Charlotte Boye-Christensen: Touching Fire

An evening of choreography by Charlotte Boye-Christensen

Have you ever wanted to be extraordinary?

Whether or not she wants to be, and all evidence would indicate she does, Charlotte IS extraordinary both as a person and as a choreographer.

Originally from Copenhagen, she started ballet training at the age of 7 and has been dancing or choreographing ever since. She received her formal training at London Contemporary Dance School, the Laban Centre in London, and completed her MFA at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She is the recipient of numerous awards as well as a Fulbright Scholarship.

She has choreographed an astounding number of pieces in her international career to date, including 24 created specifically on Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company (RW or RWDC). While she has danced professionally, she says she has always wanted to choreograph and doesn’t much enjoy dancing in other people’s work.

Charlotte joined Ririe-Woodbury in 2002 as Associate Artistic Director after visionary founders Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury saw her dance “Siesta” at a Brolly Arts concert. They were impressed with her work, which Woodbury described as “physically challenging, well structured and (having) an unusual movement vocabulary.” Ririe also noted that she was “stunned with how clear she was with the dancers. She could verbalize exactly what she wanted and has such a good eye. She set the dance in record time and it was performed beautifully.” In 2008, Charlotte succeeded the founders as Artistic Director.

In turn, Charlotte says, “Shirley and Joan had such fortitude and vision in creating this company and that is an inspiration for me moving forwards…They were pioneers in starting something dynamic and unique here in what was then a relatively isolated setting…I have appreciated their trust and faith in the work I have been doing with RW…I care about them both dearly.”

While awards, accolades and the respect of one’s peers certainly indicate an outstanding choreographer, they do not necessarily indicate an extraordinary one. So what is it about Charlotte that makes her extraordinary, a world class choreographer?

Like a certain pain, like fire…

Charlotte is fearless in almost every way imaginable, and encourages, inspires, and expects that fearlessness from those who work with her.

“Charlotte has enabled my fearlessness. She has enabled me to push myself farther and more fully into movement than I ever thought possible for my dancing.”

“She pushed me to take risks with momentum…to let a fall truly take me out of control…and to trust that instinct would kick-in for the catch, at just the right moment.”

“Charlotte has influenced me the most on how not to regret, not to be afraid of changes, to live without apologies. To be brutally honest, as she her self would say. “Bloody”…. in many instances.”

“…how brave she is in trying new ideas and presenting them to the audience continuously.”

As an audience member, this is something that is especially important to me. Charlotte’s choreography is never condescending. She has tremendous respect for her audience, holds nothing back in her choreography, and trusts us to connect with it (or not) in whatever way works for us. She often says that she doesn’t care if the audience loves a piece or hates it, as long as they feel something with passion. She’s not looking for people to be polite or offer compliments. She truly would rather hear “I hated that dance” than “That was nice”.

Likewise, Charlotte is not afraid to bring the very best international choreographers and/or their work to Salt Lake City and present it alongside her own. In her words, “I really believe that it has been my responsibility to have us as a contemporary arts organization remain as current and as relevant as possible and for me to remain educated and aware of what is happening in the rest of the world inside of this art form. The choreographers who I have been most excited about bringing in are choreographers who are groundbreaking in their philosophy of dance.” The list of renowned choreographers whose work she has brought to Salt Lake City includes Karol Armitage, Bill T. Jones, Wayne McGregor, Susan Marshall, John Jasperse, Brook Notary, Alicia Sanchez, and premiering this spring, Johannes Wieland, who recently set the startling “one hundred thousand” on the company.

Charlotte has also been fearless in her willingness to collaborate with others in fields as disparate as architecture, literature, visual arts and comedy. “Touching Fire,” her collaboration with partner and architect Nathan Webster and writer David Kranes, is her most personal and perhaps finest work, an extremely complex and challenging piece which successfully integrates intense physicality, a strong architectural sense — most notably two large mirrors, poetry, music, and dramatic lighting, without imposing a narrative or emotional constraint on the experience.

More recently, she again collaborated with Webster and Kranes along with comedian Ethan Phillips, on “But Seriously,” which will be reprised as part of the December show. When we first spoke about this piece about a year ago, Charlotte said that she “didn’t do comedy” and was “terrified” — and did it anyway, creating a unique, accessible, funny, and much loved work of art. She has also collaborated with local visual artist Trent Call on “Interiors,” which will appear in the upcoming performance as well.

