Up, Up and Away: LEVYdance plans their home season in an alley

By Michael Wade Simpson

November 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

It’s a little strange that someone should apologize about being young, especially in the field of dance, but Ben Levy does. Barely 27, he not only runs his own dance company, he wins grants, commissions, touring contracts and awards, and he even has his own dance space in San Francisco, Studio Gracia, where you can take salsa, tango, hip hop or Ben’s modern dance technique class, depending on your mood. Maybe Levy just wants to retain a little modesty, while he still can. After all, he did make the Dance Magazine “Top 25 to Watch” after his very first dance concert. His company appeared at the Joyce Soho Theatre in New York practically right off the launching pad. And there was the commission a few years back to appear with the LA Philharmonic. Life, as we all know, tends not to be fair. And Levy just doesn’t seem to want to rub that in.

He’d rather talk about his company, LEVYdance, and their new season, November 12-15, and the custom built outdoor stage where the dances will take place slightly above eye level, in an alley South of Market. “We wanted to shake it up,” he said in a recent interview. “Instead of the neat, comfortable, black box theatres we were used to, where the curtains open and we do our thing, we’ll be out in the elements, with the wind, and the ambulances passing by, the grafitti on the walls, the lights set on existing structures and the audience two feet away from the dancers.” “It’s time for people to see dance as a spectator sport.”

Things were still coming together at the point of this interview, in fact, only one of four dances on the program even had a name. That was Nu Nu, a repertory piece that Levy calls, “a silly romp.” Among the three new pieces premiering in the alley come November, is a dance that he created in response to the highly thematic 2007 dance, Bone Lines. This time around, he’s making a work in which the goal is purely physical. “I was interested in physics, I treated our rehearsals like a science lab, we explored things like gravity, centrifugal and centripetal force. We played and explored with textures of movement.” Mason Bates, a local composer who writes in the classical genre but also works as a DJ, composed a score for the new work, and Wendy Sparks designed costumes that Levy describes as ‘organic.’

A new duet for company dancers Brooke Gessay and Scott Marlowe, with music by the band, Rachel’s, began with a different goal: “to find how to get across the most emotional subtext with the least amount of physical affectation.” “It’s a conversation that begins with the dancers across the room from each other, and then has them slowly move towards each other.” “It’s about cutting the fat,” he said.

An unnamed group piece will include new company dancer, Aline Wachsmuth, (in addition to Gessay, Marlowe, Lily Dwyer and Christopher Hojin Lee). A lyrical sense comes with the use of vocal and early music, “a velvety sound,” and the task here was, “how to pay attention to music and not Mickey Mouse it. Not ignore it.”

Asked if it was true that emotion seemed to be at the core of the dances Levy had so far created, he agreed. “Absolutely,” he said. “Dance is just a vessel, a silent medium that can express life experience honestly.”

The outdoor stage, which will be custom built for this performance, has three separate stages connected by cat-walks, with the audience spread out between. “We will try to use all three stages equally,” he said. “This is new for us, it feels risky and very exciting.”

What is it about LEVYdance that has brought it so much acclaim? Levy studied dance while he was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, where he came into contact with Joe Goode, with whom he worked for six years. Instead of taking the safe route of company membership with Goode’s group, one of the most highly-sought after dance gigs in San Francisco, he was inclined to strike out on his own, or rather, with his group.

“I was really inspired to create a community to work and live and play with,” he said. “People out to explore the same things, to invest of themselves and their lives in the work.”

“The work in my head, I wasn’t seeing in the world,” he said. “I wasn’t having the type of experience I sought, the way I wanted to be moved cellularly.” He describes the movement he creates as dance that has your skin buzzing, “kinetics in which you have a deep, spiritual experience of recognition.” The goal is to be able to say, “I can see that reflected in my own life,” he said.

As he is working with his company during this (and any) rehearsal period, the group approaches each piece as an experiment, a process that involves differing elements and goals, but always the sense of play. “The core element of my creative process is that there is always something at stake. Personally.” he said.

As he began this rehearsal process most recently, he had his dancers sit in a circle and talk about the things that were going on in their lives. “We are working with movement, but also with human expression,” he said. “The elements can be, ‘I want to express this about myself,’ like lost love, or the great joy I never let sit in my heart.” “It’s like each person is a piece of fruit that we chew on. My job is to find the core connection. How to make it true.”

LEVYdance performs November 12-15, 2008 in the alleyway outside Studio Gracia. All performances are at 8pm. See calendar for details.

This article appeared in the November 2008 issue of In Dance.

Michael Wade Simpson is editor of culturevulture.net and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. He holds an MFA in dance from Smith College, founded “Small City Dance Project” in Massachusetts, and was an NEA Fellow at the Dance Critics Institute, American Dance Festival, in 2004.