EDITOR’S NOTE: For Scott Wells and Dancers’ upcoming season, they have invited two choreographers working in diverse dance forms and approaches to collaborate with Wells in the creation of a new work, Take This Dance and Shove It. The three choreographers will also be performing in the work and will each bring one additional performer into the process with them. Dancers’ Group invited each of the choreographers to reflect on what drew them to this project and their views on collaboration.
WHAT MAKES A DANCE WORK? (cuz some-times it doesn’t)
I’ve been teaching Theater Appreciation at Sonoma State for eight years, bringing students to shows in San Francisco. I’ve been touched and fascinated by the candid and naive reactions the students have to our art form. Sometimes they pierce through the BS, “yes, the emperor has no clothes type of art,” and sometimes they are mystified and/or offended. We saw the Untitled Feminist Show by Young Jean Lee at YBCA, (I told them to expect it to be all-nude) some said they felt like they were taken to a strip club and forced to look at vaginas. At Smith/Wymore’s Apparatus at ODC several were offended that the audience laughed so much; “it must be inside jokes, because it wasn’t funny.”
It makes me want to confront the question; “What are we all doing (artist and audience) in this theater together?”
I’m interested in deconstructing what we do onstage (I know this isn’t a unique approach and I’m aware there can be a narcissism in this that doesn’t work—is it narcissism or just miscalculation?). While I think there is a risk in watering down art to make it accessible, I also think there is a challenge and risk in being specific and speaking directly to the audience. Here is my attraction: I want to engage our presumptions to discover what they reveal about us. One of my presumptions is that I want dancing that wows us—the moment when the mind gives up, a pleasant bubble of wow, the transcendental moment in which we don’t care if we understand.
To look at these questions I thought it would be provocative and fun to pit contrasting styles against each other; not in contest, but in conversation. Though I think of my work as modern dance, I will nudge my identity to represent contact improvisation. Ballet is a natural contrast to contact improvisation. (At UCSC my dance history teacher [Joanna Harris!] showed us Swan Lake and said, “I just want to show you what you’re up against.”) To represent ballet I invited Amy Seiwert as a co-choreographer. Whereas many choreographers use ballet to show technique, I think Amy uses ballet technique to take us into unexpected terri-tory. Amy has, reluctantly, agreed to perform (not just choreograph) in this work. In our first rehearsal I felt honored to be able to watch this retired performer dance. I feel I am already doing the dance community a big favor!
As a parent I’ve discovered that having three kids play together is much more trouble than two, so I felt we needed a third choreographer. Shinichi Iova-Koga seemed just right. Right? Shinichi’s dances are unique (grotesque, beautiful and funny) worlds of their own. Juxtapose them with ballet and contact improv, and all three forms will be highlighted. Without a word he might derail the conversation and best answer the question, “what makes dance work?”
I think we are three artists who are distinctive in their styles and flexible in their thinking. What’s more, both of my collaborators are artists I’m jealous of: Shinichi (photogenic) and Amy (technical facility I can only dream of). I believe there will be something naturally attractive and intriguing about seeing our three styles side by side and am hopeful that we can take it further; maybe even too far.
WHEN I MOVED to San Francisco in 1999 I dove head first into the local dance community. Living in the Mission, I was fortunate to have ODC and Dance Mission both within walking distance, and therefore saw a show at either space just about every other week-end. Scott Wells and Dancers blew me away, with a fantastic physicality that was so different than the ballet world I knew. Fast forward more than 10 years, and he and I are Artists in Residence at ODC together, getting to discuss art and the challenges of creating in conversations fostered by ODC’s Christy Bolingbroke.
In the 2000s, I greatly admired Scott’s work, which was so different than my own. As a ballet artist, I was never very “pink.” Most comments about my dancing would include the word strong. Once, while at the physical therapist’s office, a woman next to me was shocked to find out I was a ballet dancer. Given my body type, she thought I might race in triathlons. I simply did not fit the mold of the waif-like, fragile ballet dancer. I loved pushing physical limits when I danced. But I could not even conceive of the work Scott was making, or imagine how his creation process unfolded.
