ODC Stories: Chuck Wilt

chuck wiltAs ODC Theater wrapped up its season exploring home and displacement with Rosy Simas Danse, former ODC Youth & Teen student Chuck Wilt had his own homecoming as a professional choreographer.  Chuck returned with his dance company Una Projects to present Rodeo and Ships and Salsa at ODC Theater.

“ODC was my first home for dance and I still carry it with me everywhere.” – Chuck Wilt

As a member of the teen company, the Dance Jam, from 2007-2009, Chuck danced 20+ hours a week, honing not only his technique and performance skills, but also learning the ins and outs of producing dance. Chuck shared, “Not only was I opened up to new ways of thinking and dancing at ODC, but I was surrounded by a warm, encouraging, and supportive family.”

Chuck graduated from Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Dance in 2013. He was selected to study abroad at the Salzburg Experimental Academy of Dance (SEAD), was awarded a scholarship to Jacob’s Pillow Contemporary Program, and attended Hofesh Shechter’s intensive in London. He has also studied Ohad Naharin’s movement language, Gaga, in New York City, San Francisco, and Tel Aviv for several years.

Then and now: Chuck Wilt as a student at ODC and as a dancer today.

In a Q&A after this month’s performances, Chuck shared that he appreciates being able to come back to San Francisco where there is more space for artistic exploration. For Chuck, the fast pace of life in New York City, coupled with the pressure to succeed, can squash the creative process. Check reflected that “every time I come back to San Francisco, it feels like I can breathe, think and process.”

Another benefit of coming home is that Chuck can spend time with his artistic mentor and former teacher, ODC Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson. When in New York, he sends her videos of his work and KT sends feedback via email and Skype. Nelson shared, “Chuck has serious talent as a performer, choreographer and dance film maker. I look forward to seeing how his vision develops over the next decade and I am privileged to be his mentor.”

Chuck mentioned that with his work, he seeks to encourage dancers’ individuality and humanity, rather than emphasizing a more presentational style. This perhaps is a legacy of his artistic upbringing at ODC.

chuck wilts work_video

A video highlighting Chuck Wilt’s choreography for Una Projects

One of the most poignant moments of Chuck’s return to his dance home was the opportunity to give back and teach the next generation of Dance Jammers in a master class. Now, he is a professional dancer, teacher, and artistic director. We’re so proud of Chuck’s accomplishments and can’t wait to see where his art will take him next!

Mission Local’s profile of Chuck Wilt


ODC Stories: Costuming “The Velveteen Rabbit”

The costuming of ODC’s The Velveteen Rabbit plays a central role in allowing audiences to share in the splendor and playfulness of the production. In 1989 KT Nelson, the director and original choreographer, worked with Brian Wildsmith, a children’s book illustrator, to create the designs for The Velveteen Rabbit.

Brian Wildsmith’s drawings of the Narrator and Toy Soldiers

Brian Wildsmith’s drawings of the Narrator and Toy Soldier costumes


ODC's The Velveteen Rabbit 2013

Liz Brent making adjustments to the Narrator Costume

Today, Liz Brent, ODC’s Assistant Production Manager and Resident Costumer, is responsible for the upkeep of the costumes. Liz oversees all aspects of the wardrobe, from washing bunny heads and keeping bunny ears perky, to patching trousers, reconstructing beloved costumes from scratch and handling last minute adjustments right before the dancers step onto the stage.

Liz became The Velveteen Rabbit Wardrobe Supervisor in 2011 when the previous supervisor bowed out at the last minute. She had recently moved to San Francisco and was volunteering regularly as an ODC Lobby Monitor in exchange for classes. David Coffman, ODC Production Manager, heard Liz had costuming experience and asked her, “Do you want to do this?” Fortunately for ODC, Liz jumped at the opportunity.

Liz, a born organizer, inherited a wardrobe system in complete disarray. So, with the help of the company members, she developed The Velveteen Rabbit Book to serve as the ultimate guide for records, costumes and props. The book contains everything from pictures of every costume and instructions on setting up props backstage for quick changes, to guidelines on washing and storing bunny heads. “We’re trying to put systems into place,” says Brent, “so if one of us does leave, anyone could come in and know what to do.”


The Velveteen Rabbit Book

The Velveteen Rabbit Book

Liz’s efforts have been immensely successful. While learning more about the fine details of wardrobe supervision and the particularities of designing costumes for dancers, she’s created a valuable tool that helps ensure The Velveteen Rabbit’s story continues to awe audiences while the production crew stays organized.

Come see the show in person. It’s not too late to purchase tickets for a performance of The Velveteen Rabbit at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts theater.

ODC Stories
ODC’s creative DNA is made up of thousands of bold actions, curious questions, and intelligent individuals. As a Partner in Creativity, you already know a thing or two about the infectious energy and many stepping stones the ODC Creative Campus has to offer dancers, teachers, choreographers, audience members, and families. ODC Stories is an inside look at some of the inspirational moments we see unfolding daily within ODC’s spheres of influence. Your partnership is key in helping continue to foster the discoveries and growth experiences that advance the impact of our community members in the Bay Area and beyond.

A Curatorial Platform for Dance Thinking Students

During the second week of summer intensive, dance thinking students presented an online dance video to their peers, and explained how their curatorial choice related to the larger conversation within the dance discourse and/or Music Moves Festival.

Amber Hopkins – La Luna Incantata

La Luna Incantata (translated from Italian to The Enchanted Moon) is an enigmatic contribution to the world of dance film. The film was originally produced for the public television network Rai Due, and received critical acclaim at Cannes in 1992. The production is laced with stars, from prima ballerina, Alessandra Ferri, to prolific minimalist composer, Wim Mertens. Despite its experimental allure and dramatic themes, the work has fallen into relative obscurity. As such, it seems to take form after the Sardinian ruins it was filmed in. From the few fragments posted on Youtube (like this one) seven years ago, I draw the following questions:

Who is dance on television for? Perhaps this video creates an entry point for an audience that would never ordinarily see experimental approaches to ballet.

