Exploring Visible Intimacy with Ben Levy

By Wayne Hazzard


With major support from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, Dancers’ Group has commissioned Benjamin Levy, artistic director of LEVYdance, to create a dance-video performance installation in San Francisco later this month. Levy has been awarded the honors of “Top 25 Choreographers to Watch” by Dance Magazine, and a Goldie Award by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Over the years, he has collaborated with a long and varied list of renowned artists and ensembles, including Kronos Quartet, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, composers Keeril Makan and Mason Bates, French couture designer Colleen Quen, and industrial designer Rick Lee. The company has received a Choreographic Fellowship at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography and been chosen to represent San Francisco in the California Regional Dance Touring Project and the SCUBA Touring Network, two programs aimed at promoting “the breadth of choreographic invention across the country.” In August, LEVYdance will be part of a Bay Area delegation of artists that will travel to Germany and perform at the bi-annual Internationale Tanzmesse.

Levy is exploring the intersection of technology and communication and how new portals of cyber-interaction affect human intimacy and connection. He is developing these ideas for a large-scale video performance installation, which will be the focus of the upcoming ONSITE presentation. These events, performed at high-traffic public areas (such as Union Square, the Ferry Plaza Building, Civic Center and the Castro, among others), will be discovered by passing traffic (both pedestrian and automotive), and will incorporate dance, new media, sonic art, and other interactive elements engaged in by the audience and performers. Questions being explored in this work include: How does the architecture of the body work in relationship to the architecture of the urban environment? What is discovered when these different inorganic and organic architectures rub up against each other? What is private and what is public? How does one marry the roles of participant and observer? Does more immediate and facile connection between people increase or challenge human intimacy? How does digital animation create an alternate environment for the viewer?

Wayne Hazzard utilized technology, through the wonder of email, to ask Levy some easy and tough questions about being an artist and his new works.

WAYNE: What inspires you about dance?

BEN: Its potential. The possibility for authentic unmediated connection—body to body, spirit to spirit. It inspires me to search for ways to experience, facilitate, and make space for these interactions. There is nothing else I know, that I have access to, that can make this beautiful magic happen across borders, religion, age, and race.

How do you feel about being described as a “rising star” in the dance scene?

I’m very grateful for all the support I have received in the beginning of my artistic growth. I’m also very aware that success is a mix of talent, opportunity, luck, and hype—and can shift on a dime. I’ve been fortunate to be able to jump on many opportunities very early on in my career—which could be perceived as impressive, precocious, or just plain lucky. Personally, the most interesting adjustment for me has been dealing with a new level of personal exposure. By nature I’m a fairly private person, but my work is deeply personal, performing is personal, and doing things like answering interview questions is personal. I try to keep my focus on creating work that I want to share with the world and let the success or failures work themselves out. But of course I would be lying if I didn’t say it’s so exciting to be supported in what I’m doing.

Do you think experience is over-rated?

I think generalizing what experience is more valuable than others, is problematic. For me experience means different things to different people. For one person, grad school is exactly the petri dish of information and resource they need. For others, years of performing experience is key. Others have learned more from their life experiences than they could from any other source. I think the question should be: Is the person good at what he/she is doing? Not, where did they learn to do what they are doing?

Where did you grow up?

Los Angeles.

Does place influence your work?

Not directly. People do. But people are influenced by place, so yes—I’m sure place affects my work—indirectly.

How has your culture / heritage influenced you?

My Persian culture is rich with poetry, culinary delights, and story and joke telling. My Jewish culture values family, history, ritual, and integrity. I purposely use “my” because I can’t separate my experience from the general traits of my culture and heritage. These are the gifts I have received from my ancestors over hot cups of cardamom tea, extensive Sabbath dinners, and readings of Hafiz and Rumi. I feel very fortunate. Although these influences aren’t reflected directly in my work, they have shaped who I am as a human being.

Are you motivated by one performance setting more than another?

