Female Fusion: The Intersection of Art and Activism Invertigo Dance Theatre's Laura Karlin


Nancy Dobbs Owen

Laura Karlin, the visionary artistic director of Invertigo Dance Theatre, shares a sunny Culver City home with her partner Isak Ziegner, an artist and woodworker. There is a converted garage serving as the dance company office with room for 2 full time staffers in addition to Karlin, gorgeous wood throughout the remodeled kitchen, a bountiful garden, an older ailing rescue dog (who sadly passed away between the interview and publication) and a friendly, surprisingly vocal rescue cat. The entire atmosphere is open and welcoming, inviting collaboration and conversation. Even the post person is treated daily to freshly clipped flowers!

Karlin grew up in Southern California and in England. Her parents are both British and as a result, she has something approximating a Mid Atlantic accent, popular among the upper class denizens of stage and film. She has wild red hair and porcelain skin and the combination of these traits gives her a sort of elfin 1940s movie star quality. It is entrancing. It is also, as are physical descriptions in general, deceiving. Far from a fragile fairy, Karlin is a very modern, highly educated, determined and effective leader. She graduated summa cum laude from Cornell University with degrees in Choreography/Production and LGBT Rights, spending one of those years attending the London School of Economics and Social Sciences. After graduation, she returned to London, deepening her dance and choreography experiences by studying with such luminaries as Akram Khan and working with Snapdragon Dance and Synergy Dance Theatre.

Karlin returned to Los Angeles in 2006 to work on a commission with Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Company at the invitation of founder Kate Hutter. Though she planned to stay for only three months, she kept getting work and stayed because as she says with a laugh, you are not going to say, “Sorry actual people offering me actual things with actual money but I have a hypothetical career in another city that I have to scratch out of nothing in a city with a ton of gatekeepers....” She founded Invertigo Dance Theatre in 2007 because, “I'm not really phenomenal at waiting for other people to allow me to do something.” She always envisioned herself a choreographer and began at the tender age of eight; creating her own compositions and filling notebooks with stick figures, overhead views and movement phrases set to such 90s classics as Seal's eponymous first album and Enya's greatest hits. When she started her company, her office consisted of a laptop on her bed, but she initiated it with the same core values that continue today: the creation of community, of original work, of connections and a strong commitment to paying her dancers for their invaluable contributions all corralled by a dogged work ethic. Her community engagement was originally part of the vision, but there has been a learning curve and an institutional growth period to arrive at the multi-dimensional, in terms of artistry, management and community engagement, company that exists today. She acknowledges that everything from stubbornness, to “immense luck” to various forms of privilege account for the fact that over ten years later, Invertigo not only exists, but thrives in three distinct but interlinked components; Invertigo Dance Theatre Company, Dancing through Parkinson's, and Invert/ed, the community exchange educational program.

Invertigo Dance Theatre presents timely, vivacious and important work. It is kinetic, beautiful, thought provoking story-telling. Karlin runs the company as what she slyly refers to as a “benevolent monarchy.” Though there is a great deal of give and take in the process, Karlin is the decision maker. Dancers are brought on not because of what they look like or their physical virtuosity, but because of who they are. Her choreography and storytelling centers around various types of transformation: internal, emotional and in journey. “I like arcs...In any Invertigo show I want you to start one place, go to a lot of other places and then end a different place or end in the same place, but changed.” Karlin approaches physical objects with the same whimsy. She likes “when things can be other things....I think that the reason that transformation is so fascinating to me is that it is ultimately hopeful and it also acknowledges the absolute spectrum of possibility that we have. It allows for nuance and change, which are two threads in the work that I really strive for. I don't want to put anything black and white out there because I think that there are very few things that are without nuance. I like that Invertigo lives in in-between spaces. That it allows people to come to the work as they are and to be changed or to return to where they were but to see things through a different lens.”

Karlin is a politically and socially active person. She identifies as an intersectional feminist and works with many organizations as a private citizen. When asked how this affects her work, she is deliberate and thoughtful in answering. “I am not creating work that I would say preaches a particular viewpoint. I personally have many firmly held political or personal views about things. There are artists making incredible work coming more from a place of advocacy and activism. Where I seem to function as an artist is allowing situations and characters and contexts to be what they are and to look at things from different angles and different perspectives and to present things as I wish they were or I wish they would be treated.”

Photo Credit: Interior Design by Cheryl Mann Productions

Karlin works with a wonderful group of artists, both regular company members and an extended group for additional performances. She is constantly rethinking and broadening and questioning. She has always had a diverse racial makeup of dancers and doesn't hire to fill a rainbow, but is highly aware and active in terms of audience, community engagement, the cultural landscape and representation. She is constantly expanding language in casting, for example, “casting dancers of any gender classification”. She is specific that gender roles are fluid in her pieces, everyone lifts everyone else and she has couples of every combination. It is all in service of storytelling. The work often grows out of the dancers cast. 2014's Reeling, set in a bar, has both a Lesbian couple and a bi-sexual character, but their sexual identies are not the focus of the dance, their relationships and the situation that they are in are what is paramount. Interior Design, choreographed in 2017 tells the story of an interracial couple because Jonathan Bryant and Hyosun Choi are Black and Korean American respectively and they were the dancers cast. The story line grew out of those dancers' identities. Other elements of the story (which I won't spoil here!) are more universal. The combination of specific and universal is part of what makes the company so accessible. It comes down to “a rich variety of stories told by a rich variety of people.”

