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Nicole Livieratos back in full swing after a life-threatening car accident

The Gardenhouse Dance choreographer returns with Layers

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Sometimes a simple thing like getting back to work can mean the world. Just ask Nicole Livieratos. Since 1996, Livieratos has worked as director of the Decatur-based Gardenhouse Dance, a small company which had established a strong presence on the Atlanta dance scene with its intimate, witty, and thought-provoking pieces blending dance with theater and performance art.

But one afternoon in January 2009, as Livieratos and her family were driving through downtown Atlanta, they passed through a green light at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Memorial Drive and happened into the middle of a high-speed car chase. The police were pursuing a suspect in a stolen vehicle who ran a red light and hit the side of the family's car at full speed.

Everyone in the car sustained major injuries. The most seriously injured was Livieratos' son Zack, who was 13 at the time. In addition to a broken hip, broken arm and broken nose, Zack suffered severe brain trauma. "We faced that year not knowing if the child we had known was going to be able to stay that way," says Livieratos. And as the family's broken bones healed, doctors discovered that the impact of the crash had caused Livieratos' husband Alan to tear a valve in his heart, which required major surgery. Soon afterward, Livieratos underwent a total knee replacement.

Livieratos says that the family's recovery over the past year and a half has been a grueling, ongoing process. "We're lucky that we're all alive and that our son is fine," she says. "He's great. Full-blown teenager at Decatur High School."

And now for the first time since the accident, Livieratos is back in full swing as a choreographer. On June 29, she'll present Layers at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. In late July, Livieratos will perform for the first time in many years in the world premiere of her new solo work, Origami. An ongoing collaboration with writer Patricia Henritze titled Proximity will have a series of showings on weekends in September, and a public art project called Wagons is planned for spring. "It was just one thing after another, so it feels really lovely to be immersed in work again," says Livieratos.

The upcoming performance of Layers is a reworking of a 2007 piece, the themes of which have become particularly nuanced since the accident. "The idea is that we're this kind of accumulation of experiences," she says. "How we're layered by the things that happen to us." In the work, two dancers — independent dancer and choreographer Blake Beckham and Emory dance instructor Lori Teague — perform in costumes designed by Atlanta artist Robin Jones. The costumes, consisting of three wire hoops with clips attached, start empty. As the dancers speak about the details of their lives, the way a best friend laughs, for instance, or some other memory or observation, they perform a movement and then manipulate a piece of newsprint and attach it to themselves. By the piece's end, the performers are densely covered in paper. "Going back into Layers, I was like, 'Wow, you just never know what layer is going to get added,'" says Livieratos.

Livieratos attended the University of Arizona and performed with the Pearson Dance Company in New York before moving to Atlanta to work as an independent choreographer. At the time of the car accident, she had just begun to explore the possibility of showing her work outside Atlanta. It's a thread she says she's interested in picking up again. Her pieces were also evolving from strictly dance into interdisciplinary, interactive approaches to movement-based performance art. "For work to have more of a life of its own I think it needs to get out," she says. "That's sort of my big undertaking. It's something I'm trying to get back to in developing the work. The work is changing as my interests change."

Prior to the accident, Livieratos also worked frequently in schools as a guest instructor, something she's eagerly picking up again. In subjects as diverse as chemistry, physics, reading, social studies, Spanish, French and Latin, Livieratos collaborates with teachers to create movement-based lessons.

"It's been lengthier process than I imagined," Livieratos says of her family's long recovery. "That's the main thing when I think of it. It just takes time. We're hoping — knock on wood — my knee surgery is the last piece of the accident. We're almost there."

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