What kinds of mythology does this this work draw on? The video is visually stimulating, but it is also full of allusions to ancient tradition and popular culture for discerning viewers.

Does the placement of ballet in alternative settings invite other forms to take the stage? If pointe work is to be carried out in the dust of hypaethral remains, maybe ritual or social dances ought to grace the stages of opera houses.

What are the criteria for realizing longevity in a canon? Every time I watch these clips, I wonder why we don’t talk about this video like a De Keersmaeker (Rosas Danst Rosas was founded the same year as Merten’s opus, “The Stuggle for Pleasure”). Personally, I’m holding on to hope for a remastered version to crop up as the interest in dance film surges among a developing global audience.

Belgica Del Rio – Stronger

This film, created by Joel Daniel and Wilkie Branson of Champloo Dance Company, was chosen in response to the Music Moves Festival’s exploration between music and dance and to further Hope Mohr’s conversation about creating pure movement. The word “champloo” means “something mixed” in the Okinawa dialect and thus the choreography mixes bboy movement vocabulary with the forwarding thrusting trajectory of parkour, while the music contextualizes the journey between two men. Historically, both bboy and parkour arose in urban landscapes and have a rich history of community. A question arises, in appropriating dance forms which have rich histories, can their use create movement that is free of its usual connotations, and furthermore, can movement be made that is truly free of connotation?

Kathryn Puckett – In Flagrante

The experience of art should be an encounter with the ‘different’. For me ‘good’ art should cause you to look inside yourself and examine something within. Whether this is revisiting something you have always held as part of your values or approaching something you did not realize you were holding as a value, the point is the art made you look more closely at your point of view, your approach, your beliefs and values. Additionally this work makes a rather niche fetish more accessible. While ‘pony play’ isn’t my personal preference, this video helps me to understand what may attract others to it.

Also, in the dance thinking conversation, we’ve talked about how people want to see something that compels them to talk to someone else about it. People want to engage a social element, to relate. People also want spiritual awakening and intellectual stimulation. Depending on your experience of this video, you may experience one or the other, or even both. How did this work make you feel? Why? What does this work say about women? Would it say something different if the choreographer were a man? “I wanted to repudiate some of the orthodoxies of burlesque female sexuality; that women are capable of being bad, not just coquettish avatars,” choreographer Mary Jane O’Reilly says about In Flagrante.

Peter Cheng – Any Which Way

We were each asked to find a dance film or video that would act as a platform in which to invoke further discussion, while bringing a curatorial aspect to choice making when presenting a specific artist or set if works — similar to how the Music Moves festival encompasses a wide selection of artists, musicians, and choreographers with a through line of the varying ways music moves the body.

The video I chose poses the following question: What if Music Moves was reimagined to awaken the visual senses instead of the kinesthetic?

I was most interested in understanding: if one heard a song, could it evoke specific images, colors, or textures? How does one see music? Are there visual cues or references that one senses given a familiar score by Mozart versus a contrasting score by Bjork?

In my personal opinion, in this video, you’ll likely find nuanced parallels with Dance Heginbotham’s “Twin”, the experimental – and at times nonsensical – Dandelion Dance Theatre, or the song will make you want to just get down and boogie like Keith Terry and Corposonic (or like Christy did when I first previewed the video in class this week). While you watch, I encourage you to reflect on how you see music.



Summer Intensive Students Think and Write About Dance

Dance thinking is one of the three tracks offered during ODC’s Next Moves Summer Intensive. In their class, students formulate and discuss questions prevalent in the dance field today, thereby increasing contextual understanding for dance and the performing arts. In addition to participating in daily technique classes, students complete assigned readings, observe working rehearsals of their compositional peers, view live and previously recorded performances, act as a performance docent to ticketed events at ODC during the program, and plan as well as implement public discussions about the topic of their choice such as dance history and aesthetics, the process of dance making, or the art of watching. Several assignments are in the form of a blog post. Students’ first written assignment entailed summarizing an interview with Dance Heginbotham Managing Director Adrienne Bryant.

An Interview with Adrienne Bryant | By Belgica Del Rio

While these words may evoke images of polar worlds, one in which creativity is king and one where pencil pushing rules, Marie Tollon’s interview with Adrienne Bryant illustrated a symbiotic picture of art and administration breathing and growing as one.

Along her trajectory from young competitive dancer to Managing Director at Dance Heginbotham, Bryant discovered intellectual rigor in dance, eventually worked with Mark Morris Dance Group, and became friends with John Heginbotham, then a company dancer. As she furthered her administrative career beyond Mark Morris, her friend Heginbotham approached her for assistance managing his dance company. “John is the nicest guy in the world,” Bryant cheerily recalled, and she could not say “no” to the nicest guy in the world.

Two and a half years after saying “yes,” Bryant has transformed her role with Dance Heginbotham as something she did “on vacation and on weekends” to her full-time commitment and mission. Significantly, Dance Heginbotham is gaining support among artists and institutions alike, including Mark Morris, the Lincoln Center, and the Guggenheim Museum. Heginbotham also recently won the 2014 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award. His successful transition from a dancer to a critically applauded choreographer, signals a nurturing and tactful collaboration between Bryant and Heginbotham, between administration and art.

Bryant detailed her duties, including endless vital tasks, with palpable belief in Heginbotham’s work, which depends on her passionate support. Collaborations with musicians are central to his work, and Bryant helps him achieve these works by arranging the many and changing logistics. As exemplified by Bryant’s presentation of Dance Heginbotham at Jacob’s Pillow, Bryant taps into her network to create opportunities for the company. She also assists greatly with other things, including helping Heginbotham relax to be confident in his work. Through their collaborative relationship, Heginbotham focuses on his craft, and Bryant helps him realize it.

