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In 'Tov,' Rosanna Gamson ponders her family history -- and more

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In fall 2005, Rosanna Gamson had one of those jarring, do-or-die career epiphanies as she watched a production by the avant-garde Polish theater company Song of the Goat at UCLA. "The way those performers sang, danced and told a story moved and impressed me to the point where I knew I had to go learn how to do that," she recalls.

A Los Angeles-based choreographer with a zest for cross-cultural collaboration and multimedia productions, Gamson wound up traveling twice to Poland and studying with three avant-garde theater companies faithful to the performance techniques created by experimental director Jerzy Grotowski. She also turned to her own family's Polish Jewish roots for inspiration after years of "very enthusiastically investigating everyone else's cultural heritage. Other people's stories had always seemed more suggestive of rich movement traditions," she says.

The result of Gamson's intertwined investigations will be on display starting Thursday when her company Rosanna Gamson/World Wide performs the world premieres "Tov" (the Hebrew word for good) at REDCAT.

The production incorporates the theatrical movement and vocal training she received from the Polish companies and features a vocal score created by the CHOREA Theatre Assn. in Lodz, Poland.

More than four years in the making, it represents the culmination of Gamson's efforts to successfully integrate an ambitious array of textual, technical and human elements. These include:

* A cast of 17 performers, including three members from the CHOREA collective and Gamson's 12-year-old daughter

* A text that interweaves Gamson's familial history with a story about a type of wild horse that two German zoologists attempted to breed back from extinction

* Songs in multiple languages, including Polish, Yiddish and Bulgarian

* A set with a living room, fake snow and lots of kosher salt

* Plenty of the rigorous and technically demanding dancing that has characterized much of Gamson's oeuvre.

"I guess you could say this is the equivalent of my doing the big Broadway show," says the 50-year-old choreographer, joking that she stopped short of procuring live horses for the production.

"But, really, this is what I've been trying to do for what feels like the last 450 years, which is to create a committed physical performance that's not about making designs but about metaphor and creating empathy."

Mark Murphy, REDCAT's executive director, says he believes that "among choreographers and performance artists in L.A., Rosanna is one of the best poised to work in a truly interdisciplinary fashion, and I believe this work has a chance to be a significant step in furthering her career."

REDCAT co-commissioned a full-length version of "Tov" after it appeared as a 24-minute work-in-progress at the center's annual NOW Festival in 2008, and garnered the support of the National Performance Network and the Myrna Loy Center for the Performing and Media Arts in Helena, Mont.

"The piece has a universal theatrical language, and I think the collaboration with these significant Polish artists translates quite well into international touring opportunities," says Murphy.

The challenges of polishing this "theatrical language" played out during a recent rehearsal at the Diavolo dance company's warehouse-like space in downtown Los Angeles. Gamson, a tall, striking woman who smiles frequently, even when stressed out, spent a considerable chunk of time coaching her cast on the simultaneity of singing a Bulgarian folk song while performing a circle dance. A few members were absent, including the three Polish performers who had worked with the cast in January and were due to arrive the following week.

"Can you do the dancing clean and small?" Gamson suggested as the performers struggled with the task of rhythmically uniting the song with the dance.

"This is definitely pushing me as an artist," said Rachel Butler-Green, a dancer working with Gamson for the first time, during a brief rehearsal break. "I could always dance in front of thousands of people but have always had stage fright when it comes to singing."

Over coffee at an Echo Park café a few days before the rehearsal, Gamson conceded she currently exists in a "state of fear. With this show, I had all the resources I needed and I don't want to blow it," she said.

Because of the subject matter, with its allusions to genocide, Gamson feels the added pressure to succeed. "I don't think I'd feel entitled to the subject if my family wasn't involved in it," she said.

Raised as a secular Jew in New York and Italy, Gamson knew little of her family's history, aside from an ancestor, Nachum Ish Gamzu, a Jewish scholar from the 2nd century. After seeing the Song of the Goat production, she called her Polish father, started asking questions, and discovered her relatives had worked as horse traders in Szczecin, Poland, before either emigrating or perishing in the Holocaust. Gamson began researching the history of the tarpan horse and the efforts to bring it back from extinction in pre- World War II Germany.

"It really struck me that the attempt to resurrect a dead line of Aryan horse species happened around the same time that Hitler began his campaign to exterminate the Jews," she said.

Gamson, however, resolved to steer clear of overt references to the Holocaust, believing that any theatrical representation would "trivialize it, as it would any genocide." She also doesn't consider the production to be a Jewish work.

"Jews might see it as a Jewish piece, but it never mentions the Jews, the Nazis, or even God. It is the story of my family, but that just sets up a context to explore, 'What are the stories we keep telling and in the end, what is it that we pass on?' " she said.

For that reason, Gamson cast Paul Outlaw, an African American actor, as the narrator. "Her text has enough ambiguity in it, where I can think it's talking about me," Outlaw says.

He has collaborated with Gamson since 2000. "Tov" is one of her strongest pieces, he says, "though I'm biased. Rosanna gets bored easily, which is what informs a lot of her work. She always had to have a million things happening at the same time. But I think over the years she's learned to pare things, and 'Tov' has a lot of stillness in it."

It seems that Gamson has learned some lessons from recent works such as the 2004 "Aura," for which she co-collaborated with the Mexican choreographer Cecilia Appleton, and her technology-heavy 2007 "Ravish," based on the lives of the Brontë sisters and which featured video projections and an interactive floor.

In the case of "Tov," she has tried hard not to allow her co-collaborators and technical elements to overshadow her artistic intentions and goals.

"I really got my way with this piece, and I've worked really hard to think everything through, down to each piece of clothing the performers wear," she said.

If anything, Gamson hopes that audiences will understand that she's created a work about resilience. "Ultimately, we go on, one generation to the next," she said. "That's why my daughter Delilah is in the piece. I think it's the best thing I can say, that we continue."

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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