When they think of Burbank, California, most people likely conjure up an image of the epically bland “Beautiful Downtown Burbank” joked about by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Others might picture the repetitive if not colorful ranch houses of a Tim Burton film. But very few would probably picture it being a place that would give rise to a woman who is breathing new life into Scottish Highland Dancing.
But as dancer-choreographer, Laura Carruthers explained in a recent one-on-one interview, it was a rich Scottish community in Southern California that planted the seeds of her early interest in the lesser-known Celtic dance form. “My father was involved in Scottish Highland Games. They’re big festival gatherings where you have contests for strength, piping contests, dance contests and musical concerts all in celebration of Scottish heritage.”
While her father was tackling intense physical challenges like tossing telephone poles known as cabers, Laura focused her artistic interests in taking on the Scottish Highland dance competitions. At the age of seven, Carruthers was finding a way to express herself while embracing her Scottish heritage and traditions.
A lesser-known discipline, Scottish Highland dancing is often confused with its Celtic cousin Irish stepdance, which Michael Flatley made internationally famous through the show Riverdance. As Carruthers clarified, “Irish dancing is much like clogging or tap. It obviously is a very audible form of dance…. It’s what I call foot rendered rhythm. The footwork itself makes the music. It makes the rhythm.”
As for Scottish Highland dancing, Carruthers explained, “It’s all done in a state of perpetual spring. You have detailed footwork, but also upper arm and body movements, which Irish dancing doesn’t emphasize. So, Highland dancing requires more coordination between the upper and lower body.” Carruthers conceded that it’s difficult to describe the art form because it assimilates so many different techniques, “which is how the Scots are,” Carruthers acknowledged. “They have influences historically from all over the world. No doubt, Highland dancing is influenced by ballet in terms of its aesthetic fundamentals and its ideals.”
Despite the complexity of its background, Carruthers admitted that Scottish Highland dance can be “somewhat one dimensional.” That’s why the artist, who is trained in ballet and dance theater decided to meld the disciplines into a style all her own. While a company member at Ballet Arizona, she worked with artistic director, Michael Uthoff, to build a piece around her unique background in Scottish Highland dancing. “I had this oddity, these strange Highland dancing credits that I was putting on my resume," Carruthers recalled. “So, he wanted to experiment with developing a ballet that could combine my expertise in Highland technique with his concept for a solo. And, so we built this lovely piece that was received well by audiences and patrons.”
Realizing around that time that Riverdance didn’t really acknowledge the Scottish dance component, Carruthers decided to work on projects that would. “I just thought, ‘Well, there’s an opening where, my goodness, we could really skew what comes with the range of ballet and dance theater. So, building a show or concept was viable to me because I had already some experience in production. I wasn’t just doing Highland dancing. I now had something else to add. The two married really well together.”
Carruthers has two ongoing challenges — educating audiences about what Scottish Highland dance is and dealing with the not always accepting reaction from Celtic purists. “It meets a lot of resistance from the traditional groups because some really want to guard the image and the rules of Highland dancing. When they see someone suddenly taking Highland into a balletic or modern context, they do not always greet that move with open arms.”
But the six-time U.S. Champion hopes to change all that with her latest project, Grace Fury. Carruthers coined the turn “dance-umentary” to describe the film and its title character, “There are choreographies, music, scenes, and footage from past projects that I’ve basically broken down and reassembled with new concepts to give her this unique form. She’s my journey from traditional dancer to this very point. It’s broken into various elemental chapters. I like playing with the elemental theme because it brings up a lot of possibilities within its infinite sense.”
Unlike the sometimes one-dimensional nature of Scottish Highland dancing, Grace Fury offers up boundless variety. “It’s very lively and upbeat and almost childlike,” Carruthers noted. “It jumps from one kind of music to another — from Celtic to contemporary to classical – which makes it a bit of an oddity. I try to blend all three or get all three ideas in there because that represents my background. And, then we segue off of the stage and suddenly go into more of what I would say is cerebral, contemplative expression of particular thoughts and feelings that I had at those points along my journey. It’s a mix of here’s the fun and the frivolity and the play and the youthfulness, delivered with a bit of humor, offset by more serious, evolving realizations that calm the ‘fires’ and ultimately find peace with this ongoing struggle to make art over time.”
Critics may scoff at the marriage of techniques but Carruthers remains focused on her mission. “There’s a message that I’m trying to convey in my moments of expression. I’m really in it to try to activate people and try to elevate that aspect of authenticity… I’m not looking for fame and fortune. I’m actually trying to just say, ‘Hey, this has been an interesting experience, full of discovery, and putting these things together is the true goal of my artistic endeavor.”
Visit Laura Carruthers website to learn more about her work and Grace Fury.