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Sarah Elgart: A Career in Motion

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Screen shot of Lillian Barbeito in ÒMotherlodeÓ a music video for Angela Luna (choreographed & directed by Elgart)

Having been at the forefront of dance in L.A. as a choreographer, director and producer, Sarah Elgart has engaged audiences with site-specific projects that have transformed bus terminals, airports and museums into veritable action paintings. Elgart has also choreographed for film, commercials and television, working with directors that include Catherine Hardwicke, David Lynch and JJ Abrams.

Born into a family of artists -- her father was a painter and art professor at UCLA for more than 30 years; her mother was both a painter and dancer -- Elgart recalls growing up among celebrities. "I was an art baby," she said. "We would go to Easters with the Coppolas and hang out with Brando's kids. I was surrounded by people of greater and lesser renown, which was a stimulus for me. But fame wasn't as big a destination as it is now. Back then art was the religion in my family and you just did your best work."

Stemming from an identity crisis Elgart had as a teenager -- not knowing whether she wanted to become a dancer, filmmaker, visual artist or actress -- she said, "I feel like I interweave aspects of all those things into my work, serving part of a greater whole that becomes something else entirely, but that dance and movement is the way everything resolves."

Andi Schermoly in FlyAway Home @ The Van Nuys Flyaway Bus Terminal, produced by Department of Cultural Affairs Los Angeles | Photo by Moses Hacmon
Andi Schermoly in FlyAway Home @ The Van Nuys Flyaway Bus Terminal, produced by Department of Cultural Affairs Los Angeles | Photo by Moses Hacmon

In her peripatetic youth, Elgart studied with Martha Graham in New York and also spent a year in Germany in 1978 at the Folkwang Hochshule in Essen. There she soaked up lessons from disciples of choreographers Pina Bausch and Kurt Jooss, spending, she said, "enormous amounts of time researching and watching rehearsals.

"I'd only heard of Pina Bausch," added Elgart, "but the first time I saw her work in Wuppertal, there was this crowd of people at the opera house and Jan Minarik was sitting with a fishing pole on the steps of the opera house. He looked like what then would have been called a hobo. I'd never seen anything like that -- a performance that began outside of the theater."

Upon returning to L.A., in 1979, she founded Sarah Elgart and Dancers, a troupe she had for a number of years. At the same time, Elgart was also doing choreography for commercials and music videos, and, as of 1986, she had 35 music videos to her credit, working with artists such as Patti LaBelle and Santana.

Charissa Kroeger and Kalin Morrow in ÒIdeologiesÓ (series of short dance films choreographed & directed by Elgart) | mage by Caitlin OÕrorke
Charissa Kroeger and Kalin Morrow in ÒIdeologiesÓ (series of short dance films choreographed & directed by Elgart) | mage by Caitlin OÕrorke

Those gigs allowed her to pay her dancers, but the 'C' word -- commercial -- was frowned upon in the world of concert dance. "People had it in for me," recalled Elgart. "I did commercial work and I was disliked for that."

That work also included choreographing films, a slew of them in the 1980s, such as "Earth Girls are Easy" and the certifiable bomb, "Howard the Duck," the latter directed by Willard and Gloria Huyck, the couple that had penned "American Graffiti."

"The best thing about 'Howard the Duck' was that the directors hired my company, but the duck suit itself was the disaster," recalled Elgart. "There was very little choreography, as I was hired to work with Thomas Dolby to hip up the band. I flew back and forth to San Francisco to rehearse a scene that never happened. But we got paid nicely and it was a great way to support my company."

Screen shot of Lillian Barbeito in Motherlode a music video for Angela Luna (choreographed & directed by Elgart)
Screen shot of Lillian Barbeito in Motherlode a music video for Angela Luna (choreographed & directed by Elgart)

Then, according to Elgart, came a turning point in 1990. "I'd ended my company and [international theater director] Peter Sellars asked me to do a collaboration for the L.A. Festival. We were told we could do whatever we wanted. I said I didn't want to collaborate, but would integrate my work with the others."

Sellars' idea was to draw upon the city's multiculturalism, offering five of L.A.'s emerging black, Asian, Latino and Anglo choreographers the chance to make a collaborative piece.

"It was difficult working with Peter," explained Elgart, "who at one point asked me to leave."

The project was not one of Sellars' most shining moments and Elgart, who eventually compromised with the other artists, left town for a while. Returning to L.A., Elgart snagged a job with Disney, spending the next four years working on "The New Mickey Mouse Club."

Sarah Elgart Site Reel 2012 - 2013 from sarah elgart on Vimeo.

"I was Taft-Hartleyed into the Director's Guild, and started directing professionally," said the dancer. "There was more responsibility and application of my talents in one week than I'd ever had before. I conceptualized, figured out camera shots and did costume design. I was also in charge of three music production numbers a week."

The show was a hit, with Elgart jump-starting a number of careers, casting, among others, Britney Spears, Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell and Justin Timberlake. "I diapered those kids. I've known them since they were babies."

Continuing to live up to the family motto of doing her best work, Elgart has always been community-minded. From 1981-1984 she taught dance and made choreography with a small group of maximum-security inmates at California Institution for Women (CIW), where, initially unbeknownst to her, two of her 'student' inmates were Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins -- of the Manson Family.

The classes resulted in an award-winning work, "Marrying the Hangman," which was eventually performed by Elgart's troupe in the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.

In 1990, Elgart founded La Boca Performance Space at the Sunshine Mission Casa de Rosas, one of L.A.'s oldest shelters. She also worked with MADRES (Mothers and Daughters Reaching Empowered States), a group of transitional homeless women who collaborated with Elgart to create original performance works making use of gesture and raw movement.

