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Timeless: Dances on the Beach  

By Ann K. Williams
Lookout Staff

April 18, 2011 -- One of Keith Glassman's first hints that he had a future in dance came when he cut high school to play basketball with a friend.

“Let's just work on form,” Glassman remembers telling his friend, arching his arm upward in a gesture halfway between a hoop shot and a balletic pose to illustrate his story.

Glassman, now Santa Monica's choreographer-in-residence, is bringing his of love of athleticism, the beach, the Marx Brothers, and his all-embracing eclectism to the Marion Davies Beach House, the site for his latest creation, “Timeless: Marxist Dances at the Beach.”

Keith Glassman at the Marion Davies Beach House.
Photo by Ann K. Williams

He sat down with the Lookout earlier this month at the beach house to talk about his commission for the city and his creative philosophy.

The kid who loved to shoot hoops in Philadelphia went on to major in sociology at Brown University, a study Glassman said helped prepare him for his career in dance.

Sociology encourages you to ask questions about people, he said. For instance, “surfers – what are they all about?” he said. “See if you can make a dance about it.”

Which is what he's done with all kinds of people – including surfers, who he used in dances performed in coastal cities from San Diego to Pacifica.

Surfers are “tremendously graceful,” Glassman said, and he appreciated their verve. “They didn't hold back, they went right for it” in his dances, he said.

Glassman's known for using non-dancers in his works. They “add a certain reality,” he said.

In his series on cultural heritage, Glassman worked with yiddish schoolteachers and Latina and African-American women, making “movement phrases” for them that were based on the kind of work their families did.

They were invited to sing songs from childhood, and the Latina performer had an exceptionally beautiful singing voice, Glassman recalled.

Glassman's choreography leaves room for that kind of moment in which others introduce their own creativity. His performers are encouraged to “bring their own thing,” Glassman said, but added that he still has final say.

Some of the dances he described sounded quite intricate and thoughtful.

In 2008, Glassman decided to illustrate the concept of hope. He was in the middle of rehearsals when he saw then-candidate Barack Obama's phrase “audacity of hope” on a magazine cover which inspired him to call his dance “Audacious.”

As he described the elements of that creation, Glassman's bent for philosophy became apparent.

Before beginning, he talked to academics and clergy about their takes on the meaning of hope. Bad things happen to people, but they still have hope. Glassman wondered way.

As he developed the performance, he integrated what he'd learned from his conversations with the “experts.” Dancers adopted praying positions, hands folded in front of them or kneeling and touching their heads to the floor. The sound score included readings of Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches. Videos of black people assaulted with firehoses formed a backdrop.

Probably most difficult role was that of the actor/performer who recited King's mountain top speech, Glassman said.

While he recited, the actor had to play three-card monte with the audience, already hard enough. But on top of that, he did a salsa dance and, in one performance, an audience member joined him.

The three-card monte game was “all about hope,” Glassman said – “a person hoping to make a buck off the suckers at the same time the audience is the sucker hoping to make a buck.”

Glassman even added a raffle for the audience – “a game of treasure chest” – to encourage even more hope.

So what do Santa Monicans have to look forward to when he unveils his creation at the beach house in May?

“I love thinking about it,” Glassman said of his Santa Monica commission. “It's a tremendously unique and exciting opportunity. I feel challenged, excited and grateful.”

First, it's going to be “site specific,” meaning it's going to be tailor-made for the Annenberg Beach House and its environment.

The Santa Monica beach is “a prime surfing area,” so Glassman plans to adapt elements from his earlier surfing dances for the new space.

He said he's inspired by the Marx Brothers, who were guests at Davies' beach house, and may include a harpist in the performance.

Glassman said he's basing some movement material on what he's seen in Marx Brothers movies, “but it won't be silly – I don't do silly,” he said. Instead, look for “light, whimsical moments.”

Though the dance is still a work in progress, Glassman said he's playing with the terraces outside the Davies house, and the blue glass lining the sunken garden below which he says evokes water.

He's also planning on using the Julia Morgan-designed pool for one of the dance's locations.

The performance will shift from spot to spot – “it won't be static.” His audience might want to “bring walking shoes,” Glassman said.

“Don't be disappointed if a lot of this winds up on the cutting room floor,” he cautioned. He's still working out his vision.

“This is abstract art,” Glassman said. “Come open-minded without expecting this or that.”

“This is the beach,” he added. “You should have a good time just because you're here.”

Dance aficionados and the merely curious can catch Glassman's creative process in action at rehearsals from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays and from 12 noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays.

All are welcome to the final dress rehearsal on Sunday, May 15 at 2:30 p.m., and the culminating performance will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, May 16.

Those who'd like to learn more about site-specific dance and the philosophies not only of Glassman but also of local choreographers Heidi Duckler, Stephen Koplowitz, and Jean Isaacs won't want to miss the panel discussion “Dancing out of the Box” to be held at the beach house on Monday, May 9 at 6:30 p.m.

Reservations are required for the May 9, May 15 and May 16 events and can be made by calling 310-458-4904 or on the beach house website.


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