I sat down at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in downtown Burbank with Jacob "Kujo" Lyons, choreographer and artistic director of Lux Aeterna Dance Company. The company is premiering its new work, "Eponym", at the Theatre Raymond Kabbaz in West L.A this week.Jessica Abrams:
Tell me a little bit about what you're going to be presenting in the performance coming up.Jacob "Kujo" Lyons:
We're going to be performing two separate works. One is the same duet that you saw at the Western Arts Alliance Conference that will kick off the show. That's called "Catch Me If You Can". It was previewed at the J.U.i.C.E Hip-Hop Dance Festival at the Ford Theatre two years ago – not really finished – we just kind of threw it on stage to see how people would respond to it. We renamed it "Human Floatation Devices" [laughs] 'cause we thought that was funny and we did the official premiere at Celebrate Dance last year. We did it again at Western Arts Alliance Conference. It's a duet between myself and one of my dancers. Her name is Toogie – Teresa Toogie Barcelo. After that there will be a short pause where we change clothes and catch our breaths and then we'll go into this big, evening-length work that's called "Eponym". This is a work that we were commissioned to create by an urban dance theatre festival in Costa Rica three and a half years ago. We premiered it there; they asked for a forty-minute show and it ended up being a sixty-minute show and it's a mix of urban dance and contemporary circus.
There's a long story of how that came to be, but in short, Lux Aeterna has not only done our own work in dance festivals and whatnot, but we began to sort of subcontract in circus and other similar companies to provide the dance element for another kind of show, like a circus show or a drum show along the lines of Stomp! And with the circus company we worked with, we ran into some arguments that were based on economics, for example. We would get paid kind of shitty, compared to the acrobats because we were dancers, not acrobats (as we were told). But we thought, we kind of are acrobats because we have gymnastics training, we have breakdance training, we're kind of flying around the stage here and getting injured – sometimes – in ways that even your higher-paid acrobats are not getting injured, so what's going on? Why are we getting a third of the pay? So ultimately I fought on behalf of the company for a higher rate, but we also thought, wouldn't it be cool if we could learn what they do? Knowing that they can't learn what we do? And we did. We all became acrobats, aerialists, officially. So we all learned various aerial arts — hand balancing, hand-to-hand, body-to-body partner acro, things like that. We learned all of these things and we integrated it into our dancing both in the circus and then outside the circus. So, for example, we would get booked by the same circus company, not as dancers but as acrobats and aerialists which was cool because we would get paid better and plus we'd have the satisfaction of proving them wrong – proving the director wrong. And then we got this commission to create a show. And we thought, wouldn't it be cool to put this all together? So it took on a contemporary circus vibe as opposed to a Barnum and Bailey vibe or a Cirque du Soleil vibe because of an experience I had where I got invited to perform in a circus show in Berlin for four months back in October-November of 2010 and stayed there for four months and I learned Chinese pole, I learned duo straps and I learned that style of circus which is very distinct from what we in the U.S. think of when we think of circus. We usually think of lions, tigers and bears or we think of the crazy clowns and leotards and Cirque du Soleil with way too much color and way too much money thrown into it. We don't think of circus as being simplistic, bare bones, just two people relating to each other in really amazing ways on stage. So that's a different kind of circus – it's actually quite old; we're just not familiar with it. And that's called "Nouveau Cirque" and it originated in France in the seventies. It could be almost post-modern at times; but ultimately it's just stripped-down, bare-bones circus, in the same way that a lot of dance is. When you think about modern dance compared to ballet: a lot of stuff is stripped away, costumes were simplified, themes were more earthy and personal rather than ethereal. So it's the same thing. I took a lot of influence from that show. The show was called "Versus", put on by a company called Circle of Eleven. They're well known in Europe for doing really avant-garde circus but it's also really – what's the word – accessible – very accessible. So we thought, let's try to do something like that, but from a hip-hop standpoint. Because we're all break dancers – b-boys, b-girls, poppers. We have a different sort of background, but because of this prior experience – fighting with this other circus company over pay, basically – we've all become acrobats. Pretty bona fide acrobats and aerialists.JA:
And when you say "we all", how many of you were there at the time?JKL:
And all five you had gotten to the place where you were good acrobats.JKL:
Yeah, and in a fairly short amount of time because of our training as urban acrobats, so to speak. The great thing about breaking is that you can pretty much take up anything you want after that.JA:
Because it's so physically challenging.JKL:
It's so physically challenging. You know your body so well that your coordination skyrockets, so you can end up picking up choreography really well. That's why so many have succeeded in Hollywood. You can end up picking up stunt work and gymnastics and other styles of dance and circus arts. The latter is pretty rare, but it's happening. I have some good friends in New York that are also following a similar path. They have their own company – I think it's called Hybrid Movement Company – but they're b-boys and b-girls who are also bona fide aerialists and acrobats. They're amazing. They're doing their own thing out there. So we have Lux here, and we're the only company this side of the country that's doing what we do which is this – I hate to overuse the word "fusion"—but it's this meeting, this integrating, of very different vocabularies: the hip-hop vocabulary which is really rough and rugged; and then the contemporary vocabulary, where we smooth everything out, we have a lot more legato, we have a lot more lines. Plus the acrobat and aerial vocabulary, which brings a heightened sense of danger to our performances. It's really satisfying and it's really exhausting and it's brutal and we love every minute of it.JA:
Tell me specifically what this show is going to consist of.JKL:
"Eponym" is a five-person show – two women, three men. About seventy-five minutes. There are eleven acts, eleven pieces in the show. It's more challenging than a typical circus show in which, for example, you would see everybody doing a simple little dance in the beginning and then a simple little dance at the end. I mean, simple — that acrobats can do. And then the acrobats individually would do one or two acrobatic acts that are between four to six minutes throughout the show. They would all take turns. It might be eight or ten or twelve performers in a circus show, for example and that's it. So they go on stage maybe four times and one or two of those times are really challenging. The other two, not so much. So, with "Eponym" what we've done from a pragmatic standpoint is –partly because of my experience in Berlin where everybody did three acrobatic acts which was a big step up for me in terms of fatigue. Stamina. And strength. And on top of that, the choreography was more challenging. So everyone would have to go out three to four times and do choreography that was not your standard, simplistic acrobat choreography. I thought that was really amazing. But with Lux I thought that I could step it up a little bit within reason partly for economic reasons again (and logistical reasons as well) — because I couldn't imagine working with too many people – with eight people, or ten people. For practical reasons as well, in terms of being here in Hollywood where everyone has an audition to go to that they will happily skip a rehearsal for and reasons of cost. We have a finite budget. The more people you have, the less you can pay them. And the cost for the organization – they would be less likely to bring us out – or future organizations might be less likely — because of having too many costs associated with having too much equipment or too many plane tickets, hotels, etcetera. So I thought, how low can I scale this down and not kill my performers? [laughs]JA:
Did you say "kill your performers"? Or "kill your performance"?JKL:
Both. [laughter] This is a little bit of a trend you see too in the circus community: people are trying to see how small they can make a show. There are two and three-person circus shows that are unbelievable but you can only imagine what they feel like after the show is done. Even Traces [a work of the 7 Fingers Circus Company out of Montreal] – they're one of the big nouveau cirque companies that have really stripped things down visually so it's really bare-bones – t-shirts and jeans and things like that. They are always on stage and they are dead after a show. We didn't want to go that far, but we wanted to go in that direction. So I thought, well, five people would be kind of cool. We can get a few solos, we can get a few duos, we can get some group work. We can mix better dancing than we're used to because we're all professional dancers first, and it could work. Over time we've had to really up our endurance because that is more challenging than any of us had ever done. For me it's more challenging than Berlin which at the time was more challenging than anything I'd ever done prior to that. So it's a really hard show, to put it simply. When people ask me what it's about I really struggle for words and would just prefer that they watch it and sort of make their own opinions and that has not always worked in our previous performances. People often don't know what to make of it, but they really like it. However, in Europe – and I really feel like this works for Europe — they had a lot to say. We performed at a big circus festival in Holland which prides itself on integrating a lot of hip-hop into the week-long festival. They had us kick it off. They had us open the festival, which is really cool because we do both at an equal level. The audience had a lot to say afterwards. We went into the theater's lounge – lobby – where there was a little bit of an after-party, a reception sort of thing, and lots of people had so much to say and they took away so much from the show and had lots of questions about what this meant and what that meant– stuff that we didn't hear from our U.S. audiences and may or may not have gotten from our Costa Rican and Panamanian audiences (for reasons of language barrier, for example). Really fascinating, and I'll be curious to see what people think of it this time around.
It does deal a lot with relationships. It deals a lot with alienation – with belonging and not belonging, with group dynamics and things like that. But these are very general parameters. I think people can sort of take what they want from it.
