Benjamin Levy entered college as a future pediatrician. He left as a dancer — not exactly what his Jewish Iranian parents had in mind. "They were not pooh-poohing it," Levy recently recalled. "They just had no frame of reference. It was not even in their lexicon."
After graduating from UC Berkeley, Levy danced with the Joe Goode Performance Group for two seasons. "He was such a beautiful mover. He could do anything and was a good inventor and great collaborator," Goode says. "But it was very clear that he needed to do his own thing." So in 2003 the newly formed LEVYdance company made its first splash as part of the second House Special, ODC Theater's two-week residency program. The following year the company made its East Coast debut, and the dancers have been back every year since. In 2005 they were chosen for the prestigious California Regional Touring Project. Last March they performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as part of its "Minimalist Jukebox” festival. Last month they embarked on their first international tour — a two-week gig in Lithuania. The company has given workshops across the country and worked with college ensembles. Recently, it moved into its own large and handsome studio South of Market. And all of this with a repertory of barely a dozen pieces.
So what makes LEVYdance so hot? For one thing, the dances crawl under your skin. Levy's pieces look a little bit like creepy film noir. Shadowy forces lurk inside the voluptuously strong dancers, but you can't quite pin those forces down. And actually, you probably don't really want to know why a hug turns into a chokehold or flailing limbs get so entangled that you wonder whether they'll ever return to their owners. The intensity is fierce. The choreographer describes Violent Momentum, a 2005 commission from ODC and Meet the Composer, as "being with the rawest part of yourself. It may be an uncomfortable experience, it may be an embracing one, but ultimately, it's an important, sobering journey."
And yet Levy's work is gorgeous to look at. He embeds finely detailed choreography into theatrical contexts with sophisticated lighting designs, stark but elegant costumes, and imaginative and oft-original scores. This is a man of the theater, maybe even an old-fashioned man of the theater.
Levy started to dance and choreograph in high school ("It fulfilled a PE requirement, and I didn't want to run laps"), but his eyes were opened by his Martha Graham training. It's as much Graham's ethics as her movement that impressed him: "Life is too precious to mess around. If you can't be here fully, don't show up." Used to seeing a lot of dance that he describes as "the ooey, gooey, never-ending releasy soup," Levy appreciated that in Graham "a hard line could be a hard line, and it could stay there and be energized and buzz with life. That was so exciting."
Up next is an untitled work to be premiered at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco in 2007. It will be the biggest piece Levy has done yet. "It's about how identity is formed in first-generation Americans who are born of parents who fled oppressive governments," he says. "The interesting thing is that it is a veiled past — a past that is vast and influential, yet your parents don't speak about it very much."
So are his parents reconciled to not having a pediatrician in the family? "My mom not too long ago said to me that doctors can heal bones, but artists can heal human souls," Levy says with a smile. (Rita Felciano)