Family is important to Karlin and to the development of her company. Her partner Isak is integral to the evolution of it, from early set design, to catering benefits to the back and forth that comes from working in close quarters. Karlin has a close family, and describes her parents as lovely people. Her mother, a company board member, is active in the Dancing with Parkinson's baking cookies, taking classes and keeping everyone happy. Her brother Toby Karlin is “an insanely talented” musician and has composed numerous pieces for the company in addition to accompanying some classes. And her father, while loathe to describe himself as an artist, is supportive of those who are. This warm family dynamic carries over into the company, instilling a cohesive dynamic into the mix which is also embraced by Executive Director Tara Aesquivel and Brittany A. Gash, the Director of Marketing and Development, both of whom share the open office space.

In addition to collaborating with her dancers, Karlin has a symbiotic relationship with the mercurial dance community in Los Angeles and is quite a wonderful ambassador for it. She trained here, prior to college and then again after, and lists numerous Los Angeles artistic directors and choreographers as pioneers and inspiration; First is of course Kate Hutter, who brought her back to Los Angeles. Deborah Brockus, Lula and Tamica Washington, Ana Maria Alvarez, and Pat Taylor are all on the tip of her tongue,

and she has specific compliments for each. She admires Brockus' lovegevity, will and pursuit of vision. She is in awe of the family spirit that Lula, Erwin and Tamica Washington share and revel in. She is immensely grateful to Hutter. She laughs as she notes that they are all women, saying that there is something in the homegrown, grassroots landscape of Los Angeles that allows all of these brilliant self-created and self-motivated artists to thrive. These are powerhouse dance companies, yet there is a persistent outside vision of Los Angeles as a desert wasteland of dance. When asked about it, Karlin acknowledges the existence of the idea and posits that there could be an element of misogyny in the lack of national recognition for the heavily female led Los Angeles scene, but for the most part Karlin refuses to be distracted by negativity and remains “inspired by the amazing tapestry of arts” in the city. She also spends much of her time seeing these other companies, and promoting them, giving concrete action to the creation and maintenance of a solid dance community in the Southland. “I really believe in acknowledging the people around you and the exceptional work that they are doing and I believe in having a strong palate, a strong cultural landscape.” It is imperative to see (and support) other people's work. “You don't have to like it and you don't have to wish that you were making the same art....There is space for all of us to be saying what we need to say.”

Photo Credit: Joe Lambie

Dancing Through Parkinson's was founded in 2011, modeled upon the same program that is run in New York by the Mark Morris Dance group and Brooklyn Parkinson's Group. It consists of dance classes that are structured around the dancers present each day. This is “a real dance class. It is challenging.” Most classes start in a chair and progress to across the floor sequences and finish in a big circle. Dancers, caregivers, friends and family are all invited to dance together and everyone is encouraged to go at their own pace. Individuality is encouraged with the phrase “there are no mistakes, only solos.”

Even before founding Dancing Through Parkinson's, Invertigo and Karlin began cultivating a relationship with Inner City Arts, eventually creating Invert/Ed. This is a multi-disciplinary program bringing arts and storytelling workshops to numerous city venues. Examples include public programs for tots at Descanso Gardens and the Annenberg Center for the Arts, school residencies, both short and long term and The Storytelling through Movement workshops that are for performing artists as well as kids and other laypersons. Invertigo Dance Theatre, Dancing through Parkinson's and Inver/Ed are separate but related entities. When asked about the connectivity of the programs, Karlin brought up legendary choreographer Liz Lerman and her theory of vertical ranking. People are traditionally assessed in a vertical continuum, with “elite” dancers and athletes at the top, then weekend warriors, “regular” people, and at the bottom of the pole, those who are differently abled or confined to wheelchairs. What if instead, the line was horizontal and everyone were just different but on the same playing field. It is a brilliant concept and can be applied not only to movement, but to research and vision statements as well. Invertigo seems to work very much on the horizontal in the approach to theatre, education and community exchange, with no one aspect outranking the other.

“Dance theatre is an incredible lens and that lens can either be a mirror into which you look and you see yourself and then you are then able to see yourself a little bit differently or it is a window that you can look through and see the world in a different way or see a different part of the world, like both of those are really equally valid....and I think that art can really do both.”

Invertigo Dance Theatre is busy and performing next at The Palm Springs Dance Festival. Go and see this vibrant and important company.

Featured image photo credit: James Foote

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