Professional dance careers tend to start young and end young, but Dana Lawton has defied the general rule. The Santa Barbara native hadn’t even stepped foot in a dance studio until her late teens, when she went to City College to study theater. “I was supposed to take fencing, but it was full, so I signed up for modern dance,” the choreographer and dance educator explained by phone last week. “I was a hot mess. I actually fell down and took someone with me. It was horrifying.”
Yet despite — or maybe because of — this performance, Lawton asked instructor Kay Fulton if she could stay on for the next class: ballet. Then she asked if she could stay for jazz.
“I came home that day and told my dad, ‘I know what I’m going to do for the rest of my life! I’m going to be a professional dancer and a teacher,’” she remembered.
Decades later, her declaration has proved true. Lawton is now based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she’s a tenured member of the performing arts faculty of Saint Mary’s College. She also teaches modern dance classes to the public at Berkeley’s beloved Shawl-Anderson Dance Center and leads her own company, Dana Lawton Dances. This weekend, she’ll bring her dancers and musicians back to her hometown to present Beyond This Moment, her first evening-length production that sold out the house last October in Berkeley.
Lawton’s late start as a dancer has translated into an interest in dancers of all ages; her company members range in age from 23 to 60. “I appreciate the athleticism and go-get-it attitude of young dancers,” she explained, but “older dancers live in their bodies in a really intelligent way that’s thoughtful and grounded.” As she sees it, asking older and younger dancers to work together brings “a depth to the younger dancers, a qualitative softness … and the older dancers step it up a little in terms of technique, too.”
Beyond This Moment is the result of a year and a half of creative exploration between Lawton, eight dancers, and four musicians, including her husband Jon Lawton. Live music will accompany the full-evening production. For Lawton, live music is more than a luxury; it’s a crucial aspect of performance that builds community. “It makes the dancers stronger to have to listen to what’s actually being played,” she explained, “and the musicians have to watch the dancers for cues. Everyone is more engaged.”
Choreographically, the program consists of 12 distinct sections alternating between high-energy numbers Lawton refers to as “jigs” and more meditative ones, including “Ashes,” which focuses on grief in the wake of a close friend’s death. Rather than following a single narrative, Lawton sees the evening as “an emotional journey” during which each performer evolves. And instead of setting out to provide answers, Lawton has been guided by questions, among them, “What is the difference between touching and holding?” and “What is the difference between releasing and letting go?”
Although Lawton’s clearly enthusiastic about her work with her company, she retains a particular fondness for teaching college students, especially those who are just starting out. “I can so relate to 17-year-olds who have no idea what they’re doing with their lives,” she explained. When she thinks back to her own first dance class at Santa Barbara City College, Lawton sees a critical turning point. “That moment when I stepped into that dance studio was this huge ‘Yes!’ in my life,” she said. “I just kept believing that if I kept entering the studio, it would keep unfolding in an amazing way. And it has.”
Dana Lawton Dances will perform Beyond This Moment at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo) on Friday, January 3, and Saturday, January 4, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org for tickets and info. For more about the company, visit danalawtondances.org.