"Eponym" has relationships that can be read as romantic, but different kinds. They're really not very romantic at all. We took as our jumping-off point some of the other styles, Greek styles, of love, such as Ludus being very flirtatious and very temporary and very ephemeral kind of love. And we have Toogie again with her other partner displaying that sort of relationship. And I need to double-check what it's called, but it's a little bit more psychotic and dramatic – between myself and my partner, Wendy. There is a Greek name for it and I cannot remember it but it's almost manic-depressive, almost bi-polar. It's really tender and romantic and then it's really violent and then tender again and we have an aerial act together that's full of pain – literal pain. The act is called aerial straps – duo straps, really – and duo straps, along with Chinese pole, are probably the most painful circus act you could learn, second only to chain acts, where people hang by chains. You cut off circulation in your arms and wrists while you're supporting another person. But it's great because we don't have to act. The violence and the pain – that's there. She's hanging from me and then I drop her. And it's very real because she's really falling and I'm really in pain. It's meant to be literal and metaphorical at the same time.JA:
Tell me about how you got into this.JKL:
Gosh, I started breakdancing twenty-two years ago. I was a sophomore in high school here in Burbank. It was what I desperately needed and didn't know it – because as a teenager trying to find himself at that time where gangs were everywhere –JA:
Were they really?JKL:
Oh, yeah, they were everywhere. Here in Burbank as well. Burbank isn't thought of that way now – it's very gentrified, as is Pasadena, where I also grew up – but growing up in Pasadena, northern Pasadena, which was Crip territory, you couldn't avoid it. You couldn't not see it. And those were my friends. They were gangsters or themselves had friends or family members who were gang members. It was everywhere. It was just part of the culture, as unfortunate as that might be. So you never got away from it completely. Getting kicked out of high school for a really close call with some really bad violence, I got sent to an institution to sort of rehabilitate. And the institution was meant to be preventative, to stop me from committing crimes because they thought I was going that way (and I was). Coming out of that institution and being a fifteen year-old kid trying to find an identity in this crazy world that was gang-infested Los Angeles, I needed something to take me away from that and that was hip-hop, breaking. I was already into hip-hop anyway, but just not that aspect of it – not the dance aspect of it which was very positive. Still very close with lots of gangs, because gangs were at all the parties, gangs were in the families of my dancer friends, they were friends with my dancer friends, so it was always one or two degrees of separation. Constantly. Even when, trend-wise, a lot of the black and Latino kids got out of it, quit dancing because it wasn't cool anymore and the Asian kids started to do it because it was suddenly cool for them, it was the same thing, except now it was Asian gangs. It was constant. You were constantly around it. But, despite that, I did get into it – I got into dancing. I threw myself into it because I was told right away that I had some talent for it, especially the acrobatic aspects of it. So I stuck with it. After high school, all my friends quit. Many of them became gangsters themselves, and I didn't want any part of that. I went back to Pasadena, to Pasadena City College. I made new friends there that were dancers. I just continued and that went on for about five years and I got my first professional job. And then a few more years of working and dancing professionally here and there and then I became a full-time professional dancer about fourteen years ago, I think. I stopped working and stuck with dance full-time.
While in college I got interested in choreography. I had a great teacher named Paula Thompson who pulled me in, literally forced me, to take her choreography class at Cal State Northridge and I fell in love with it, despite thinking I'd be no good at it (and still don't think I'm great at it – I still deal with this every day in rehearsal). But I majored in kinesiology with a focus in dance, in choreography, graduated finally, five years ago, and started my company while I was still in college. Lux Aeterna started in 2006, so eight years now. My mom ran into Jamie Nichols [Executive Producer of Celebrate Dance] at work, at the Huntington Library where both my parents worked, and my mom talked me up to this dance person that she happened to meet and Jamie Nichols contacted me, asked us to perform at a couple of her events, including Celebrate Dance and that got us into the L.A. concert dance scene which was brand new for me, gave me a platform to showcase some of my choreography, and there's much, much more.JA:
Tell me about the name, "Lux Aeterna".JKL:
Lux Aeterna is Latin for "eternal light". I called it that because, from a sort-of spiritual standpoint, I believe that we are very literally beings of light. Physically, too – we're all stardust, as some scientists like to say. And that much of what we have the capacity to do in this lifetime is to share that light, to share the highest expressions of who we are as human beings. And I mean that virtually but also scientifically, developmentally, intellectually, physically, artistically. In every sphere of every human influence and human activity, I believe we have the capacity and even the responsibility to share that, to bring out the best of ourselves, to share that with other people and thus inspire them to bring out the best of themselves in the process and then it becomes a positive feedback loop (to take something out of physiology class) and make the world a better place, at least artistically, in the way that we can.
So Lux has always done these really spiritual, really ethereal works, even though I'm saying that Eponym is a little bit divorced from ethereal work, like ballet. We did want to do, at least initially, a lot of ethereal kinds of work because we thought that it would be really interesting to take a really rough and rugged art form like breakdancing and hip-hop and make it beautiful. And not just pretty, but beautiful. And by "beautiful", I mean sublime. Take that sublime element that you see in the greatest work you've ever seen, or the greatest work of music you've ever heard, like Beethoven, like the great operas, and try to integrate that into something that is derived from a hip-hop background, and thus transform hip-hop into something slightly different, the most beautiful version of itself. You know what I mean? So that is obviously met with some controversy in the hip-hop community. Not everybody likes it. And that's fine – they don't have to. It's just my version of what I think hip-hop can be.
And it's only one of my versions. I like hip-hop the way it is too. But I like to explore to this side – that I think is not really there, but that I think could be there.
Lux Aeterna Dance Company's Jacob "Kujo" Lyons