With more than 100 works to his name, many in the repertories of the world’s top companies, Lar Lubovitch is one of the world’s most prolific and well-known choreographers. Born in Chicago, he grew up painting, drawing and sculpting, as well as excelling at gymnastics. But while studying art at the University of Iowa, he experienced the proverbial life-changing moment when he saw a performance by the José Limón Company, which inspired him to leave school, move to New York and audition for Juilliard. “To get in, I had to choreograph a dance, which I had never done before,” Lubovitch recalls, “but I had a room overnight in advance of my audition, and I put the bed up on its head so there was a little room to work and I made a dance.”
It must have been some dance. At Juilliard, he studied with Limón himself, as well as Antony Tudor, Anna Sokolow and Martha Graham, and went on to perform in a number of modern, ballet, jazz and ethnic companies before founding Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in 1968. Lubovitch has spent the four decades since crafting an eclectic oeuvre that has been hailed for its musicality and emotional depth. Restlessly creative, he has jumped effortlessly between idioms, choreographing for ballet, Broadway (Into the Woods, The Red Shoes, The King and I) and even ice dancing.
He has been active on the education front as well, launching initiatives for high school and college students, as well as professional dancers. Open Doors, for example, is a yearlong program that enables a select group of NYC public school students to experience and discuss dance performances with members of Lubovitch’s troupe.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the NYC–based company, and a grand U.S. tour that began in April will continue through February 2009, highlighted by a week of November performances at New York City Center. Lubovitch takes a moment here to look back—and forward.
Dance Teacher: What have you learned about running a company and being an artistic director that you didn’t anticipate in the beginnning?
Lar Lubovitch: I don’t know where to begin with that, really, but I have to say there’s an overall theme of acquiring a knack for patience. It’s a very difficult thing to accumulate, but the idea of patience is the only sort of quieting thing that opens the door to possibility.
DT: Was it difficult to get things off the ground?
LL: I think it became more difficult later, because at the beginning I didn’t know anything. At the beginning you are inventing as you go along and, consequently, there is no real knowledge of right or wrong, or forward or backward. It’s just sort of a young, unknowing process that causes you to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. There is not much to fear and not much to dread, because you don’t know what’s fearful and dreadful yet. It’s very exciting and you just keep going forward. But later, as you begin to accumulate information, it becomes harder and more challenging.
DT: And what are some of your biggest challenges now?
LL: I think it’s always been keeping the wolf from the door. You never know if you are going to continue, and the only reason I have gone this long is that nothing has stopped me.
DT: Why do you think that is?
LL: I am very tenacious, and I think I’ve been unwilling to admit failure and never really had any sort of great imposing sense of success. I think I’ve always felt that I could get it right the next time if I just keep trying. But I don’t think I have ever thought of it in terms of having succeeded in any way or having accomplished in any finite or finished version anything I’ve set out to do.
It’s all been process, really. I think I’m interested in the process more than the result. I mean, I love the result—I must not be false about that. I love when there is a dance onstage and people are enjoying and appreciating it. But that is, probably, in terms of time, the smallest part of the way life is spent. A great deal more of your career is spent in process.
DT: As an artist, how would you say your creative process has changed over the years?
LL: Of course, I have amassed a lot of technique, just the way dancers do as they train over a number of years. They have an inner knowing in their muscles, and I think that the same brain-body connection happens with choreography—you accumulate a lot of things you can rely on to move a dance forward.
It’s a cliché to say so, but most of making a piece of art is work and searching, and there’s always a time schedule. A piece has to be done and inspiration simply is not to be waited for. You just have to do your job. People are relying on you and you can’t let them down. I don’t know how others feel about that, but I’m not willing to let people down.
DT: What helps you get going at those times when you feel less than inspired?
LL: Well, that’s when I have to rely on the accumulated technique and devices that I can use to trigger movement when I can’t think of it. There are lots of studio practices that I can involve to create an environment in which movement will unfold. . . . Patience again comes into the picture very strongly, because one tends to become judgmental when nothing is happening and, frequently, there is nothing happening. I have to remind myself to be patient in order to be open to the moment, so that when something occurs I can grasp it. Then, of course, there are movement games and tricks that I’ve evolved.
I also know the music very, very well when I go into the studio—so well that I don’t have to have it playing. I’ve listened to it countless times by then, and that is a device I’ve learned to rely on. Choreographers work from many different viewpoints; I work from the music.
DT: You’ve worked in a lot of different fields. What elements of each do you enjoy the most and how do they inform one another?
LL: There is an aesthetic sensibility that underlies everything, but it’s utilized in different ways. When I’m working with a director in a Broadway theater, for instance, it’s not my own judgment that is the final analysis of what’s going to happen; I have to work to bring to life somebody else’s vision. I’m trying to make a dance that he would make if he could choreograph. It’s a challenge, but an interesting challenge.
I like to move through different areas because I tend to get bored, and I want to keep myself alive creatively, and the only way to do that is to gravitate to different challenges. Ice skating is a very different world of time—one step of ice dance lasts way longer than one step of dance movement and, consequently, utilizes much more of the music.
DT: Let’s talk about your education initiatives. How did they come about?
LL: Well, it’s not teaching dance itself. I don’t like to teach “dance.” I do a good deal of that in rehearsal. I mean, that is what choreographing is about—it’s teaching dancers to dance the way you envision for the piece you are making. These programs are all about educating young people to the fact that dance exists, that it’s a very powerful form and very humanistic. Most of it involves educating young people to understand dance in the world, but not to become dancers, necessarily.
DT: What do you hope to accomplish in your next 40 years as an artist and company director?
LL: I can’t exactly predict or envision where I’m going. I haven’t taken the customary route of having formed a company, stuck with it and never done anything else. I’ve tried to utilize the idea of “company” as a creative center rather than as a touring idea, and worked in all of these various fields. And I think that the unpredictability has kept it interesting for me. I don’t think I could have followed the master plan set by people like Martha Graham and all of the other great modern dance masters who formed companies and worked them to their last breath. I think I’m a little less planned and a little more curious about where it will take me, rather than where I will take it. DT