As Bryant related, when she sits backstage during rehearsal and is furiously sending emails, she occasionally steps out to watch whatever is happening onstage. Then all else dissipates and only the dance and her contagious belief in Heginbotham’s artistic future fills her. In those moments she remembers, “Ahh! This is what it’s all for!” She then returns to “it,” to her flurry of emails, and her administrative role, becoming instrumental for art.


When in Doubt, Invest More Trust | By Amber Hopkins

Adrienne Bryant works in the context of relationships. She met John Heginbotham during her tenure with the Mark Morris Dance Group and now serves as the managing director for his company, Dance Heginbotham. Their particular bond laid a foundation of trust, but personal affinity is not all that Bryant invests. Her multi-faceted background in arts administration has equipped her with a nuanced sense of what it takes to make the show go on. During her conversation with ODC’s writer-in-residence, Marie Tollon, she shared her take on artist-presenter reciprocity with participants of Next Moves.

Bryant brought poignant clarification to Heginbotham’s reception of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award. Rather than being a simple affirmation of excellence, the award gives Heginbotham a “chance” to excel in future works. In Bryant’s view, it was one in an auspicious succession of opportunities afforded by arts presenters, beginning with his first residency with Baryshnikov Arts Center. She doesn’t wish to waste time debating about the point in his career Heginbotham has reached, or whether he is worthy of prestigious recognition, she challenges his audience (and would-be critics) to anticipate the momentum that he can generate from the spotlight. He doesn’t repay a debt by excelling in his work, he advances trust and appreciation in a network of supporters.

Adrienne strives to create organizational strategy that is compatible with Heginbotham’s creative process in the studio. Professionalism is not just about pragmatism. Efficiency emerges from continuity between vision and structure. She holds the reason-to-be fresh in her mind’s eye, even taking breaks in the middle of planning retreats to see art. Bryant brings a dynamic to Dance Heginbotham that is wonderfully grounded on the human level.


Adrienne Bryant’s Interview | By Kathryn Puckett

Working in the field of dance ain’t easy. Money is scarce, hours are long, and job security is fleeting. One way to ensure the hard choice is worth it: Work with friends. This is exactly what Adrienne Bryant and John Heginbotham have chosen to do.

Adrienne’s initial connection to the art comes from childhood but her path could have easily veered into other realms. However, it is in the theater that she feels at home and so she pursues a career in the place she feels most comfortable. Early on a friend clued her in to the role of an arts administrator and since discovering the path existed she has pursued it with earnest intent.

Over the years Adrienne has worked most angles of the dance administration world. She cultivated skills as a presenter working at Jacob’s Pillow. She learned logistics and company management at the Mark Morris Dance Group. She dug into development, programming and marketing as an Arts Management Fellow at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Apparently it was always clear to her how she could best serve the arts and she has made life choices accordingly.

I suppose it is no surprise then that when her friend from the days at Mark Morris, John Heginbotham, asked her over brunch for a bit of help with his foray into producing his own work she was happy to engage the challenge. She seems excited by the task of heralding her friend’s work, synthesizing her own experiences to service the art and the artist. To her, the role of arts administrator is to do justice to both by giving the audience “perspective on the work”.

Something inherit in any good friendship that is also key to a good working relationship is trust. This crucial ingredient makes for rewarding work. As a trusted friend Bryant can offer perspective and opportunities for growth that a less familiar company manager simply is not capable of providing. As a result the two, Bryant and Heginbotham can spend their annual ‘State of the Union’ meetings discussing the future of the company they co-create: Heginbotham as artist and Bryant as administrator.


Music Moves Festival : A Conversation with Christy Bolingbroke | By Marie Tollon

Dance and music oscillate on similar tracks. They share an ephemeral nature and an ability to illuminate human experiences in ways words cannot. Their similarities prompted the late French choreographer Maurice Béjart to state that “dance is visual music.” ODC’s Music Moves Festival, which spans over four weeks in August, explores the continuing dialogue between the two art forms. ODC Deputy Director for Advancement Christy Bolingbroke curated the festival and tells us more about its programming.

Marie Tollon: Can you tell us how this festival came into being?

Christy Bolingbroke ODC Deputy Director for Advancement Photo by Meg Messina

Christy Bolingbroke
ODC Deputy Director for Advancement
Photo by Meg Messina

Christy Bolingbroke: Part of our mission is to engage, inspire and cultivate audiences. I don’t want to just look for a theme or an idea that’s relevant, but I also want to make sure that it’s about access points for audiences to tap into art. In terms of learning music, my experience was through my own work with the Mark Morris Dance Group and realizing there that the dance audience is only so big and music audiences are a little bit bigger. It was a great entrance for music audiences to appreciate dance by looking at it through the lens that they are most familiar with, being music. And I wanted to use that as a conversation point for this entire season. And then some other things dovetailed. We were doing the Next Moves summer intensive for pre-professional adult dancers and I wanted to make sure to really amplify our summer performance programming. So it became more of a festival, over 4 weeks with 11 programs, as opposed to a season-long idea with just 3 or 4 events.

MT: The festival includes yearly programs such as Summer Sampler, Dance & Diaspora, and Theater Unplugged. How are they customized to fit the festival’s theme?

CB: The festival’s theme worked very well with some of the things we were already doing like Summer Sampler with the flagship company, or Dance & Diaspora, our ongoing exploration into culturally-rooted dance forms and where our global dance faculty are taking it. Music is a natural tie there. With Theater Unplugged, a mini-residency, why not elucidate the opportunity for audiences to see how music as a choice really informs the making of the work? Not to say that every artist works that way but I was specifically looking for artists to go on that journey with us. Antoine Hunter and Milissa Payne have totally different approaches and I’m excited for them to be in conversation.

