If you’re looking for performance that exemplifies Rum’s wild abandon, this month Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company will be presenting a dance you won’t want to miss. For the final performance of artistic director Charlotte Boye-Christensen, and the company’s final countdown before their 50th anniversary season, guest choreographer Johannes Wieland has not so much ‘set’ his “one hundred thousand” on the company, as co-created it with them.
“one hundred thousand” explores modern culture using a mixture of dance, props, improvisation, speech, theater, and soundscape. While that sounds more like performance art than dance, Wieland rejects this distinction saying, “I am not a big fan of categorizing art. I believe in ideas. So I really don’t draw a line here and I also think defining it will not help anyone to understand it better.”
Wieland is currently the choreographer in residence of the Tanztheater (dance theatre) at the State Theater in Kassel, Germany, as well as head of his own eponymous company. He received his early dance training in Germany, and earned his BFA at the Amsterdam School of the Arts. He then returned to Germany, and worked with numerous choreographers before joining the Béjart Ballet Lausanne as a principal dancer.
Ready for a change, he moved to the U.S. and studied at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and graduated in 2002 with an MFA in Contemporary Dance and Choreography. During his studies he met and befriended Ririe-Woodbury Artistic Director Charlotte Boye-Christensen, who invited him to create something very special for her final performance with the company. She says she wanted to expose Salt Lake audiences to a more international aesthetic, in this case dance theater, in which dance itself is not enough, but rather supports an entire theatrical performance.
The dance contains intense physicality bordering on violence; quieter intervals of reflection and introspection that add texture; humor; kitsch; theater; uninhibited abandon; and improvisation. It’s not about perfection, it’s about constantly striving, working through exhaustion, competition, and discomfort. It’s an exploration of our fascination with celebrity contrasted with the robotic, plastic character of celebrities, heroes and anti-heroes, icons, our culture of always seeking something, competing, and trying to be first. Yet the piece is, in Boye-Christensen’s words, “deeply humanistic and soulful.” To quote Wieland: “Being conflicted with the idea of stardom and meaninglessness is a melancholic idea. I am fascinated by our endless search for perfection in many ways on one side and our chaotic stream of thoughts on the other side: We will never be able to put the two together.”
Wieland’s process for creating “one hundred thousand” was unusual and challenging. Rather than start with movement and then add music, staging and other aspects, he started with a concept, but without specific movements. All the movements came from the dancers. Wieland never demonstrated a movement; he gave all his instructions verbally. In his words: “Talking was the much better tool for me to get the ideas transformed into a physical reality. The performers started to think much deeper because they had to in order to get started with the steps.”
Rather than an abdication of creative responsibility, according to Laja Field, a Salt Lake City native now dancing with Wieland in Kassel, Wieland “is always doing research, thinking about ways to put things together, working on new ways of crafting, and comes prepared with something new to see each day. Having the dancers create the movements not only gives them ownership, but allows for a much greater variety and individuality in the movements.”
Wieland says, “I always have an idea before I start to see the dancers for the first time — the concept is crucial for the research. I have specific ideas about what and how to communicate about that.”
Wieland also gave each dancer a “task,” something to meditate on, and then put movement to. One of his most notable exercises for the group was to dance “fighting crazy with crazy.”
“Tasks can be a very cool thing in order to see deeper into the psyche of a dancer,” Wieland says. “They can bring amazing things. Sometimes those things fall into place, sometimes not. Art is not efficient. But all the follow up decisions from my side are gut feelings. I also don’t believe in right or wrong movements – but of course there is a selection process depending on the concept and the idea. Sometimes that is quite far from where I started.” Using tasks and other exercises to elicit new and unusual movements, he chose the movements that worked with his concept, often modifying them and working collaboratively with the dancers to refine them. One dancer’s movement might be given to a different dancer to perform, requiring dancers to learn each others’ styles, and creating a fusion where no one knew whose movement was whose. “I love when everybody in the room is working for the piece. Not individual people doing their own thing,” he says. “We try to share ideas and thoughts, creating a new world. Spinning only around yourself does not help in that setting — so letting go of ownership feelings, merging and morphing ideas between dancers manifests that.”
All of this was not only physically challenging for the dancers, but psychologically challenging as well. In addition to the ego fusion aspects, they were asked to dance “faster than possible,” to risk or even embrace failure, to do things outside their comfort zones, to stay in a place of discomfort. Many dancers saw this as a sort of psychological deconstruction, almost as if they were being asked to deconstruct their existing selves to discover the “true dancer” underneath.
When asked about this process of deconstruction Wieland says, “In part it is true that a deconstruction can help to go deeper while putting things back together. The true self and the exploration of a theme is frightening and interesting and amazing when you start to leave known territories. This not only applies to the performers, but to me as well.” He also praised the dancers of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, saying, “I loved their openness and willingness to go places. You have to give up ego for that – not an easy thing to do. They are also skilled movers. So I was able to connect on different physical and psychological levels with them. This is not a given.”
Despite the challenges, the dancers agreed that Wieland is supportive, nurturing, gentle and humble, and that he served as the grounded center that allowed them to explore, risk, and expand beyond their perceived limits.
Wieland also works with individual ideas or concepts and then assembles them later. In fact, the order of the parts of “one hundred thousand” wasn’t arranged until the final day of rehearsal.
According to Field, Wieland likes wringing out the body, pushing past exhaustion and showing that you can give it all. And these themes certainly are addressed in “one hundred thousand.” She believes his intense physicality elicits a “rush” and a sense of awe in the audience.
Wieland sees it differently. “To put a label on physicality is again a no go for me. Atoms move. The universe is moving with us on it. We move. All of that is physical to me. I love seeing people being lost in movement they are originating. It transports information not being able to be transported with words or other information transmitting ideas. I think that is also what other people are reacting on.”
Music and soundscape are also important elements of Wieland’s performances, although music is usually added after the dance is created.
The results of this process are stunning. “one hundred thousand” is one of the most physical and theatrical dances you’ll see in Salt Lake. While the dancers remain the most important component, the additional layers of props, costumes, music, and theater take this piece to a very different, experimental, experience of dance, and provide some fireworks for Boye-Christensen’s final performance as artistic director.
Sarah Thompson is a retired physician and psychiatrist, as well as a writer and a fan of the arts. Her writing has been published in a variety of magazines and textbooks and she is currently working on a short story and a novel.