Charlotte’s openness also allows the dancers to be collaborators, to offer their ideas, to experiment with movement, to contribute to the creation and evolution of her work.

“Three of us were new to the company during the creation of this work, and we feel proud to have our personal stamp on it. The piece continues to evolve with us as we mature into our roles with RWDC. It feels new every time we perform it.”

As Charlotte says: “It is so important to surround yourself with passionate, invested, energized, fearless people!! Life becomes so much more interesting. There is nothing worse than beige.”

Curiosity is another word nearly universally used to describe Charlotte, and a quality she demands of her dancers. At least one dancer remembers Charlotte saying “Without curiosity, dance is just physical exercise.”

“Her own curiosity has kept her traveling the globe, in search of movement trends.”

“Charlotte taught me to always stay curious about movement… But this idea of “curiosity” transpires into my everyday living as well. One must always maintain that child-like curiosity in life. Otherwise, life loses its magic. Stay curious–stay PRESENT–and there will always be things to fascinate you.”

Don’t you think you could?

Not only as a dancer, but as an audience member, can you do this? Can you approach a dance – a new one, or one you’ve “seen before,” with curiosity? Don’t you think you could? It makes all the difference. Because dance is ephemeral. You can’t buy it, frame it, download it, put it on your iPod or possess it. Even videotaping it changes it, makes it something totally different from the live experience. Dance exists only in the moment it’s happening, and then it’s gone. And when it’s performed again, if it’s performed again, it may be familiar, but it’s very much new. For example, “Interiors” will be performed by an almost completely different group of dancers this time, which inevitably changes the dance itself.

And it may not be performed again. As personal as Charlotte’s choreography is, she says “I don’t want to see pieces I did 8 years ago performed again, because they have no relevance to where I am at now in my creative development. I am not sentimental when it comes to my work and needing to see it performed again BUT I am really passionate about having my work remain current and relevant and if it is performed again then it needs to be presented in a way that honors the integrity of what was intended with the piece. My work is super personal and it always will be.”

What if you or I never stopped ourselves?

Another hallmark of Charlotte’s approach to both choreography and teaching is the concept of pushing oneself beyond perceived limits. Of her work with Webster and Kranes she says: “We have become a force to be reckoned with because we work so well together and manage to push each other creatively in ways that I haven’t actually been pushed before.”

“She will be known for physically testing the grounds of contemporary dance and fierce abandonment in her works.”

“She has a completely different approach to movement, fierce, unafraid of the dark, of pain, brutally honest, she loves to reach beyond human physical capacity and experiment with concepts that at moments seemed unreachable. We needed someone to guide us through these new ideas, especially in Salt Lake City. Ririe-Woodbury has always been known for breaking boundaries, I saw Charlotte as the next step for the company to go beyond what audiences could expect.”

“Her courage to push boundaries…both within her own work, and with the works she selected to bring-in…”

“I am always so amazed how she creates such clear structures on stage that are continually built up and then deconstructed, a sense of chaos that still has articulation.”

“She taught the company as whole even when exhausted; beautiful art can still be produced. She made us want to work just as hard for her as she was for us. That is a true example of a leader.”

We would have to be prepared.

In order to push oneself beyond boundaries, one has to be prepared – physically, mentally and emotionally. Charlotte is a leader with a fierce, passionate, compelling work ethic who inspires each dancer to become the best she or he can, while also creating a community of artists and others who both challenge and support each other. While she dislikes the word “family” for a professional company, watching a new group of dancers eating, hiking, and playing together during their “time off,” inevitably evokes a sense of family, as do the relationships among Charlotte, the dancers, the founders, management, and all of the staff, students, and volunteers.

In addition to helping dancers push past their boundaries, Charlotte has an intense focus on perfecting form, developing precision and specificity in every movement, balancing raw physicality with lyrical fluidity, and creating an almost architectural spatial sense. While her choreography is cutting-edge contemporary, her roots in ballet are still quite evident.

