Rad Dads

By David Szlasa

November 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

I HAVE A 2-YEAR-OLD SON. He’s awesome.

There’s something so basic about raising a kid. it’s an exercise in being present. The moment your attention wanders—your kid calls you on it. They’re like, “Hey, over here. I just put this thing in my mouth.” Or “Hey, I just did something totally awesome and cute and you were looking at facebook on your phone.” In parenting, I’ve learned to simplify, slow down and focus on one thing at a time. It’s the same lessons my best teachers tried to impart to me about performance and dance. Simplify. Economize. Commit.

We learn how to distract ourselves. Our bodies take on our hardships and injuries. We repeat patterns we think we enjoy rather than rediscover moment to moment. We become adults. But the emotional and mental presence of a young child, matched with total physical liberation and a ridiculous strength to weight ratio make kids awesome dancers.

Enter Scott Wells and Sheldon Smith: both are fathers and choreographers. They are both rad dads. Scott typically pairs sport sensibility with dance, remixing style into highly energetic, physical, virtuosic work. Sheldon’s recent work merges technology and design with movement to create theatrical, detailed, quirky dances where the unexpected becomes normal. This inspired duo is teaming up to create a new performance work that will premiere in early December based on fatherhood.

I interviewed them individually over the phone, woven together here:

David Szlasa: Just to get started, tell me about your kids—age, name.

Sheldon Smith holding Scott Wells in his arms.
Scott Wells and Sheldon Smith
Photo by David Papas

Scott Wells: My son is 4. His name is Buda, born in Budapest and it’s a Hungarian name.
Sheldon Smith: Mine is 6, and his name is Will. Will Smith. He’s in first grade.

DS: How long have you two known each other?
SW: I’ve known Sheldon for a while. We were housemates in grad school twenty plus years ago at Urbana-Champaign Illinois. I loved his work in college, and I thought, “This guy is way smarter than me.” His wit and the way his ideas flow is really special. It just feels really good to be doing this with him.

DS: How did the idea of this show come together?
SW: There was an obvious feeling that through my work I wanted to be more connected to my son rather than be taken further away from him. And then there’s the fact of how big a deal it is in my life to be a father. I’ve done a lot of pieces on men, and this felt like an obvious way to take that.

DS: When you guys challenged yourselves to make a piece about being dads, what were some of the entrance points into the work? When you showed up at the studio, what did you do?
SS: Well, first of all, Scott and I have spent a lot of time just talking about our experiences, especially about what it means to even be a father in this day and age. Within my generation there’s been a rather incredible shift around fatherhood when both partners are so often working full time jobs. There’s a much greater expectation in both partners sharing equal responsibilities in the raising of the child. Part of what Scott and I are investigating is about the vagueness of the role of a father in a day and age in which it’s really more about parenting, perhaps, than it is about fathering.

To go back to your question about what did we do when we got into the studio, a lot of what we did was talk about our personal stories and see where those stories might lend themselves to movement or theatrical investigation. The first time we really ever worked in the studio with dancers we allowed ourselves to improvise to see what material was there. Working fairly openly, very quickly, a lot of things came to the surface about being parents: role-playing about being children, about being an authority figure, or about being an authority figure when you don’t really want to be an authority figure… The subject matter is spewing out a lot of possible routes of exploration.

DS: How does your collaboration break down? I know Scott’s work as fairly conceptual pure movement—from the first thing I saw that was a skateboard piece in 1999 to the parkour stuff that he’s doing more recently—it tends not to have a tremendous amount of technology or design framework around it other than what’s essential. Sheldon, your work is pretty heavily design- supported and technology-based. So in thinking about your collaboration, I made some assumptions around what each of you would do. How does it actually work?
SS: Our collaboration is pretty open ended. Most of the work I’ve been doing publically in the Bay Area has had a fair amount to do with technology, but that only represents a slice of things. Both Scott and I share a lot of aesthetic interests, how we both enjoy clever jokes in our work, we share a sense of humor.
SW: It’s pretty clear from the sessions we’ve had how much humor we find in the challenges of being a father. We’ve just had a couple of rehearsals, and the ideas are just flowing.

DS: Will kids end up in the piece?
SW: That was one of my earlier thoughts, but it feels like we’re leaning away from that.

DS: And are all of the dancers in the piece dads?
SW: Yes, all but Rajendra Serber. He’s our one non-dad at this point. I just love the way he challenges me artistically.

DS: How do you think your art practice and how you consider making movement to have been changed by parenthood?
SW: Well, everything has changed… But in terms of the work, I felt like I haven’t been able to give as much time in the studio as I used to, and like maybe I’m losing interest, but then in 2009 and 2010 I felt that I made some of the best pieces I’ve ever made. There’s something that’s way more economical with my thinking and my approach.

DS: I totally agree. I feel like my new shortness of time has forced me to be even more focused in the room than ever before. Stop screwing around. Let’s do it and get to it.
SW: I think the useful thing there is “let’s get to it.” Cut to the chase, get to the good stuff. Don’t worry about being in the space for so long.
SS: Before we had kids, I thought about those who had kids and seemed to be very inspired by their kids—I always thought that was kind of gross. Suddenly, you just want to make dances about children’s books and stuff like that. But now that we have a kid and he really is an endless source of inspiration, we watch him dance around in the living room almost every night and we see stuff come out of him that is so raw and unshaped or undamaged by years of technical training. It’s just so unbound by things. There is a great value of having a constant inspirational source in the house.

DS: What’s something unexpected about being both an artist and father?
SW: The thing that’s interesting to me and to several fathers I know is that we’re not using our own fathers as models. We’re just figuring this out on our on the fly, using our own sense of intuition of how to be a father. I have such tender moments with my son, there’s just awesome intimacy, and I know I never had that with my dad. What missed opportunity! But Sheldon and I feel like we come from a generation of fathers that are more the detached variety.
SS: Being a father is recognizing that your child is a completely unique independent person. They are blood related to you, but they might as well have been shipped in from some other country. They absolutely have their own interests in the world. While my son loves dancing around, I don’t know to what degree he shares my interests or aesthetic values.

A little endnote:
Full disclosure about this article’s title: it’s taken from book Rad Dad, that’s one of the few progressive fathering role-model books I’ve encountered. If you’re not a dad, and certainly if you’re not a parent, I’d guess it’s fairly likely that access to progressive fathering role-model literature isn’t much of a concern. But… if you’re curious or if you need a gift or if you know a guy with a child who needs some encouragement, I recommend it. It’s Bay Area focused, and choreographer Keith Hennessy writes the lead chapter. Rad.

Scott Wells & Dancers present Father On, Thu-Sun, Dec 5-8, 8pm at ODC Theater, SF. Purchase tickets at scottwellsdance.com

This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of In Dance.

David Szlasa works with video in performance and public art. Collaborators include Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Theaster Gates, Dohee Lee, Joanna Haigood, Rennie Harris, Deb Margolin, Bill Shannon, Michael John Garcés, Myra Melford, and Sara Shelton Mann. His work has been exhibited in theaters and galleries worldwide including Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Walker Arts Center, Chicago MCA, Sydney Opera House, Oakland Art Gallery, Harare International Festival of the Arts, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and TSeKh Moscow.