Yes. I’m driven to look for and create performance settings that facilitate connection between audience and artist (actually, connection between people in general), instead of enforcing artifice and separation. This is new for me. I’ve previously been enchanted by the magic and illusion of the stage. I love craft and construction—directing the viewer’s eye, creating an experience with a progressive arc, providing a portal into another world. Recently, I’ve been much more interested in creating this experience in the “real world,” with the backdrop of urban life. ONSITE provides the perfect opportunity for this. I’ve been asking myself how I can create art that is porous, has entry points for its viewers, and is accessible to unsuspecting audiences without compromising the integrity of the work. I’m really excited about what we came up with.

Do you think of your work as political?

Not really. There are many things to be angry at in the world and there are many important views and insights to share through performance. San Francisco is rich with pioneers who do this extremely well, and I am very grateful for them. My work is more focused on personal and interpersonal dynamics than societal-scale dynamics.

What types of dancers are you motivated to hire and work with?

Dancers who are first and foremost human beings. Artists who use their skill and craft to listen more deeply to their bodies and emotions instead of creating facades to cover them. People who fearlessly throw themselves into a creative process—inquire, rip apart, challenge, push, expand—and then are brave enough to go through the experience over and over again in performance. Dancers who do this to fuel themselves and ignite others. Artists who have extraordinary technical ability and training, and can forget all that training to author raw, beautifully honest movement. Dancers who are invested in being in a collaborative environment that is driven by a director’s vision. It’s a tall order; I feel like I’m writing out a personals ad. Thanks for asking Wayne, I’m actually looking for dancers now.

What can we expect from your upcoming ONSITE performances, “Intimate Visibility”?

We will be showing up to various high traffic locations throughout the city (Union Square, the Ferry Building, Civic Center) with a roving rig complete with a large overhead projector, sound system, motion tracking webcam, processing computer, and infrared lights. The computer and webcam will be working together to track where Aline and I are moving, as well as the size and tenor of our movements. This information will trigger custom animation that our new media collaborator, Mary Franck has created. The interesting thing for me is that viewer or dancer alike can trigger these reactions, so depending on how adventurous our audiences are, they can become part of the work. It’s a bit scary and exciting. How will passerby’s react? Will they stop or ignore the crazy dancers? Will they automatically create a separation between themselves and “the performance space”? Will the work still have an effect when it is not framed by the focused comfort of the stage? Who knows? Come find out with me.

Does it bother you when someone doesn’t understand your work?

No. For me it’s not about understanding. There is not a singular message I want to impart. I am interested in creating specific contexts for people to experience themselves within. I’m interested in people feeling something, being stirred, moved, inspired. Sometimes that looks like an audience member being angry after the show. That’s fine with me, as long as the anger triggered questions, thoughts, and sensations. My intent is not to convey a literal ideal, but to elicit a personal emotional response.

Will we get to see you perform in the new work?

Yes! It’s been an amazing journey. It hasn’t been that long since I have performed with Joe Goode, but at first my body felt rusted. It’s opening up now. It was also a new experience for me to balance being in the work and creating it, something I think Joe does masterfully. I’m extremely grateful to Aline Wachsmuth, my dear friend and collaborator in this work, for her generosity and care as I found my way through this process. So much was new in this creation—the collaborators, the subject matter, the technology, the setting, the interaction, the unpredictability—I had to just jump in and see what happened. I’m thrilled with what we’ve come up with.

What other projects are you working on?

Teaching, running a studio, having a personal (love, finance, family, health) life, making a new work for Scottish Dance Theatre in the fall, stewing on my next new media/dance installation for 2012.

Thanks, Ben. See you on the streets.

This article appeared in the March 2010 issue of In Dance.

Wayne Hazzard is a native Californian and as a co-founder is proud to continue his work with the Bay Area dance community as the executive director of Dancers’ Group. Hazzard is a leader in the service field who is known for his work with fiscal sponsorship and on new program development. Hazzard had a distinguished 20-year career performing the works of many notable choreographers including Ed Mock, June Watanabe, Emily Keeler, Aaron Osborne, Joe Goode and Margaret Jenkins. Coinciding with his life as a dancer, Hazzard has and continues to work as an advocate for dance.