Legacy in Motion
World-renowned choreographer Lar Lubovitch is celebrated on his 80th year
By Christine Byrd
His body may not move the quite same way it once did, but Distinguished Professor Lar Lubovitch’s genius for turning music into dance remains as brilliant as ever as he approaches his 81st birthday this spring. The choreographer’s illustrious career was celebrated at the New York’s Guggenheim Museum on Dec. 3, 2023, with Works & Process: Lar Lubovitch at 80: Art of the Duet.
Lubovitch helped with preparations for the New York event in between teaching a course at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts in the fall and staging a piece at UCI for the winter quarter. The Guggenheim’s celebration featured five of the choreographer’s most famous pieces performed by principal dancers from around the country, as well as a conversation between Lubovitch and Wendy Whelan, associate artistic director of the New York City Ballet. The UCI community will have its own opportunity to celebrate Lubovitch and see one of his favorite ensemble pieces live, at Dance Visions 2024 in February.
My belief has never waned in the inspirational possibilities of dance to elevate the imagination.
“I still care about dance as much as I ever did in spite of the fact that my body no longer cooperates the way it used to,” Lubovitch said over Zoom, traveling between Dallas and Chicago to prepare dancers at different companies for their performance at the Guggenheim. “The good news is my belief has never waned in the inspirational possibilities of dance to elevate the imagination.”
Image: Alexandria Best and Elliot Hammans of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago perform Prelude to a Kiss as part of Works & Process: Lar Lubovitch at 80: Art of the Duet in NYC. Photo by Erick Munari
Always Back To Dance
For a famous choreographer, Lubovitch has an unlikely origin story. He grew up practicing gymnastics before studying art at the University of Iowa, where he stumbled into dance.
“It immediately appeared to be the two things I loved most put together: art and gymnastics,” he says. His years of gymnastics gave him upper body strength that made him an excellent partner and ignited his interest in duets. He went on to train at Juilliard, learning from José Limón and Martha Graham. And in 1968, Lubovitch established his eponymous dance company in New York. While he choreographs for ensembles, solos and everything in between, he especially enjoys duets, such as those featured in his 80thbirthday celebration.
“The calculus of four arms, four legs and two torsos allows for an endless array of possibilities,” Lubovitch reflects. “The essence of two beings dancing together — no matter how abstract the context —will always tell a story. When two people come together it’s a demonstration of trust, equanimity and mutual respect that the dancers have practiced over and over again in order to arrive at that moment on stage. It resonates to the audience in a felt way.”
Over six decades, Lubovitch has choreographed in much more than strictly dance settings. In the 1970s and ’80s, he created ice skating routines for Olympic champions Dorothy Hamill, Peggy Fleming and John Curry as well as a full-length Sleeping Beauty on ice for Robin Cousins. He choreographed several Broadway musicals, including Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. He even appeared in the Robert Altman movie The Company.
“But I always come back to dance,” Lubovitch says.
Arguably his most iconic work, set to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Concerto Six Twenty-Two, premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1986. The New York Times gushed, “There is something to cheer about when an already good choreographer comes gloriously into his own.” Created as the AIDS epidemic was intensifying, the duet featured two male dancers demonstrating care and support for each other and became emblematic of the crisis in which individuals were having to help one another through illness and grief. The dance became a central piece at multiple fundraisers to benefit AIDS care, research and education.
“Young people, unexpectedly, were helping friends through incomprehensible crisis with grace and dignity,” Lubovitch says. “In actuality, it’s a dance about friendship, one of the emerging themes of the epidemic.”
Image: UCI students perform in Lubovitch's Dvorák Serenade (2007) for Dance Visions 2019. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum
Works & Process: Lar Lubovitch at 80: Art of the Duet opened with a screening of a duet from the 1990s feature-length televised ice dance, The Planets. Then, the live performances began featuring dancers from American Ballet Theater, Bruce Wood Dance, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Joffrey Ballet, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and New York City Ballet.
The famous duet from Concerto Six Twenty-Two led, followed by an erotic duet Prelude to a Kiss, and the lyrical ballet Something About Night. Then the dark, final duet of Lubovitch’s full-length ballet Othello.
Closing out the performances was Lubovitch’s newest duet, Each in His Own Time, featuring two men dancing to Johannes Brahms’ Eight Piano Pieces Op. 76. Some have wondered if the duet is a follow up to his Concerto Six Twenty-Two. While not intended that way, Lubovitch admits it could be seen as a sequel.
“I have the music, I make the dance, I follow my intuition,” Lubovitch says. “Everything else is happening at a less than conscious level. I’m working on a plane of movement expression. It’s only later that we see these possible meanings emerge.”
Recognizing the significance of Lubovitch’s six decades of work, some have begun compiling archives for posterity. Lubovitch recently sat for hours of interviews with the New York Public Library, which is digitizing hundreds of performances and video recordings of his body of work. One of his former dance company members also has interviewed dozens of artists he set choreography on, and Lubovitch himself is writing individually about pieces that are especially meaningful to him.
“The question of legacy has been upfront in the last 10 years or so, mostly raised by dancers who have worked with me and are now trying to assemble a comprehensive archive,” he says. “I have never thought in terms of legacy — it’s been challenging enough just to have done the work.”
Lubovitch says finding one’s voice and staying true to it no matter the obstacles or criticisms, is the throughline of his career. “That’s a challenge for anyone in the creative arts, to speak as closely as possible with one’s authentic creative voice,” he says.
Image: Lubovitch oversees pre-show warmups with his UCI dancers before Dance Visions 2020. Photo by Will Tee Yang
Engaging at UCI
Those who work with Lubovitch at UCI cherish him for more than his art. He is described as a supportive colleague, committed educator and engaged leader who helps ensure that the CTSA prepares dancers for the professional world.
“He is acclaimed as an esteemed modern choreographer, celebrated for his unparalleled creativity and artistry, but he also is an exceptional human being,” says Dr. Kelli Sharp, chair of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ Department of Dance. “He is a huge asset for our school and the progression of our department, serving as an invaluable resource for our students as well.”
He is acclaimed as an esteemed modern choreographer, celebrated for his unparalleled creativity and artistry, but he also is an exceptional human being.
A dozen UCI students are working with Lubovitch to perform a jazz ensemble number from Coltrane’s Favorite Things, which he created in 2010 and is currently in Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s repertoire.
Sharp recalls watching CTSA student dancers strive to master Lubovitch’s choreography in the past. “It was beautiful to witness our dancers embark on a journey of growth, evolving from their initial challenges when they found the work to be particularly demanding,” she says. “He gave them space to embody the work, and their excitement and pride were evident in the finished piece.”
Lubovitch says he enjoys challenging the dancers he teaches and trains at UCI.
“In reality, we can’t be perfect or entirely meet our ideals,” he says. “But we are engaged in a practice in which striving for that guides our actions and potentially elevates the outcome.”
CTSA students will demonstrate the breadth of their dance styles for audiences of Dance Visions 2024 as well. In addition to Lubovitch’s jazz piece, they will perform hip hop, contemporary and classical ballet including George Balanchine’s Serenade. Sharp and assistant professor Cyrian Reed are co-artistic directors of the production, which runs Feb. 22-24, 2024, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
To learn more about the faculty in the Department of Dance, visit dance.uci.edu.
To purchase tickets to the upcoming Dance Visions 2024 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, visit www.arts.uci.edu/tickets.
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