Reveling in Dance: Dana Lawton

Dana Lawton It began with a generous offer of a ride to dance rehearsal 17 years ago. Fresh out of graduate school at Mills College, Dana Lawton caught a lift with Catherine Marie Davalos, who at the time was putting together the dance program at Saint Mary’s. After discovering that Lawton had an M.F.A. in dance, Davalos offered her a job. Lawton accepted right away, and immediately began teaching balletusing a boom box. Seventeen years later the boom box is gone, but Lawton remains on campus blazing new roads for dance at Saint Mary’s.

When she’s not fostering her students’ passion for dance at Saint Mary's, Lawton celebrates her love for the craft and the success of her company, Dana Lawton Dances. The group's new show, Beyond This Moment, premiered at Berkeley's Ashby Stage in October 2013.

Lawton spent a year and a half choreographing the show, an exploration of “the thematic material of memory,” for eight dancers ranging in age from 23 to 66. The wide age span of Lawton’s dancers enriches the focus on memory. One dance, “Ashes,” revisits the death of Lawton’s dear friend’s mother. The dancers gathered to talk about loss and death and Lawton said the “richness and density of that conversation . . . would not be there if it was all twenty-five-year-olds.”

Lawton also turned to fellow Saint Mary’s faculty members Linda Baumgardner for lighting design and Rojelio Lopez for set design. Four musicians accompany the show with live music, an increasingly rare event. “Live music makes dancers smarter,” she said.

After opening at the Ashby Stage to four sold-out performances, the show then traveled to Lawton’s hometown of Santa Barbara where it again sold out and received excellent reviews. Continuing its winning streak, the company has been invited to perform at a festival in the south of France.

Lawton will be re-choreographing her show to fit the elements of her performance spaces, one outside surrounded by forest and the other in an art gallery. She said she is excited by the creative opportunity, designing the gallery performance as if it were an exhibit, staging parts of it throughout the gallery and encouraging the audience to walk through the space as if they were looking at still art.

Back in the Bay Area, Dana Lawton Dances now has a permanent home as a resident company at the Flight Deck, a performance space in Oakland. The group will debut its first show there in April 2015. Back on campus from a sabbatical, Lawton has returned to teaching dance technique and yoga, serving as a faculty member on the Academic Honor Council, and choreographing pieces for the Spring Dance Show. And summer holds exciting promise with the new M.F.A. in Dance program launching in June and Lawton settling in as chair of the Performing Arts Department in July.