In terms of how we can raise audiences’ awareness on how they are connecting with the work, it is questions like “Did you know that music? Did you come in already thinking that Bach’s Goldberg’s variations should be something and if someone creates a dance to that, and it counters what your expectation was, what does that look like?” that informed the programming of the Thursday, Friday, Saturday dance shows. They have different music choices and sometimes it might be music that people are familiar with and sometimes it might be original music. The Sunday, Monday and Tuesday shows are about voice and embodied music.

We talk about artistic voice a lot, and that doesn’t always mean the actual vocal sound in dance. Playing with how we could illuminate that for audiences was something I was really interested in. And then it becomes about bringing the coolest, most interesting and fascinating people, both West Coast-based and elsewhere while tying it back to the Next Moves curriculum’s three different tracks: contemporary performances, American cultural forms and dance thinking.

MT: Although you don’t necessarily have a say in the music choice that the artists are making, does the festival abide to a larger definition of music, including silence, spoken text, for example, as part of the soundscape?

UnknownCB: It’s interesting when you look at music versus dance, how in dance, we try to categorize things all the time, but it’s still pretty general: there’s ballet and there’s not ballet. When we look at modern dance, so many people who see the work we do would call it ‘modern dance,’ and there would be some people who would say “It’s not Graham, Cunningham, Limon, or Horton, it’s not modern dance.” The general public doesn’t care about that difference; it’s such a small idiosyncrasy. While when you consider music, there are so many different genres: indie rock, jazz, blues, folk, classical, etc. Then world music has so many connotations to it. The reality is that in France, if they hear American bluegrass that’s actually world music to them. So I don’t have a specific guideline or [say to myself] “I want to expose people to all kinds of music.” It’s really about presenting quality and excellence as our core values whether that’s virtuosity or some demonstration of craftsmanship on stage that illuminates the power of art and creativity for our audiences.

MT: What were you considering when choosing artists to participate in the festival?

Melecio Estrella and Damara Vita Ganley in Joe Goode's "Irresistibly Drawn"

Melecio Estrella and Damara Vita Ganley
in Joe Goode’s “Irresistibly Drawn”

CB: Besides reaching our core values of quality and excellence, there is always the pragmatic “Who is available, who is around?” Regardless what the overall arch or curatorial theme for the year is, I am also personally interested in artists that straddle the high brow and low brow, the conceptual and the contemporary art performance. San Jose Taiko and The Bangerz, Pearl Marill do that. I’m looking for artists who are not just selling a particular idea or work but are willing to share their creative exploration with us. When I had seen Irresistibly Drawn and found out that [Joe Goode] was interested in touring it, I wanted to host it as a great musical anthology of his work and a wonderful demonstration of the relationship between song and dance; priming audiences for the rest of the festival. With Dance Heginbotham, it speaks to our role for nationally emerging artists in the arts ecosystem. We are a launching platform for such artists, back to when Bill T. Jones, Karole Armitage, or Eiko and Koma had their West Coast debut at ODC [then New Performance Gallery]. John [Heginbotham] has experienced wonderful accolades so far and he happens to be a musical choreographer. Music Moves is a tremendous opportunity to host Dance Heginbotham’s West Coast debut.

And then there’s our role and who we are as presenters in the ongoing West Coast–East Coast conversation. We continue a relationship with Kate Weare and her work. And Randee Paufve, a wonderful mid-career artist whom we hadn’t seen on our stage in a while, had a piece that featured live cello and piano. Paufve and Weare have a lovely friendship offstage so this was a fortuitous double bill to further embed the coast-to-coast comparison in the festival.

MT: The relationship between dance and music is the major thread running through the festival. Can you identify other commonalities between the curated artists?

CB: I think that there is an inner connectivity. With Weare and Paufve, there’s always a question of lineage, and connection, how much is either implicit or explicit. The inherent relationship between movement and sound, and the embodiment of that, whether they are actually making noises themselves -like Keith Terry or Namita Kapoor- or are simply painting it in a visual way. With Rueda Con Ritmo, they will often have four different circles doing different choreographies to one music in their classes. It’s not just beautiful to watch, they are also illustrating the music in a different way. Something like that, with the sense of a community, also related to embodying an aesthetic for dance and music, is what is interesting to me. One of the things that Mark Morris would say is that singers and dancers are the closest possible because both have the same instrument, the body. That has always resonated with me. Dancers and musicians might not have the same sort of theme that they are exploring but that is a connective thread. That’s one of the reasons I’m delighted ODC/Dance will perform Breathing Underwater during Summer Sampler because it starts with one of the dancers [Natasha] singing a cappella.

The Distance Traveled By Wondering | Guest Post by Michelle LaVigne

There is a certain distance to travel when writing about dance; can one write as much as one sees, feels, and hears? It is not easy to grasp the totality of any particular dance piece or (even more so) an entire festival. The festival’s program notes, however, are superbly crafted to offer a nuanced sense of each work as well as how they intersect along similar themes related to identity, culture, and space. What is left behind after the dancing ends? What echoes? What resonates? What (still) moves? For me, it’s not the quality of the dancing, which was piercingly composed and executed. It’s not the superb music that accompanied each piece. And it’s not the creative use of spaces in, outside of, and across from the ODC Theater. For me, what echoes days after ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke’s artfully curated evenings of dance on Friday and Saturday nights (Programs A and C) is the clever interplay between words and dance.

Amy O'Neal in "The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See This Decade" Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom

Amy O’Neal in
“The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See This Decade”
Photo by Bruce Clayton Tom

Words matter and names can matter even more as evidenced in Lionel Popkin’s Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Amy O’Neal’s The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See This Decade. Popkin’s piece emerges out of extensive research on Ruth St. Denis, especially her journals. And in her program notes, O’Neal describes her piece as an “essay.” Beyond these textual preliminaries, both choreographers use words to help bridge the distance between dance, music, and video – words become a part of how ideas and questions are expressed, a part of the movement on stage. In these two dances, words are not merely accessories to prop up choreographic meaning; they are fundamental to how Popkin and O’Neal move thought, how they think. What grabbed my attention in particular was how each piece used names that opened up fissures of meaning, leaving me to wonder how to connect the dots between now and later, past and present.