These works were produced by venues including the Mark Taper Forum and The Getty Center, the latter a commission that took place at the Bradbury Building and happened over five floors.

"I would be in Orlando for up to five months at a time," recalled Elgart, "and every time I had a break from Disney, I'd come back. I was constantly writing grants and had a lot going on then."

FlyAway Home - a site specific performance spectacle conceived, directed & choreographed by Sarah Elgart, film by Zack Bennett from sarah elgart on Vimeo.

Indeed, Elgart has been doing site-specific work for 30 years, her first site piece taking place at Edgemar Center for the Arts. A collaboration with her husband, artist Stephen Glassman, the piece was commissioned by the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

"We worked with Stephen's large scale puppets, and there were 25 performers," said Elgart, who went on to form Sarah Elgart/Arrogant Elbow dance troupe some seven years ago and whose most recent site work was last September.

Called "Follow," it opened the Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara's newly launched On Edge Festival and took place in and around the Santa Barbara County Courthouse and Sunken Gardens. Using movement, media, sound and visual imagery, Elgart explored how human beings are hardwired to follow gurus and ideologies in the face of the unknown.

But September proved to be a particularly trying time for Elgart, as her father, Eliot Elgart, died the day before "Follow" premiered.

"In the wake of my father's death, I needed to keep working, because that's the way we roll in my family. I was such a zombie during Santa Barbara, but I felt like I wasn't done with it, so I took elements of that and worked them into dance films that were projected on the outside of the Electric Lodge during a weekend last November."

Making dance films -- and curating same -- comes naturally to Elgart, who worked in various capacities with Dance Camera West, the festival founded in 2002 that's dedicated to the intersection of cinematography and choreography. It was Elgart who was instrumental in bringing Wim Wender's Oscar-nominated documentary, "Pina," to L.A., as well as introducing live, site-specific dance to the festival two years ago.

Site work appeals to Elgart for a number of reasons, one being the notion of responding to architecture and space. "I love painting space with movement and media in order to make magic out of the mundane. Scale and gravity are big preoccupations and I like bringing the highest points of a building or space to the eye at street level and the street level eye to the sky."

The sky played a part in Elgart's 2013 work, "Everywhere Nowhere," which took place at LAX's outdoor courtyard on the arrivals level between Terminals 1 and 2. Featuring a score performed live by Yuval Ron, with visuals by her husband (wrapped trees and projected bird imagery), Elgart herself performed in the work, which was free to the public.

"I'm interested in the democratization of dance and theater, and redefining what constitutes a stage -- both aesthetically and socially. I did a piece, "FlyAway Home" [2011 and 2012], at the Van Nuys LAX bus station that has a four-story stainless steel scrim, transparent architectural volume, glass elevators and neon balconies. It provided a spectacle, that if I duplicated on stage, would cost thousands of dollars.

"Because of this site I was able to produce what I did on that scale. And because it was a bus terminal, unsuspecting passengers and audience were able to see it. The whole experience made for a much more democratic form of grand spectacle."

Image below from "Amble" site-specific work at  Cornerstone, Sonoma performer Sylvie Glassman | Photo by Luke Rothschild
Image below from "Amble" site-specific work at Cornerstone, Sonoma performer Sylvie Glassman | Photo by Luke Rothschild

This summer Elgart takes her work to Mass MOCA, where she will collaborate with Nels Cline of Wilco and painter Norton Wisdom as part of the museum's Solid Sound Festival. She is also working on a new, large-scale community site work to premiere next year.

Elgart, who still takes ballet classes and moves with the grace of a gazelle, said that in her investigation as a choreographer she began looking at pedestrian gestures and pedestrian space, which is what ultimately took her off the stage and into the communities, be it working in prisons or with homeless women.

"I always kept discipline and practice, continuing to build a movement vocabulary, so when I do return to the stage, I treat the stage as a site, and my work can include media or be media."

In addition to directing dance films, as well as teaching master classes and dance media at Relativity School, Elgart writes a weekly column for Adam Leipzig's online publication, Cultural Weekly. Begun in December, 2013, ScreenDance Diaries deals with the intersections of dance and film, with Elgart scouring the web to share her fascinating terpsichorean finds.

In January Elgart also began writing about her prison experiences in a series dubbed, "Poetry + Murder: My Time with the Manson Women." A driven dance activist, Elgart has plans to launch and oversee Cultural Weekly's first online "random and accidental dance film festival."

Kalin Morrow in ÒIdeologies (series of short dance films choreographed & directed by Elgart) | Image by Caitlin OÕrorke
Kalin Morrow in ÒIdeologies (series of short dance films choreographed & directed by Elgart) | Image by Caitlin OÕrorke

"I'm not going to put anything in it, myself," explained Elgart, "but I'll orchestrate it. When you're walking down the street and you have an eye for movement and you're a dance person, you might see some crazy person moving in an interesting way and people whip out cameras and film this.

"That's what I call random dance in public space and it's born from being in cities. I'm interested in dance that is accessible and raw, and has some sense of urgency to it."

One might say that Elgart, too, lives her life with a sense of urgency. And while commercial dance is no longer shunned in the concert world as it once was, Elgart, who recently choreographed commercials that aired during the Oscars and Super Bowl, as well as having choreographing 2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness," has found a way to merge the career passions she once grappled with as a teenager.

"I feel that dance is the underlying, formative influence in everything I do. I can feel dance in the way I resolve my writing, dance in the way I edit, and the choices I make in everything. It's seminal to who I am."

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