set all of the material on my own body every piece would look the same. I want to push myself creatively, but I also feel that it’s respectful to my dancers to come in properly prepared. I come into rehearsal and I know what I'm doing, I know what I want to run, I know what I want to change, what I want to tweak…In the creative process I video tape almost everything. Sometimes there's an accident that I think is really great that I end up putting in the piece. Usually I'll take the video home after rehearsal and watch the entire thing so I can see what's working and not working. You can't always see everything when you are doing something complex in rehearsal."
I’m always curious about what drives choreographers to keep creating. Sefton seems most driven by seeing how far she can push herself as well as how far she can push her dancers.
“There is a great joy in having an idea of what something is going to be and then teaching it to the dancers. Also, trying to create something you haven’t seen, even though that’s impossible because how can you do that on the human body, there are only so many combinations. But from the very first successful work that I created, I’ve been trying to do something that I haven’t seen in some way and I think that’s why my work has gotten so detailed and so dense because adding more and more layers... it makes my work speak and say something. I see movement like words, and the more complex the movement is, the more complex the idea is, the more sophisticated the words are. I feel like I'm using a very intellectual vocabulary in my work if I were to relate it back to writing. I would say the choreography is more literary than simple steps, and that is interesting to me."
"Right before every show I feel like I want to quit. And then there is a new idea and a new project and I start working with a new composer and there’s really interesting music that has a lot of layers and I have really talented dancers that can do anything, which is really exciting, and I think, 'okay how far can I push them? What can I push them to do?'...With [few] exceptions every person who dances with me leaves a better dancer because I push them, sometimes it's physically, sometimes it's acting, sometimes it's focus, sometimes it's details or picking up choreography faster. That’s fun, that’s really fun.”
Although Los Angeles is an artistic city it does not support dance in the same way that other major cities do. I asked Sefton her opinion on the state of dance in Los Angeles.
"In Los Angeles we are just now getting to the place where LA performing arts venues are presenting LA based dance, so that makes it hard…There's no theater for dance only, like the Joyce in New York. Even if we just had one place for dance, it would make a big difference...LA is growing culturally by leaps and bounds but because it's a movie industry town people have a different idea about what entertainment is. The [visual] arts scene in LA has really exploded in the last ten, fifteen years. I think we are at the place now where it can happen for dance. But I also think that a lot of the communities do not relate to each other, or speak to each other, or connect to each other...People are starting to reach out but nothing has become cohesive yet because there is a feeling that we all compete for the same funding sources and attention. With over 350 working dance companies in LA (and there are more all of the time,) it's like LA dance needs a publicist."