At the beginning of Ruth, three dancers roll in a line on the floor (and over each other) as the names of Ruth St. Denis are displayed above on a screen also in a line. These names mirror different moments in Denis’ life (birth, marriage, stage) while also pointing to shifts in identification and changes of circumstance. There is a certain humor as well as solemnity in this seemingly endless ticker tape of names and the continuous rolling of bodies on the floor below. This kind of inter-word play between wit and gravity is a dominant feature throughout the 30- minute excerpt. The naming and names of Ruth St. Denis, however, are particularly striking. This part of the dance opens up a field of inquiry about our struggles to discover who we are and what defines us over time. Denis, it seems, is not quite past; she has more to teach us about how to move. The Most Innovative, also an excerpt of a longer work, incorporates movement, words, and video, to ask about the difference between power and empowerment, the struggle to find creative voice, and the irritability of sexualized and gendered bodies. At the end of the piece, O’Neal projects the names of people – relatives, teachers, dancers, choreographers, musicians, DJs – that have influenced her work. This multitude of names suggests that making (i.e. choreographing) is an ongoing process of layering, or sampling. This visual weight is underscored by the movement sequence of O’Neal’s final solo (“Exhibit H”) that is both punctuated and soft, a refreshing mix of sensibility and form. This ending also opens up a field of inquiry about how the names we carry with us are woven into the fabric of who we are struggling to become as artists or otherwise – are we truly more than just the sum of our parts, past or present?

Lionel Popkin, Emily Beattie and Carolyn Hall in "Ruth Doesn't Live Here Anymore" Photo by Cristal Jones

Lionel Popkin, Emily Beattie and Carolyn Hall
in “Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”
Photo by Cristal Jones

The bringing together of words and movement on stage is not new, but the ways Popkin and O’Neal entwine them left me wondering – how do words move? Both Popkin and O’Neal offer some answers. One possible way that words move is to expose gaps of meaning. O’Neal highlights the distance between power and empowerment by first asking what is the difference between them and then dancing a “strip-tease” to a cover of Money Changes Everything. By mixing up words with moves, power and empowerment move not as definitions, but as questions or doubts. Words also move by playing with our sense of time. Popkin’s piece relies heavily on Denis’s choreographic notes, her words, to create movement. These past words are not stagnant, but alive as they are mixed into the present in new ways, shortening distance between old and new. Thus, the fissures created by the mixing of words and movement cultivate more, or less distance. Both dances use words to move between past, present, and future, and between different ways of being or becoming.

In the end, Ruth and The Most Innovative suggest that this mixing of words and bodies is a mode of cultivation, a process of micro and macro articulation, which can bring us closer to distant pasts and future paths. And yet, I still wonder. How do these works participate in conversations outside of the theater? How can they help bridge distances between where we are now and where we want to be? Can these dances help find new ways of thinking about issues related to artistic creation, gendered culture, and political power? Such questions don’t have easy answers, but I am happy to be left wondering, and I look forward to more.

Michelle LaVigne is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Francisco in the Department of Rhetoric and Language. Her writing/research focuses on the intersection of dance, rhetoric, and performance. In particular, she writes about the persuasive qualities of dance movements and aesthetics, and how practices of rhetoric might be rethought from the movements of dance. In addition to speaking at national and international conferences, she has published reviews in the Quarterly Journal of Speech and Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. She can be reached at mrlavigne@usfca.edu

Identity is Just a Costume Change Away: Walking Distance Dance Festival’s Program A (Lionel Popkin and Headmistress) | Guest Post by Hope Mohr

The first night of the Walking Distance Dance Festival featured a brilliant pairing by ODC Theater Director Christy Bolingbroke: Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by Lionel Popkin and two works by Headmistress, Mongrel and Shame the Devil. Each work on the program examined identity as collage of the ancient and the new.

Sherwood Chen in "Mongrel" Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Sherwood Chen in “Mongrel”
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Headmistress is the collaborative team of Amara Tabor-Smith and Sherwood Chen, artists in residence at ODC Theater. Sherwood Chen performed Mongrel, a ritualistic, riveting solo performance. Entering the space, the audience saw Chen spinning without stop. Chen’s entire body was obscured by layer upon layer of mismatched clothing including a red balaclava, silver fabric tied around his mouth reminiscent of duct tape, mismatched gloves, heavy boots, several skirts and pants, and a small mirror hung around his neck. Covered head to toe, Chen’s uninterrupted spinning around the edges of the space—he never entered the central spotlight—became hypnotic. No face, no identity, no gender, no race, no recognizable dancing style: the ambiguity of the image threw a spotlight on my own need to locate meaning. (Later, when Chen removed the mirror from around his neck, he placed it on the floor to face the audience.) When Chen finally stopped spinning, the effect was electric. He began a postmodern striptease that expertly travelled back and forth between his internal world and the external reality of the audience. Occasionally stopping as if to address us, Chen would drop again into brief visceral dances like someone caught between past and present. Once shed, Chen’s motley bundle of clothing occupied a spotlight of its own like a patchwork identity no longer useful. Snippets of glitchy white noise came and went. Stripped down to one layer of simple black clothing, Chen passed in and out of the light through moments of slumped exhaustion and spinning bursts. In his final swaying backwards walk towards the audience, Chen held a small mirror so we could catch only portions of his face. It was an elegant and elegiac finale. Chen’s Mongrel shows us an ancient, subconscious body embedded in fractured contemporary consciousness. All we have to do is peel the layers away.

