Daniel Ezralow helps dance find its funny bone at Chutzpah fest

Whether he’s staging the Grammy Awards, Broadway shows, or contemporary work, the American choreographer aims for enjoyment

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      Daniel Ezralow has choreographed the Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony, the Grammy Awards, Broadway shows, Cirque du Soleil, David Bowie and Sting concerts, and the humour-spiked works he mounts with his own company, L.A.–based Ezralow Dance.

      The former Paul Taylor and MOMIX dancer has had an incredibly wild and diverse four-decade career. But there’s something that all his shows have in common—from epic ceremonies to intimate dance productions like the one his troupe is set to bring here for the Chutzpah Festival. Brace for it.

      “I make dance accessible,” the affable Ezralow says, owning the A word that so many dance artists avoid like the flu. He’s speaking to the Straight over the phone while he enjoys lunch with his dancers at a tour stop in Austin, Texas. “Air is accessible, life is accessible, and there shouldn’t be any reason we shouldn’t make our work accessible. People pay hard-earned money to see my shows. I want them to feel good when they come out.

      “I’m very pointedly directing this show to get people who don’t love dance to enjoy,” he adds of the episodic Open, a Canadian premiere when it plays here. “My intention is to get everyone there. I want people who like football to like it.”

      Open reflects Daniel Ezralow's emphasis on humour.
      Angelo Radaelli

      Among the brisk and playful vignettes audiences will see when his company hits town: a wedding scene that turns into a boxing match; an ode to Carmen with finger puppets; a weary, overworked man who finds a mermaid wrapped in kelp. Expect choreography with the physicality of gymnastics, lots of video-projection eye candy, and classical music by composers like Frédéric Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach backing it all up. But most of all, you will find laughter—not a reaction you normally associate with a contemporary-dance performance.

      “Humour—it’s so important!” Ezralow says. “If you look at Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Jim Carrey, the way they move their body. In dance we have conditioned ourselves to be serious about it.…It’s actually very hard to give people humour and lightness. We’re all so heavy, it’s a very easy thing to be heavy and to see tragedy. It’s very hard to see things as good. Dance should have joy and irony.”

      That same kind of joy seems to be what drives Ezralow, a father of three, on a lifelong adventure that regularly takes him around the world, from staging epic productions in China to, as he did earlier this week, judging an Italian TV dance show. What keeps his excitement and creative juices flowing after all these years?

      “I’m passionate, but it’s more complicated than that,” he offers thoughtfully. “I’m really curious about life. I kind of feel like a kid every time. I know I’m not—my body doesn’t feel like a kid’s anymore!”

      Ezralow reflects on where it all started, when he first took dance classes at Berkeley while studying for all his premed courses. Dance carried him away from his intended career as a doctor, and he’s never looked back.

      “There are no answers along the way—only the answers I created for myself,” he concludes. “There’s no manual or book about how to do it. The only testament you have is to be sensitive to everything you do—to become more sensitive to the performers and the people you collaborate with, and to the audiences.

      “So stay awake. And stay sensitive.”

      The Chutzpah Festival presents Ezralow Dance from next Thursday to Saturday (February 15 to 17) at the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre.