Perfect Pairings: RAWdance Celebrates 10 years with Love and Math

By Maureen Walsh


Let’s compare math and love. They couldn’t be more different, right? One conjures up a set of steps, with a clear set of definitions and answers. The other is non-linear and indefinite— full of questions, feelings and hunches.

Yet when you think about each more closely—math and love, love and math—actually these definitions might be interchangeable. The path to love, and the interweaving connections of relationships, may involve tried and true steps, specific emotions, concrete displays of attention and affection. And yet, the steps to solving complex mathematical problems often involves a great deal of intuition and imagination, no numbers, no set rules, only vague theories.

As a person who loves questions for the sake of questions, this middle ground between two disparate ideas is fascinating to me. I could wallow in this nebulous grey zone for a long time, toggling between both sides and questioning constantly: am I a math person? Or a love person? Even more fascinating to me than this tug and pull, is when both ideas can live simultaneously next to each other—showing off each other’s attributes and failures within the close quarters of relative juxtaposition.

Placing this pair together, math and love, couldn’t be more perfectly analogous to the mission and work of RAWdance. Melding things that don’t traditionally go together is a common theme throughout RAWdance’s history andart making. The company has a long resume of dances in un-traditional spaces, uses of new and challenging technologies, residencies, tours and performances that span the globe, yet they maintain a distinct style and aesthetic throughout.

Math and love also intertwine as major themes in one of the new works for RAWdance’s upcoming home season. Turing’s Apple draws equal inspiration from the patterns and mathematical explorations of British code-breaker Alan Turing, and the secret, vulnerable moments of his life and his persecution as a gay man in early 20th century England.

It was the precision and patterns of Turing’s work that first sparked the interest of Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein (co-artistic directors of RAWdance), as well as that of composer Richard Einhorn. Smith and Rein met Einhorn at an artist residency in UCross Wyoming in 2012, where they bonded over a mutual fascination with mathematical patterns, Indian food and the T.V. series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Months later when the idea came up to collaborate on a new project focusing on coding and patterns, it seemed a natural fit for the three to make a piece inspired by the infamous mathematician. About composing for the piece, Einhorn says, “I’ve found that algorithms, left to their own devices, often yield boring music. So in composing the music for Turing’s Apple I’ve aimed to give the impression of rigorous patterning that one gets from algorithms—with the emphasis on impression. Turing’s many achievements—not least of all his thought experiment which laid the foundation for the modern computer—have been an inspiration to me while working on this piece.”

Indeed Turing was among the first to develop the notion of “algorithm,” which can be defined as a procedure or finite set of steps, enacted to solve a problem or accomplish an end.

This begs the question to me: What would make up the algorithm of a dance company? What steps, what formula, what trajectory can a company take to be successful, grow and solve problems to best foster a solid mission? These are steps, not of the dancers, but of the company as a business.

Some might say that growing a company requires expansion— of company members, project scope and larger spaces.

In the case of RAWdance, their algorithm is not so linear or traditional. Smith and Rein both agree on the importance of presenting work in traditional spaces. Well, kind of—they’ve only held three home seasons in a traditional proscenium space. For Smith and Rein, it’s imperative that the scope and details of each performance are decided organically to fit each unique project.

It so happens that the RAWdance duo wanted to go after Z Space for Turing’s Apple and their 10th home season. RAWdance is one of nine artists that were awarded the 2013-2014 Dancers’ Group New Stages for Dance grant, which affords selected artists the opportunity to expand their dance making in one of three categories. For RAWdance, the grant is supporting them in presenting a full evening of works in a larger venue. Their previous home seasons have been presented at ODC Theater (2011 and 2012), Joe Goode Annex (2013), CounterPULSE (2008) and many alternative indoor and outdoor spaces.

Growing into a slightly larger capacity theater may seem like a small step for a company, or maybe it seems really big. Either way, the move to Z Space is one step in RAW’s larger growth algorithm. In fact, RAWdance agrees that their next venue may be smaller, or may not be in a theater at all, depending on what the next project requires. Rein says, “We went after Z Space this year since we really wanted a more traditional space to commemorate our 10th anniversary (to pair with our free outdoor season in Yerba Buena Gardens this September). Z Space’s bigger capacity and industrial feel fit the whole season program, which includes three other works in addition to the Turing piece. The stage size and super raked audience also offer a perspective we haven’t had access to in presenting our work. It’s perfect for Turing’s Apple, since it’s intimate enough to bring the audience into some strong emotional content, but also offers distance for us to really have fun with patterning.”

So where does love fit into this equation? Love is all about relationships. It’s give and take. It’s push and pull. It’s choices, decisions, questions and solutions—all done in tandem. Smith and Rein have the benefit (and burden) of being a pair, committed as much to each other as they each are to the company. All decisions, for better or worse, must be passed by both.

Just as love can’t always be as linear as an algorithm, Turing’s romantic life was far less straightforward than his work with mathematics. Despite his tremendous cryptologic contributions to the war effort (Winston Churchill named Turing as having made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany), he was persecuted for homosexuality

in the 1950s. Smith says, “In the work, material inspired from mathematical processes and Turing’s machines cohabitates with romantic duets. We were drawn to Turing, not only for his genius, but also because of the intensity of his personal narrative. His story of persecution is from the not-so-distant past. It’s a good reminder of how much has changed for equality, but it still feels incredibly relevant.”

Smith and Rein have always maintained a decisively undecided structure when it comes to creating new work and taking performance opportunities. They feel it out, step-by-step, opportunity-by-opportunity.

As each new project arises, Smith and Rein take into account so many questions—Where will it take the company? What will it add? Do we have the resources? Does it involve a process that we both want to be part of? Admittedly this allows RAWdance to evolve organically, from project to project, without the constraints of traditional models and hierarchy. Smith and Rein can take on what they love, what will make their creative habits thrive. Though open to a more traditional approach, they’ve found it difficult to find larger, successful, yet similarly driven companies that offer a roadmap of growth to follow. So through their relationship to each project, they continue to formulate what RAWdance is for them, together and individually.

To zoom out one step further, the analogy of math and love as a kind of perfectly opposite pairing, applies to the company as a whole. For a dance company that delivers sharp, clear, distinct movement, RAWdance’s mission and approach to finding new artistic opportunities is mostly the opposite: Smith and Rein thrive on a company structure that is explorative, vulnerable to change, and as decisively nebulous as it is driven.

RAWdance is all about perfectly paired opposites. It is at once: an inseparable duet and a collective of single dancers; intellectual, political, researched stories told through sexy, light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek movement; it’s a creative company and a licensed business; it is traditional and non-traditional; the list is endless.

Their work varies in subject, style and mood. Their projects, like their always-evolving mission, span a broad spectrum of audiences and venues. Most importantly in the last 10 years they have maintained steady and consistent growth: climbing the traditional ladders of success within the field, all while taking the necessary detours and off-road pathways that carve out a space that is just theirs.

What do these detours look like? Celebrating their 10th year as a company this year, RAWdance has taken on an incredibly varied list of events, projects and performances. Just in the past eight months the company has created a flash mob for a corporate venture; toured one of their “favorite” duets about traditional family dysfunction; hosted a salon-style showcase of local choreographers; participated in a series of experimental, bi-coastal technology-driven choreography sessions; finished setting a new work
on students at Marin School of the Arts; held a 10th anniversary party; and is currently in the throes of prepping for their upcoming home season (among many other things, of course).

And RAWdance’s “season” isn’t over after the premiere of Turing’s Apple at Z Space. In August, RAWdance will be presented as part of the triennial Bay Area Now festival at YBCA. And in September, the company will perform an entirely different repertory season, bringing back some past favorites for free and outdoors, presented by the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival.

I find myself asking questions upon questions and contemplating Turing’s Apple brings me to the following:

What’s the next step? Next steps aren’t always about moving forward.

What’s the big idea? Bigger isn’t always better.

What’s your algorithm? A roadmap is more memorable if it includes detours and spontaneous stops along the way.

What makes you tick? What makes you love?

And in the case of RAWdance, what will the next 10 years bring? What are the next steps in the RAWdance algorithm? More gutsy moves, perhaps, that build and shape the company through more questions, ideas and hunches.

RAWdance presents its 10th Anniversary Summer Season featuring the world premiere of Turing’s Apple set to a commissioned score by composer Richard Einhorn. Additional works include the world premiere of Burn In and works by guest artists Gretchen Garnett & Dancers and Tanya Bello’s Project B.

This article appeared in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of In Dance.

Maureen Walsh lives in San Francisco and enjoys the city’s craziness and wonder. She spends her time dancing, playing, finding funny things on the internet, giggling, baking, working as a Social Media Strategist, learning to play the bass guitar, surfing, and adventuring.