Amara Tabor-Smith in "Shame the Devil" Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Amara Tabor-Smith in
“Shame the Devil”
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Amara Tabor-Smith, the other half of Headmistress, performed Shame the Devil in the evening’s interstices. In the lobby pre-show and on the sidewalk between and after acts (Chen and Popkin’s company performed in different buildings), Tabor-Smith offered intriguing glimpses of deeply inhabited ecstatic states. Shaking, crying, and jumping, Tabor-Smith was possessed by shifting states often in close proximity to audience members paying varying degrees of attention. Tabor-Smith challenged an audience in transit to be present to the rituals of the performing body. Unfortunately, the Festival’s framing of Tabor-Smith’s material diluted its power: surrounded and often ignored by the Festival’s pedestrian foot traffic, Tabor-Smith’s potent presence did not receive the respect it was due. Similarly, a supporting ensemble of women that performed brief installations throughout the evening created satellites of imagery without context. Did Tabor-Smith choose to place these events outside the theater? Did she want to remind us how often we miss moments of transcendence?

Lionel Popkin and Emily Beattie in  "Ruth Doesn't Live Here Anymore" Photo by John Altdorfer

Lionel Popkin and Emily Beattie in
“Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”
Photo by John Altdorfer

Whereas the pleasures of Mongrel arise from its ambiguity, the pleasures of Lionel Popkin’s Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore arise from its intelligence. Popkin’s Ruth was performed here as an excerpt of a longer evening-length work, which makes it difficult to evaluate the work fully on its own terms. Nonetheless, even from the sample shown, Popkin’s voice shone through in a knowing, joyful conversation with the ghost of dance icon Ruth St. Denis, a conversation that functioned also as a vehicle for musings on the vagaries of translation. Popkin is the dance’s MC, narrating its conceptual underpinnings in confessional asides. Popkin introduced us to the importance of costume in St. Denis’ work as dancers unloaded several trunks full of costumes onto the stage. Carolyn Hall had a raucous headlong solo with the costumes, metaphors for pieces of identity that, in Popkin’s words, “slip off the skin.” Popkin also introduced us to St. Denis’ choreographic “kits,” which she created to allow others to reconstruct her dances. Projections of St. Denis’ choreographic notes provided the backdrop for Popkin’s playful mistranslations, which masterfully wove stylized gesture and postmodern pure movement. But movement invention per se is not the point of Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Popkin is more concerned with the intellectual process of translating concept into choreographic structure. Popkin excels at creating rich task-based images with clear relationship to his source material. Popkin repeatedly kissing the body of Ruth (Emily Beattie) in unison with Hall tapping a microphone wonderfully conjured the image of the voice of the body. Another powerful image involved a flickering projection of St. Denis’ choreographic notes vanishing word by word over time to leave only redacted traces. In the dance’s final haunting moment, Popkin used a leaf blower to move a heap of costumes over the prone lifeless body (of Ruth). Like Chen holding a mirror up to his face as he backed toward his audience, Popkin revealed himself in fragments. At one point, Popkin blithely thanked his mother for providing the Indian saris used in the show, revealing a subterranean poignancy under the formidable intellectual skin of his work. Popkin made his ideas accessible, but kept his inner life out of reach.

Hope Mohr is an artist in residence at ODC Theater and the artistic director of Hope Mohr Dance. She’ll be teaching composition August 4-9 in ODC’s Next Moves summer intensive. In September, HMD’s Bridge Project will present Have We Come A Long Way, Baby? curating is always in conversation with history, a program exploring the West Coast postmodern dance lineage through an intergenerational lineup of female soloists, including Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, Mohr and Peiling Kao. In addition to the curated performances, programming will include master classes, panel discussions on curatorial thinking and the relationship of dance history to contemporary work, and a series of related writings and films. http://www.hopemohr.org/projects

Staining Each Other: A Conversation with Headmistress | By Marie Tollon

The full meaning of a language is never translatable into another. We may speak several languages but one of them always remains the one in which we live. In order to completely assimilate a language it would be necessary to make the world which it expresses one’s own and one never does belong to two worlds at once.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

Similar to language, the body is imprinted with the mark of the world in which it is rooted. Through their work, dancers and choreographers Amara Tabor-Smith and Sherwood Chen engage in acts of translation, both between their respective bodies and with artists from other cultures, to further explore and navigate the world(s) in which we live. Confronting the inherent untranslatability between two realities evoked by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, they investigate the context, assumptions, and power structures that exist within the space between bodies, histories and cultures.

Headmistress Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

In 2009, they founded Headmistress, a collaborative entity which is currently in residence at ODC Theater. Tabor-Smith is a former Associate Artistic Director and dancer with Urban Bush Women and her training is rooted in the traditional dance forms of Africa. Chen’s movement vocabulary is highly influenced by his work with artists Anna Halprin and Min Tanaka. In anticipation of Headmistress’ performance at Walking Distance Dance Festival-SF, I spoke to both artists.

Marie Tollon: What was the impetus for working together?

Amara Tabor-Smith: We spent a lot of time dancing together in the clubs. That was the basis for our work. Recognizing that although it is not necessarily validated from a contemporary dance perspective, the spirit that is generated or cultivated in those environments is a fertile ground. What would it mean for us to try to keep the thread of that magic happening and create work in the studio, work that we would perform? It wasn’t so much that the dance floor movement made its way into our choreographic process but the spirit of it did. That imprint was made and it became something else in the studio, but it was that magic and that connection that continued in everything else.

When we first started working together, some people were very intrigued about this duet between an Asian man and an African American woman. Those reactions had a lot to do with race and assumptions about whom they thought we were. We both knew that, even before we would take a step, people’s glasses would be colored -no pun intended- with how different we were, when actually it was our chemistry, our ‘kindredness,’ that brought us to work together and not so much our differences.