“I have high expectations of the dancers, they have to be committed to the work that we are doing – I expect them to be fearless and curious and in expecting that I try to provide them with an environment in which this exploration and vulnerability is a possibility, they have to trust me, as I trust them. As an artist you have to be allowed to fail in order to grow and evolve. I am so not interested in working with people who remain complacent and fearful, there is no evolution there to nurture…Our dancers are very different from one another, which I love. There has to be great diversity when you are working with such a tiny group. They have very different strengths and weaknesses and I work with each one of them very differently. I care about each one of them a lot and I take my responsibility towards them in shaping who they are as artists very seriously. I think something that really aids the creative process is having a sense of humor – we laugh a lot!”

“Learning and performing Charlotte’s movement vocabulary required strength, precision, and musicality among other qualities. As a dancer, it was a great experience to have to train up to Charlotte’s artistic and physical demands.”

“…The rigor of her daily work and strong ethics.”

“Charlotte has high standards that have helped our dancers to grow and become better and better.”

“…her infamous 75 morning-side sit ups that kept us so beefy!”

“She brought a great physicality to the company through her choreography, and also she trained them beautifully to perform her work… As you can see, the dancers did grow in the performance of her work, and also in the performance of the works of other choreographers.”

“The most significant concept I have learned from her is the juxtaposition of both fluidity and attack as an approach to movement. She continues to teach me how to find that contrast of formality and release that creates a more interesting look onstage. ”

“Working so closely with Charlotte on a daily basis has been a tremendous gift as a dancer. It is rare these days that dancers can foster such an intimate creative relationship with a choreographer—this daily bond allows for a deep level of trust from both choreographer and dancer that I believe manifests a kind of mutual fearlessness in the work. “

I am trying to think, imagine, I see things happening…

Unfortunately, words can only convey a tiny bit of Charlotte and her choreography. Writing is linear; dance is a simultaneous, controlled explosion of movement, music, costumes, lighting and set. And Charlotte’s work in particular is neither narrative nor linear, has no beginning, no end, but rather everything takes place seemingly at once, as if in a dream. She has an extremely distinctive movement vocabulary that can be seen flowing, changing, and morphing throughout her works, without losing its unique fingerprint. Another of Charlotte’s gifts is to nearly imperceptibly direct your attention with the movement of an arm or leg, a turn, or a gesture. And yet, as in a dream, the dance takes shape and has “meaning” only in the mind of the dreamer/watcher.

Charlotte says her choreography is about relationships and problem solving. It is intensely physical, precise yet intuitive, often spatially complex, and while it may be extremely emotional for the audience, the dancers are focused on “performing with clarity without emotional attachment to the work or others on stage”. It ranges from raw and gritty to the most unimaginable tenderness – all without “characters” or a discrete “story line”.

Can you imagine the kind of heat and light and velocity….

To truly understand the gem who has graced Salt Lake for the past 11 years, you need to experience Charlotte’s choreography. The best, and I might even say the only, way to do this is to see it in person. And the upcoming performance is not only the last solo show featuring her choreography but also an excellent opportunity to experience the breadth and depth of her work in one evening. The performance will include “Interiors”, a collaboration with well-known visual artist Trent Call; “Lost”, inspired by gang members and the many ways we lose ourselves in today’s complex urban environments and our own lives; “The Finish Line”, a brilliant, sparkling duet illuminating a journey through a relationship; and “But Seriously”, the unique, hilarious, collaboration among Charlotte, Webster, Kranes and Phillips. The performance will be held in the Black Box Theatre, which adds to the intimacy and immediacy.

Fortunately for us, Charlotte believes “Salt Lake City has such insane potential when it comes to the arts – we have just seen the tip of the iceberg – that is why I am committed to staying here for a while and shaping a more experimental side of this city.” Still, I expect even more great things from the extraordinary and brilliant Ms. Boye-Christensen, and the opportunity to see some of her best work in an intimate setting at SLC prices is an opportunity no lover of the arts should miss.

It’s a matter of choices. We’re talking choices. And for me, I’m not settling….

And I think you could be extraordinary too.

The author would like to thank the very many people who made this article possible and whose quotations were used throughout: Charlotte for her unfailing openness, generosity, and attention to detail; the founders, dancers, former dancers, and other associates who were willing to be interviewed and shared so openly, author David Kranes for inspiration and structure, and the entire Ririe-Woodbury community for welcoming me with open arms.

Categories: Dance

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