Dance Preview: Salt Lake City
Fighting Crazy with Crazy
The making of one hundred thousand at Ririe-Woodbury
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.
Artist Profile: Dance
Making the Movement Sing
A final curtain call for Ririe-Woodbury's Jo Blake
As the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company's (RW) current season draws to a close, the company is bidding farewell not only to Artistic Director Charlotte Boye-Christensen, but also to dancer Jo Blake, who has been with the company since 2003.
Originally from Georgia, Blake traveled the country as a "military brat". He started in gymnastics and discovered dance in high school. After beginning college at the University of Wyoming, he transferred to the University of Utah (U of U), where he had his first experience with Ririe-Woodbury — when the RW dancers visited and walked down the hallway, he says, all of the students went silent.
At the U of U he also met RW co-founder Joan Woodbury when she came to critique Alwin Nikolais's "Mechanical Organ" for a student performance. The RW connection didn’t immediately “click” for Blake, however, and after graduation in 2003 he planned on moving to New York. Thinking some experience with auditions would be helpful, he applied to RW. "It was not until I auditioned that I truly, truly became inspired to be a part of the company,” he says. “Taking class with Charlotte, learning the rep work from the individual company dancers and meeting Charlotte, Joan, and Shirley were all turning points for me. After that day I kept in constant contact - probably a bit too much - until I was offered a contract with the company. And the rest has been an absolute dream come true!"
The feeling is mutual. Co-founder of the dance company Shirley Ririe says Blake is “absolutely one of the best dancers we have ever had. He has a wonderful sense of humor in his dancing, a trait that is rare these days and one I value highly.”
Woodbury adds: "He is a truly beautiful human being, inside and out. Each year I have seen him grow and change and become someone and something more in his human capacities and his capacities as a dancer. His body fluidly extracts from a gesture just the exact amount of energy, tonality and phrasing that is inherently needed to bring the poetry to the fore. He makes the movement sing."
Over the past decade, Blake has become a sustaining force in the company, admired and respected by his audience, and loved by his colleagues. Now he is one of the RW dancers visiting the University of Utah, causing students to hush when he walks down the hallway. But those who know him all speak of his warmth and humility. One former colleague relates that when she was a student and met Blake, "I was so nervous because I knew who he was and he was a ‘cool RW’ dancer to me. But Jo gave me that big sweet smile and said ‘Hi’ and I was so elated! Little did I know that I would ‘grow up’ to dance with him for many years and have him as a great friend.”
Others refer to Blake as the "anchor" of the company, the go-to person whenever there's a problem, personal or professional. He provides support during stressful tours, and most of all he is the one who can always be counted on to break the tension with a song or a prank.
On stage, Blake has charisma and presence. His focus on the integrity and authenticity of the piece inspires his fellow dancers. “On stage, he holds nothing back physically or emotionally,” says one colleague. “When we make eye contact during a live performance, he shares that courageous vulnerability with me in such a way that enables me to open myself up to meet him, as well as the audience, more fully. I will always cherish those unspoken conversations on stage together."
In 2009, feeling his passion for the dance world diminishing, Blake decided to leave the company. He returned to the University of Utah to explore other options, but fell right back into doing dance — on campus, in guest appearances with RW, and through dancing with the Salt Lake City company RawMoves.
In 2010 Blake returned to RW, inspired by his love for Boye-Christensen's work and for Ririe and Woodbury’s legacy in dance education. He says his happiest memory of his time with the company was returning with a new appreciation for dance and the company. And when he returned, his dancing had achieved yet a higher level with even more expressiveness, flexibility and grace.
Blake’s time with the company has involved not only immersing himself in the choreography of Boye-Christensen, Nikolais and numerous guest choreographers, but also travel — one favorite memory is performing in the theater in Georgia where he watched movies as a boy— and teaching. RW Director of Education Gigi Arrington says that as a teacher Blake "was a sensitive soul…very aware of children with special needs." Initially hesitant, as he gained experience, Blake made his classes more imaginative. Blake himself lights up talking about teaching and says he loves helping children come out of their shells and finds great joy in seeing kids explore movement. Recently he's led the pre-professional Step Up workshop for high school students and his classes are described as "both witty and poetic and a safe place for students to investigate their own movement potential authentically and with great fun."
The person who has worked with Blake most intensively for the past ten years is, of course, Boye-Christensen, who says that one rarely comes “across the depth of expression, the fearless physicality, the inquisitive mind and the unique sense of humor that Jo has...(Jo) just keeps getting better, more interesting, more conscious of how to use his exceptional facilities in ways that serve both the work and himself as a dancer."
Although nothing is definite, Blake is planning to finally go to New York, and hopes to travel, to experience a variety of choreographers, to create his own choreography and ultimately to teach at a university.
As part of his final performance with RW, Blake will be dancing in Boye-Christensen’s “Bridge,” one of his favorite pieces.
When asked what dancers or choreographers have most influenced him, he cites only his colleagues saying, "Each has been my inspiration. Without their desire and their passion I would not be who I am as a dancer, performer, teacher and individual."