BERKELEY -- Dana Lawton only signed up for a first-time modern dance class 28 years ago because a fencing class at the California Institute of the Arts was too full. Today, the East Bay choreographer stands poised, thrusting into a world premiere work, "Beyond This Moment." Currently the artistic director of Dana Lawton Dances, a tenured faculty member at St. Mary's College in Moraga, and a popular Bay Area modern dance and yoga instructor, she's jazzed about bringing her production, two years in the development, to Berkeley's Ashby Stage on Oct. 3 to 5.
Lawton will be packing the space to the rafters. Eight company dancers and four live musicians will explore and expand upon a lifetime of shared and individual memories in the 50-minute, multi-sectioned piece.
Longtime collaborator and lighting designer Linda Baumgardener (Lawton calls Baumgardener's lighting, "my ninth dancer,") will create unembellished, "sacred spaces."
"The thread of this has been in process," Lawton said. "I worked with specific memories, like the first time you realized a person you trusted wasn't there for you. The dancers talked about how it felt to have the rug emotionally pulled out from under them."
The magical metamorphosis, when thoughts linked to language transform themselves into liquid leg extensions or aching, arcing torsos, is the result of sweat as much as inspiration. Lawton's choreography, critically acclaimed for its fluid, highly sculpted evocations tinged with gentle, wry humor, flows organically, but not without original effort.
"I'd turn on music and the only parameter was to move for an hour, straight," she said. "I'd videotape, then pull five things that really spoke to me and to them. Then they'd work more. In the end, the movement is mine, peppered with theirs."
It's a common approach for contemporary choreographers, but verbal description fails to capture the grueling physical toll of deep movement investigations. Lawton's dancers, ranging in age from 24 to 58, offer a broad, physical palette.
"All dancers don't have to be 23 years old," she insisted. "Age range brings a richness to biographical work. Young bodies can be stellar, but someone who has lived in their body for a long time has a confidence and a deep knowing. There's joy and reverence: they don't just show up and jam it out."
Digging into memory revealed emotional scars. "Ashes" is a section intricately linked with a woman who was Lawton's "second mom." Lawton remembered her embrace -- and the woman's daughter, after scattering her mother's ashes, asking, "Do I wash my hands? Do I wipe my mother off?"
Lawton said honest work takes time to develop and she is grateful for the sabbatical year that is allowing her to slow down her pre-tenure pace. "I had to make a new piece every year. It was like having sex when you don't want to. They were good, but going into an emotional place and seeing what bubbles up -- that takes time to marinate, reflect, rest."
With two children, Henry, age 11 and 8-year-old Chester, life in her Oakland Redwood Heights home is hectic. Husband Jon Lawton is one of the musicians adding dimension to the new work's complexity.
Despite living in close quarters with a musician, she says musicians and dancers "have a totally different language" and the struggle is multifaceted. "With dancers, I can demonstrate an idea of texture with my body. Musicians look at you like you're crazy. And they never do anything for free. Ever. Dancers will work for beer."
Still, the reward of blending a classical cellist, a jazz/blues musician, an alternative rock star and a mandolin player is "incredibly satisfying," she said. "It's made my dancers better listeners. The sound they create is all over the map."
One memory, soldering the collective diversity of Lawton's concept and crew, remains crystalline. "I took that first class, and thought, 'This thing has existed for all time and no one told me!'" Lawton remembered. "I stayed for the next class, then the next. I knew then, I was going to be a dancer."
For tickets and details on "Beyond This Moment" Oct. 3-5 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. in Berkeley, visit www.dana