Reaping the benefits of SOPAC Residency opens opportunities for choreographer Johnson

Friday, March 23, 2007

by Robert Johnson
Star-Ledger Staff

The sign on the empty lot said: "Coming Soon: South Orange Performing Arts Center." Choreographer Lydia Johnson, who has lived in South Orange for 16 years, used to pass it on her way to the train station. Two or three times a week, the struggling dance maker would schlep through the lot on her way to a rehearsal in New York.

"I would walk past it and think, 'Wouldn't it be cool if there was a theater right there?'" Johnson recalls. "And then they actually broke ground, and started to build it."

Even better, when the theater was completed, Johnson's contemporary dance company, Lydia Johnson Dance, was awarded an artistic residency there. The theater, which opened in November, will present an evening of her work Saturday, including a new and still untitled dance set to songs by blues singer Ray Lamontagne.

The SOPAC residency means a lot to Johnson. In the eight years since she founded her troupe, she tried to establish an artistic presence in her community. Enthusiastic local supporters invited her dancers to perform in their living rooms, clearing out their furniture and clustering the audience in doorways.

Johnson organized shared performances with other New Jersey artists at the South Orange Middle School Auditorium, a venue with limitations of its own (renters had to bring their own theater lights). In the end, however, Johnson resigned herself to giving annual performances at venues in New York, from the Da Capo Opera House to the new Ailey Citigroup Theater.

"Trying to persevere in this field can be hard," says Johnson, who describes herself as "very middle aged." She returned to choreography in 1998, after getting married and taking off several years to start a family.

"There's no money, and things constantly fall apart and rearrange themselves," she says. "It's still a project-to-project company in the sense that we pay the dancers per performance. We don't have health insurance. I don't pay for rehearsals. So they all do have to work other jobs."

The SOPAC residency promises to open a whole new field of opportunities. Johnson and her dancers not only can perform there but also can offer community outreach classes and workshops.

Saturday's performance will feature a selection of Johnson's recent works, including "The End of the Movie," set to songs by the alternative rock band CAKE. "It's just a totally fun piece," Johnson says. "It's a parody, a commentary on commercial feminine movement."

"Falling Out," set to Philip Glass' third symphony, has a somber atmosphere. A duet that seems by turns antagonistic and restful focuses this piece, framed by a corps of women balanced on chairs. A third soloist regards the action from a distance. Citing Jungian analysis, Johnson compares the action in "Falling Out" to a dream in which "every character in your dream is part of yourself."

Johnson says her primary inspiration is always music, however, and that concepts come later. Speaking of Lamontagne, she recalls, "I heard that voice, that pain and sorrow and that beauty, and I thought, 'Whoa.' Then I decided I would just do the same thing.

"It's about the flow of life," she says, describing her dance in which the performers circulate without forming permanent attachments.

The performance also includes "Coda," a formal dance with the performers arranged in lines and canons, interrupted by the sudden, natural appearance of children. Johnson choreographed this work to the third movement of Beethoven's string quartet number 15, and she says it reflects her experiences as a mother.

"It's having become who I am, having gone through those eight years where I just was absolutely drenched in motherhood," she says. "The stage almost looks funny to me, after a while, if there are never any children on it."

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