MT: In our earlier conversation, you mentioned: “One of our early intentions was to stain each other.” Can you elaborate on that notion of staining each other?

Sherwood Chen: Both of us are aware and proud of our roots, both culturally and artistically. We were not trying to move away from them. We were drawn to each other as much for the places we resonate, as for the ones where we felt like we were foreign to each other – foreign bodies in the most metaphorical and literal sense. We gave each other the permission to experience something that had nothing to do with our respective backgrounds. Working directly with Amara gave me the permission to explore movement vocabularies in a creation environment, in ways I had prior refused myself.

Going back to the notion of stain, it has so many negative connotations in English. If you stay with somebody long enough, even if you are still considered a foreign body, it’s going to mark you indelibly. You can’t take it back. You cannot go back to where you are coming from. We were not trying to become one another, but we became different artists than what we were.

Headmistress Photo by Ana Teresa Fernandez Projections by Jefferson Pinder

Photo by Ana Teresa Fernandez
Projections by Jefferson Pinder

MT: Sherwood, the space created between two bodies, two trainings, two cultures, brings to mind the notion of décalage, a French word which you use and which roughly translates as ‘discrepancy’ or ‘interval.’ This notion, along with the question of translation, is one that you have been investigating, both within and outside of the context of Headmistress. Can you talk more about it?

SC: I muse on translation in my work because in the traditional act of translation from one language to another, there is a tension between the guaranteed betrayal of the source material and the moral ambition to make the effort anyway. Lucidly recognizing an inevitable degree of missing the mark. Understanding this tension. Framing it. Trying to work with it as a source for performing material.

MT: In an interview at the Headlands Center for the Arts, where Headmistress was in residency in 2010, you stated: “Our questions were similar. It was your training and forms that were different.” What questions did you two have in common?

SC: Questions about identity, culture and our aesthetic heritages and negotiations with them. Questions about race, power and differentiating between institutionalized perspectives and where we are coming from. In the San Francisco Bay Area, these questions are very common, and in that sense we are Bay Area artists. But neither of us were interested in rendering these questions legible on stage for their own communicative sake. Instead, these enduring and personal dialogues have been the process-oriented springboard for formal investigations in performance.

MT: Outside of the U.S., Headmistress has participated in residencies in Senegal, Brazil and France. What were you interested in exploring? How did those experiences affect the work?

ATS: One of the things that we often say is that we both have the experience of ‘other’ in the United States. Yet, there is a way in which this is our home, we also are from this place, even if in this culture we are ‘other.’ We wanted to see how other places – where we are ‘other’ in other ways- would stain us.

SC: We were already addressing foreignness between us in the studio. Could we crank up the fire by putting ourselves in these other situations, all the while knowing that travel is associated with privilege? I am constantly struggling with the spectrum between the worst of cultural appropriation, and an effort toward exchange -which implies a balance of power- to allow myself to receive and to offer. To say “we are all one” avoids addressing imperialism and the ways in which power can be changed. Being in residency abroad keeps me in line, makes me vigilant towards my own naivetés.

Headmistress Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Photo by Robbie Sweeny

MT: Sherwood, the questions relative to cultural appropriation permeate in one of the solos that Headmistress is presenting at WDDF-SF, notably through the use of a song by Moroccan singer Hamid Zahir. Can you elaborate?

SC: When I was exposed to the song over twenty years ago, it resonated with me. I had no idea what they were saying. The song lived with me, I lost it and then found it again a couple years ago online. I played it acontextually in one of my workshops in Brussels. A Moroccan-French participant and colleague approached me afterwards to tell me how that song spoke to her deeply of her childhood, her roots. That became my motivation to treat this as a jumping off point because this song could not have illustrated more the divide between her and me – of deep nostalgia she lived and the sense memory of the Rabat streets which this chaâbi song evoked in her, and then me, some young American who heard the song randomly on a cassette tape one day in suburban Los Angeles. Both of us were touched but in different ways. This difference creates a gap. The shift from analog to digital to memory to live performance also yields many gaps. I am trying to problematize rather than resolve these tensions.

MT: Amara, part of the other solo that Headmistress is presenting at WDDF-SF consists of a jumping sequence anchored within a repetitive rhythm. Watching this moment I felt your body read as a history book of untold, or less told, stories. Can you share a bit of the making process?

ATS: I am stripping bare, peeling layers. I keep searching for the place where I can be as vulnerable and as open as possible in public. How much darkness, and light and spirit, can I expose to my audience? Where is the line and when is it too much? And I don’t know until I am in it. I think of it like jazz musicians, in search of something deeper. If you can appreciate that it is not always the thing that brings you joy or comfort, or makes you think “Oh I understand,” if you allow yourself to just breathe it in, maybe there are other levels that you can’t necessarily articulate or intellectualize. But I’m more a feeler, I’m trying to live in that place, I’m trying to live in the question, and keep digging for more questions, than answers. I’m trying to stay loyal to the spirit that wants to come through.

MT: You often choose to set your work in unconventional spaces, such as the street, a store or the lobby of theater. How do these alternate spaces affect the work?

ATS: I am less interested in theater space. It doesn’t mean that I won’t perform in the theater but I’m finding a home where my performance is more accessible to anyone who happens upon it, and is transformed by whomever happens upon it. Because there is a more direct contact with the audience, so that line between the performance and audience is more dissipated, the present changes the experience – which also makes it harder for me many times to articulate what is going to happen. There are set intentions, and even logistically some set aspects, but all of that could change. When I did my piece “He Moved Swiftly…” as part of Dancer’s Group/ONSITE dance festival, every moment was impacted by who was there. Some things that happen were crazy, magic, heartfelt, and chaotic. And I like that. That’s home for me. That’s taking the story where the story wants to be. My intention is to be diligent to the spirit of what is trying to come through.





