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Intellectual Ties: Though unfettered by conventions in dance, Karl Schaffer (right) and Erik Stern thread thoughtful ideas through their works.

Dancing Outside The Graph

Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern put ideas into motion with their newest piece, 'The Bounds of Discovery'

By Julia Chiapella

TO THE UNINITIATED, they could seem quirky. Or eccentric. Maybe even iconoclastic. But anyone who's ever seen a Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern dance performance knows this dance group as something truly unusual.

"They're crazy," says Gregg Lizenbery, with obvious fondness. Lizenbery is a professor of dance at the University of Hawaii. He has often performed with Karl Schaffer and Erik Stern, the founders of the company that bears their names, and is a member of the troupe (though he doesn't appear for this weekend's shows). "Dance isn't precious to them. Their work is straightforward. It has a lot of thought behind it, but it's not trying to be esoteric. It's not this abstract crap that's out there."

Janice Ross, a dance critic and historian who lectures at Stanford, saw Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern a few years ago. "The thing that I found extremely engaging," Ross commented, "is that [their work] has serious dance content but also serious academic content, combined with a wonderful wry sense of humor. They have a very smart sensibility."

With their athletically theatrical brand of dance that concentrates on ideas, Schaffer and Stern demonstrate an interest in codes, whether social, scientific or technical.

Their upcoming world premiere, The Bounds of Discovery (part of a program of works), which runs this weekend at Cabrillo Theater, continues a tradition that tickles the boundaries of those codes, exploding the conventional into a multifaceted bag of tricks that lays bare absurdities as well as possibilities. That they do this with engaging humor and an ability to poke good-hearted fun at some of our most revered conventions only raises the bar.

The Bounds of Discovery is a duo featuring Schaffer and Stern, who first teamed up in 1987 after meeting one another at a dance class at Cabrillo College, where Stern was the accompanist. When it would come time for the dancers to do their leaps, Schaffer remembers, Stern would leave his drums and go leaping across the stage with the rest of the class.

Stern then saw Schaffer's collaborative work with Susanne Paynovich, Uh-oh, Your Co-Worker Could Be a Space Alien, Say Experts, and in 1986 played the central character. In 1987, they created their first work together, Four-Footed Hamlet. Stern performed with Tandy Beal and Company for 10 years. He is now a professor of dance at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, where he lives with his wife, costume designer Diane Neri Stern, and two sons.

Schaffer, who calls his dance background "eclectic," stayed in Santa Cruz County, bought a house and now teaches math at De Anza College. He has a Ph.D. in graph theory, which he simplifies for the layperson as "the math of networks."

CERTAINLY, SCHAFFER can play the part of the stereotypical math professor: slightly disheveled, with tousled dark hair and a look of introspection. But his responses are sharp, contemplative.

Not one for extroverted jocularity, Schaffer, much in contrast to Stern and his unbridled excitement about the upcoming performance, wonders aloud how it will be received.

"I'm still gathering a sense of the performance," he says. That sense, it would seem, refers more to the arc of the performance than to any doubts he may have.

Schaffer clarifies his remark, noting that he was just musing about the performance as a whole. He says he is sure the audience will enjoy it. "I realize we're creating a show where there are poetic connections between pieces. It's not a logical connection."

Stern, on the other hand, can barely contain himself when talking about The Bounds of Discovery. He quotes bits of text, describes the movement, indicates what performers will be wearing. Though we are talking by phone, it's obvious that he's viscerally involved, whether in conversation or in rehearsal.

Although Stern is bigger and sports a lot less hair than Schaffer, the two offer a dynamic contrast and yet maintain a very effective partnership, even when operating at a distance. When Stern moved to Utah in 1993, Schaffer was initially doubtful that their work could continue.

Meanwhile, the transition for Stern was tough. "I'd say that Ogden, Utah, and Santa Cruz, California, are about as diametrically opposed as places can be," he says.

What Stern, Schaffer, Lizenbery and company members Scott Kim and Chris Jones have discovered is that it's possible to maintain a dance company despite physical distances from one another. "Frankly," says Stern, " I don't know if the people in our company are replaceable."

THE PEOPLE in that company, led by Schaffer and Stern, have put together a number of shows that have toured the Western states, the South, Hawaii and California. Last year, they spent 10 days in Montgomery, Ala., doing educational outreach in conjunction with their highly successful show Two Guys Dancing About Math.

They also performed The Secret Life of Squares. Earlier this year, along with Lizenbery, they traveled to Hawaii, where they performed The Fantastic Normal Gentlemen. "If it weren't for email," says Stern in absolute seriousness, "it would be very difficult to have a company."

While email is good for the exchange of ideas, Schaffer responds, dancers still have to dance. So the two journey back and forth between Utah and California and spend a week at a time kicking around new material, preparing for the next performance.

This current show, according to Schaffer, is the product of two to three months of solid work over the last year and a half. "What we are having," says Stern about the inspiration for the performance, "is the complete explosion of codes. Languages are dying, music forms are dying. But what people don't talk about is that for every code that's dying, there's a new code developing: genetic code, binary code, penal code. Our work has always addressed ideas and put them in three dimensions."

To this end, The Bounds of Discovery will use everything from cell phones to bungee cords and include such strategies as storytelling, cooperation and audience interaction to ask questions that, it seems, Schaffer and Stern are always asking. Local loop-music and hand-drum luminary Rick Walker did original music for the show. Get the picture?

Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern aren't content to let technical advances, scientific discoveries or social movements roll off their backs. They tilt them, provoke them, put their fingers right into the middle of everything. And they're set to run a fine-toothed comb through topical issues--with a sense of optimism.

The Bounds of Discovery will be performed Saturday (Sept. 9) at 8pm and Sunday (Sept. 10) at 3pm at Cabrillo College Theater, 6500 Soquel Dr., Aptos. Tickets are $10 adv./$12 door, general; $8.50 adv/$10 door, students/seniors; and $6, children 12 and under. (Call the Cabrillo Theater Box Office at 479.6331 or Bookshop Santa Cruz at 423-0900).

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From the September 6-13, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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