Rudy Perez and Laura Bleiberg Will Be Missed By LA’s Dance Community
Groundbreaking choreographer Rudy Perez, a trailblazer of postmodern dance, dies at age 93
Groundbreaking choreographer Rudy Perez, a pioneer of 1960s postmodern dance, died Friday, according to Sarah Swenson, a fellow choreographer, friend and member of Perez’s company.
Perez died of complications from asthma. He was 93.
Perez’s minimalist but wildly experimental work, marked by spare, precise movements, helped ignite a budding Los Angeles dance scene after he moved west from New York in the late 1970s. L.A.’s open spaces and natural landscapes inspired his innovative, site-specific works; and his interpretive abstract expressionism was so revelatory at the time, it opened up the dance landscape to new approaches.
“He came to L.A. as a major artist, a choreographic genius known for making his own rules,” choreographer Lula Washington told the Los Angeles Times in 2015, adding that Perez was an influence on her. “There was nobody here doing that type of experimentation then. He allowed other people to see the possibilities.”
Perez told The Times that his work sprang from the unconscious.
“Nothing is planned,” he said in 2015. “When I put things together, unconsciously, it comes from my lifetime experience up to that moment. Then ultimately, it turns out to be about something for someone, certainly for me. But I don’t expect for it to be the same for the audience.”
Perez was born Nov. 24, 1929, the son of a Peruvian immigrant and a Puerto Rican, and grew up in East Harlem and the Bronx with three younger brothers. He began improvising on the dance floor at an early age, with cha-cha and the samba, at family gatherings. His father was a merchant marine who traveled frequently; his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 7, at which point he contracted the disease and spent the next three years in the hospital, mostly bedridden.
“I think a lot of the pain you see in some of my work that’s very sort of contained comes from that experience, from being in the hospital and hardly having any visitors,” he once said. “It’s all very suppressed, but it’s there in my work.”
Perez studied with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham in the 1950s, as well as Mary Anthony, but found his voice in New York’s ‘60s-era, avant-garde dance scene. He was part of the experimental collective Judson Dance Theater with Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown.
His first choreographed work, “Take Your Alligator With You” (1963), parodied magazine modeling poses. Three years later, he put together his first solo piece, “Countdown,” which featured Perez in a chair smoking a cigarette. He recalled that initially audiences weren’t sure what to make of his unique form of dance. But eventually, he broke through the largely white dance establishment of the time and won over audiences.
Perez moved to L.A. in 1978 for a yearlong substitute teaching job at the University of California, Los Angeles and formed a dance company shortly thereafter.
“In L.A., I felt freer; I was able to go beyond,” he told The Times. “I wanted to get away from the emphasis on dance, and work more with theater and natural movement.”
In recent years, Perez’s vision had been severely impaired because of glaucoma and macular degeneration. He continued working every Sunday with his Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble at the Westside School of Ballet. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, several dancers in Perez’s ensemble kept the workshop going over Zoom. They have since moved it to MNR Dance Factory in Brentwood.
“Rudy was so pleased that we continued the workshop,” said Anne Grimaldo, who danced in Perez’s ensemble for 35 years. “Even when his eyesight was going, (Perez) could still ‘see’ like a fine-toothed comb. He’d say, ‘point your toes.’ … He could see everything with extreme detail.”
Shortly after she graduated with her master’s degree in dance from UCLA in 1988, Grimaldo met one of Perez’s dancers at an audition. He told her to come to his class. Grimaldo hesitated; she had heard Perez had a reputation for being tough. She eventually ended up going. “Right away he said he wanted me in the company,” Grimaldo said. “And I never left.”
“Rudy changed all of our lives,” Grimaldo added. The workshop “wasn’t just dance: It was theater, it was choreography, it was improvisation. It was up to a performance level and professional. You didn’t sit down during a break and lean against the bar. When we first started out we’d always wear black. And the company was very tight. It was like a collaboration with all of us and Rudy and his direction.”
“Rudy was a titan of minimalist movement,” Swenson said, “achieved by just being himself, unique in his approach and product. Fierce and demanding in the studio, he secretly had a tender heart, and I’ll miss that more than anything.”
Perez insisted his dancers take Pilates, Grimaldo added. “Now I’m a Pilates instructor,,” she said. “I met my husband, Jeff, in the company and we have a daughter. … I mean, everything I do and what I have is because of Rudy and my connection with him.”
Throughout his career, Perez created dozens of pieces, including work for the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. He was also a teacher whose influence — at the University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts and the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, among other places — lives on in generations of choreographers and dancers.
Dance critic Lewis Segal told The Times that Perez’s vision sparked “a real firestorm in L.A.” in the late ‘70s. “Teaching it and choreographing (in his style), he made a difference,” Segal said. He added: “It encouraged people to really go with their instincts, to go for broke.”