Now I see Scott’s work, and I see an emotional intelligence as well as surprising physicality. I’m not sure if this perspective change is in me or in him, but his more recent work moves me in a different way. When he approached me with this project I immediately said yes.
Collaborating is an obvious tool for getting out of a comfort zone, and leaving the comfort zone is necessary for growth. While Scott is someone who’s work I’ve long admired, Shinichi is less known to me. In our first rehearsal, however, I was absolutely captivated by his technique and approach to movement. All three of us share a curiosity and a love of potential.
We don’t know if we’ll find a shared aesthetic, as having three people share artistic ownership is a slippery situation. I don’t mean this in the legal way, but am referring to the challenge of creating a work wherein all three of us feel that our intellectual ideas are expressed within a larger construct. This challenge I find both exciting and mildly terrifying, which is always an interesting place to create from.
DIFFERENCE CREATES FRICTION. Friction creates fire. As I write this, I’m sitting by a fire. When the individual logs sit apart from each other, the fire burns low. But put them together and a blaze erupts. In this art-making proposal, three folks (Scott Wells, Amy Seiwert and myself) who have never worked together before will meet and make a performance. Do we have different approaches to making work? Likely. Different dance techniques? Certainly. And yet, bridges do exist. In many ways, the rigorous form of Ballet, which Amy works with, shares a kinship with the exact forms of Tadashi Suzuki Method or of Noh Theater. Even if the outward appear-ance differs, precision unites them. And if Scott belongs to the Contact Improvisation camp, there is something in Aikido, Judo and maybe even Action Theater that I can use to connect. And we have our contrasts, which provides a rich dimension to any collabora-tion. Scott had the idea that I would repre-sent Butoh Dance. What is Butoh Dance? What is Scott’s idea of Butoh Dance?
Back to the friction and the fire. Will we agree more than disagree? Is there value in agreeing? Perhaps collaboration is not served by agreement, but rather by a healthy, respectful and spirited shearing (as in: shear: “a strain in the structure of a substance produced by pressure, when its layers are laterally shifted in relation to each other.”) Though I don’t get our title Take this Dance and Shove It, I believe Scott wants humor and a collision to happen. Psychology Today says “Humor can be used for bonding, releasing tension, attracting a mate, putting a rival in his place, or entertaining a child. It has as many functions and styles as there are variations on the light bulb joke.” We may just hit all those marks (except for the mating part).
Coming off my most recent project, 95 Rituals, I have been in a world of collaborative debate and find myself swaying between numerous approaches: 1. Scoring, create a set of instructions to interpret and work as a group to determine the parameters of the performance; 2. Improvising, which requires some agreement and time to develop as a skill; 3. Choreographing exact steps. Anna Halprin recently spoke to me about a group she’s been working with and how they rely on a choreographer to come in and tell them what steps/movements to make. “So old fashioned,” she says, to work that way. I love hearing Anna, at age 95, talking about how old-fashioned the younger people are. A couple years ago, she was bemoaning repeated references to the Judson Church. Roughly paraphrasing her: “Get over it and move on… that was the 60’s… I want to know what the young people TODAY are doing.” So, let’s call ourselves young and find out. What are we doing today?
Let’s make it fiery and fun.
In 1981 SCOTT WELLS discovered the pleasure of contact improvisation shortly after becoming obsessed with the struggles of modern dance. Wells has created works for skateboarders, for boxers and choreographed West Side Story for Sonoma State University. In 2010 and 2005 Scott Wells received The Isadora Duncan Award for Outstanding Choreography. In 2005 Scott was selected by Dance Magazine as “one of the 25 To Watch.”
AMY SEIWERT serves as the artistic director and primary choreographer of Imagery. She was named one of “25 to Watch” by Dance Magazine, one of the “Hot 20 under 40” by 7×7 Magazine, was honored with a “Goldie” award from the Guardian, and twice her choreography has been listed in the “Top 10” dance events of the year by the Chronicle. She is the Choreographer in Residence for Smuin Ballet.
SHINICHI IOVA-KOGA is the Artistic Director of inkBoat, and core faculty at Mills College, teaching performance composition. He also leads, with his wife Dana Iova-Koga, an annual workshop exploring the relationship of the environment to dance, entitled “Dance on Land,” on the Lost Coast of California.