Going the Distance: Walking Distance Dance Festival-SF Program Notes | By Marie Tollon

The festival format provides a unique opportunity to travel the many paths that have been thoughtfully carved out by each of the participating artists. But what kind of distance(s) are we asked to go here? There is the physical distance between the two buildings in which the festival happens, allowing us an intake of fresh air and a casual chat with fellow viewers as we cross the street to attend the second part of the program. There is the space between two artists whose work is featured on the same bill, and the fertile dialogue it creates. And what about the gap between the familiar and the unknown that the artists, each in their own way, are encouraging us to consider?

Doug Elkins Choreography, Etc. in "Hapless Bizarre" Photo by Christopher Duggan

Doug Elkins Choreography, Etc.
in “Hapless Bizarre”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

WDDF-SF also bridges the distance between East and West Coasts, by inscribing the voices of seven choreographers – six of which are based on the West Coast- within the larger artistic conversation. The latter has been recently fueled by the question of cultural appropriation, which manifests in the work of several artists of this edition, echoing Philadelphia’s Remix Festival, which addressed current intellectual property laws and the art of samplingvia choreography earlier this month.

Choreographers Lionel Popkin (Los Angeles), Amy O’Neal (Seattle), Doug Elkins (New York) and performance entity Headmistress (Bay Area) each insert their own lens on this issue. In Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Popkin inquires whether dance artist Ruth St Denis’ orientalism was an act of cultural appropriation or a legitimate examination of the sources of dance. O’Neal explores the relationship between sampling and creativity by collaging different styles of dance in The Most Innovative, Daring, and Original Piece of Dance/Performance You Will See this Decade. With his Bay Area debut in Hapless Bizarre, Elkins tackles the issue of appropriation by sourcing French director Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Similar to O’Neal, Elkins mingles many genres of dance, providing what he calls a “collision of languages” in a piece that navigates the boundaries between physical comedy and dance. Headmistress draws from observing and absorbing the work of artists in Brazil, Senegal and France to investigate cultural cross-pollination in its two solos.

Rachna Nivas Photo by Margo Moritz

Rachna Nivas
Photo by Margo Moritz

A look at how identity is constructed and represented also permeates the work of several artists of this edition. Of both Indian and Jewish descent, Popkin examines his cultural lineage by questioning the accurateness of the South Asian imagery that populates his dances. Headmistress researches how context informs identity while O’Neal challenges the performative representations of gender, race and sexuality.

Featuring works accompanied by live musicians, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre (Los Angeles), Rachna Nivas of Chitresh Das Dance Company (Bay Area) and Garrett + Moulton Productions (Bay Area) emphasize the relationship between movement and music. Set in a bowling alley, Duckler’s Bowling Blues reflects on how art re-contextualizes our experience of space and vice versa. The two Bay Area choreographers highlight the mesmerizing expressivity of the body: Garrett and Moulton’s A Show of Hands exposes the manifold stories hands can enact, while in Nivas’s Bhakti, eyebrows, fingers and arms communicate the intricacies of the life of the mystic princess Meerabai, who defied the role assigned to her by the patriarchal Indian society of the 16th century.

With its three programs, the festival contributes to building a variety of poetic landscapes. Whether we journey through one or through all of them, we can track how the creative paths delineated by the artists crisscross, join or diverge from one another.

So let’s put on our walking shoes and go the distance(s).

When Dance Finds an Unconventional Stage | By Marie Tollon

Taking the dance out of the theater and into the public sphere is certainly not a new preoccupation within the dance world. In the Bay Area and beyond, artists have been challenging traditional ways dance is both presented and staged since the 1960s, by providing a variety of viewing platforms for their work, outside of conventional performance venues. What does the dance gain and/or lose from being transposed onto an unconventional stage? How is movement affected by the context of a specific site? Inversely, how is the experience of space informed and transformed by the choreography? What kind of dialogue is established between the work, its voluntary audience and its incidental one?

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre "Laundromatinee" Photo by Vivian Babuts

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre
Photo by Vivian Babuts

When setting their work outside of the traditional dance theater space, artists are forced to consider the site, which inevitably informs both the ambience and structure of the work by way of sound, form and movement. Choreographer Heidi Duckler surely knows something about that. Hailed as the “reigning queen of site-specific performance,” she has been working exclusively in nontraditional sites for nearly 30 years. Based in Los Angeles and founded in 1985, Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre inserts dancing bodies within places charged with a specific role and history, such as hospitals (Catch Your Breath, 2012; The Groundskeepers, 2013), vacant lots (Expulsion), trailers (At the Oasis, 2013), Laundromats (Launderland, 1998) and bus terminals (Kiss n’ ride, 2012).

Her Bowling Blues, which will be part of the WDDF-SF next weekend, is a site-adaptive work that takes place at Mission Bowling Club, a bowling alley located across the street from ODC Theater. In an interview, Duckler explained her work process and how space influences the choreographic material: “The movement comes from the location and the site. There is no studio movement. The work also is very collaborative. I create the content, and the dancers work on the movement–they partner with each other, they utilize the site, and they teach each other.”

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre "Bowling Blues" Photo by Lou Parisot Gignac

Heidi Duckler Dance Theatre
“Bowling Blues”
Photo by Lou Parisot Gignac

Placing dance outside of traditional venues is also a way for Duckler to build community and bring the art form to audiences who are not necessarily familiar with dance: “I view location, history, and community as my creative partners. I consistently draw upon the conceptual complexity and identity of each location to drive the creation and implementation of my company’s professional performances and learning opportunities. Therefore, we inadvertently, yet strategically build communities with each project,” Duckler explained to Dance Mogul Magazine.

If Bowling Blues exposes how choreography and space impact each other, it also delineates how sound and movement converse. Featuring live music by Claire Gignac, the dance echoes other works which explore the relationship between music and dance within the context of the festival.