In November 2015, University of California, Irvine presented Perez with a lifetime achievement award during “The Art of Performance in Irvine: A Tribute to Rudy Perez.” Perez’s dance ensemble debuted work there that he’d choreographed for the event: the three-piece performance “Slate in Three Parts.” A month later, Colburn School restaged Perez’s 1983 piece “Cheap Imitation.”
Among his many honors, Perez was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and L.A.’s the Music Center/Bilingual Foundation’s ¡Viva Los Artistas! Performing Arts Award. He held honorary doctorates from the Otis College of Art and Design in L.A. and the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, and his archives are part of the USC Libraries’ Special Collections.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Perez said in 2015 of his long-running career. “I’ve always been told, ‘Grow old gracefully’ — and I’m good at that. At this stage of my life, sure, it’s hard, but I’m striving for excellence. I wanna go out with a flash.”
He is survived by his brother Richard Perez, his niece Linda Perez, and nephews Stephen and Anthony Perez, as well as numerous former Rudy Perez Ensemble Members, collaborators, and friends. A memorial for Perez is being planned.
Former Register arts writer Laura Bleiberg dies after fighting ALS
A ballet class at the age of 8 sparked Laura Bleiberg’s love of dance.
A girl in her neighborhood suggested they enroll, only to not like it.
“She dropped out, but I kept going,” Bleiberg would say decades later. “And I really loved it.”
That passion propelled Bleiberg to a distinguished career as an arts journalist – including 19 years with the Orange County Register – until she was robbed of her voice and her mobility by the degenerative disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as ALS.
There is no cure for ALS. On Sept. 19, it took Bleiberg’s life.
She died at home in Long Beach at the age of 65.
Before a bout with pneumonia in July tethered her to a breathing machine and her bed, she was still getting around in a specially equipped van loaned by the ALS Association and a power wheelchair with the assistance of her caregivers.
She communicated through an electronic device that vocalized words she spelled letter by letter with the blink of her blue eyes.
Her conversations about the arts, politics and everyday life with friends who visited regularly throughout her ordeal remained sophisticated, witty and incisive – the same qualities that defined her work as a writer and editor.
Bleiberg visited museums, the beach and her beloved El Dorado Park near the home she shared with her children, who slowed their own lives to tend to her.
“As much as she could, while she could, she liked to get out and do things,” said daughter Simone Rogers, who pivoted from full-time teacher to a teacher’s assistant to free up time.
Bleiberg belonged to a monthly movie club that discussed films and enjoyed music performed in her living room by a small group of friends, with her daughter on violin and son Ryan Rogers on cello.
Ryan Rogers recalled how his mom also spent time outdoors every day until bedridden: “She still loved to go outside and read in our garden.”
She polished off audiobooks. A close friend came to read to her, something she made a point of doing with her children as a busy working mom.
Her last few years, Haku, the tabby cat Bleiberg adopted from an animal shelter in 2019, became her constant companion. He’d sit beside her as she wrote on her computer, and, later, settle down on her feet if she was in her power chair or ensconce himself at her legs when she was in bed.
“Mom would say that he was our entertainment,” said Ryan Rogers, a library aide who loves to introduce children to STEM and arts programming.
Bleiberg grew up in the Brentwood suburb of Los Angeles. Her father, David Bleiberg, was a dentist. Her mother, Leona Bleiberg, had been a teacher’s assistant before full-time homemaking for Bleiberg and younger brother Daniel.
Bleiberg continued ballet classes through high school. As a teen, she read newspaper dance reviews and decided to become a writer.
She studied European history at Scripps College, then earned a master’s degree from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois.
She had stints in the 1980s writing for magazines such as Runner’s World in San Francisco and American Health in New York City, and fact-checking for the likes of New York Times Magazine and GQ.
During her stay in New York, Bleiberg also wrote dance reviews for a small quarterly called The Brooklyn Paper.
She married Michael Rogers in 1986. (They divorced in 2015.)
She returned to Los Angeles in 1987 to cover education for the Glendale News-Press. Bleiberg next spent about a year as a reporter at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner before the paper closed in late 1989.
Soon after, she interviewed for a reporting position at the Orange County Register. During a sushi lunch with editors, she asked about the paper’s dance coverage. That conversation led to hiring her for the entertainment section.
At the Register, Bleiberg spent 19 years as dance critic and arts reporter, what she called “my dream come true.” Her tenure included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at Columbia University in New York City.
In 2008, Bleiberg switched careers to arts administration, doing fund development and management. She returned to journalism as a senior editor for Orange Coast Magazine from 2012 to 2017.
All along, she continued writing – for the Los Angeles Times and other publications and her blog, Emphasis on Dance.
Only ALS could stop her.
An avid swimmer, Bleiberg first noticed what were symptoms of the disease while doing laps at a community pool. The diagnosis came in early 2020.
One of her last projects was gathering together her dance programs and books to donate to UC Irvine, seven cartons now housed in special collections.