Q&A: Choreographer John Selya

Courtesy of SMU

Courtesy of SMU

The Twyla Tharp dancer on his journey from ballet to Broadway and creating his new work, Darkside, as part of the SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts Spring Dance Concert.

Dallas — John Selya is not your typical ballet dancer. In addition to classical ballet, Selya is also well versed in Twyla Tharp’s free flowing movement style and is an authoritative voice when it comes to the ins and outs of dancing on Broadway. A native New Yorker Selya attended the School of American Ballet before joining American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in the late 80’s. It was here Selya was exposed to Tharp’s classical, yet quirky way of moving for the first time. Selya spent 11 years with ABT before leaving to join Twyla Tharp Dance. In 2003 he made his Broadway debut performing the central role of Eddie in Tharp’s Tony-winning show, Movin’ Out. His performance earned him a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a musical, an Astaire award for outstanding dancing on a Broadway stage and a Theater World Award for outstanding Broadway debut. Since then, Selya has also appeared in Damn Yankees, Guys and Dolls and Tharp’s recent Come Fly Away.

Selya is currently an artist-in-residence at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts where he is working with students on his new work, Darkside, part of the Meadows Spring Dance Concert which runs March 25-29 in the Bob Hope Theatre. Using music from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, Darkside adds a visual element to the groundbreaking musical composition (which is the second best-selling album of all time after Michael Jackson’s Thriller according to Wikipedia). The work follows an inquisitive philosophy student named Emily on her journey to decipher the teachings of her professor and fulfill her destiny. The program also includes Danny Buraczeski’s acclaimed 1999 piece Ezekiel’s Wheel, inspired by the life and work of author and Civil Rights activist James Baldwin and a new work by Dallas-based choreographer Joshua L. Peugh entitled The Hi Betty Cha-Cha.

TheaterJones asks John Selya about his experience working with the legendary Twyla Tharp, transitioning from ballet to Broadway and creating his work, Darkside.

TheaterJones: Going into rehearsals did you have a clear vision of what you wanted Darkside to look like?

John Selya: Going in I knew I wanted to use Tom Stoppard’s radio play which is inspired by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album. The radio play is split up between dialogue and music, and the more I listen to it and the more I see the work; it’s more like a musical than just a dance. You have your spoken word passages and Tom Stoppard has segued seamlessly into songs from the album. So, when I initially decided to use this for the SMU piece I did have a clear aesthetic vision. I had a vibe that I wanted to create. I wanted to go for an interactive dance piece where the dancers were not confined just to the stage. In the musical Hair, the director, Diane Paulus, had the actors come out into the house and I thought this would be a great exercise for young performers such as the students at SMU to really become comfortable with being themselves at close range. So, that’s what my aim was.

Darkside follows a strong storyline. Do your prefer creating more story-driven pieces vs. abstract work?

I really go for a mix. I like to rely on the storyline just as a general compass, but then I don’t like to adhere to it too much. But what really appealed to me about the Tom Stoppard/Pink Floyd collaboration was that I feel Stoppard was able to add another element independent of what the songs had already said. So, you’re not just reflecting it; you’re adding to it. But that storyline has your compass pointing you where you want to go, and once I go there then I try to become abstract. I also want to add that this radio play is not a simple storyline. I don’t know if it’s just me, but it takes me a long time to fully absorb what Stoppard is saying and why he is saying it. So, I wouldn’t call this a simple storyline. At least not for me.

Were any of the dancers familiar with Pink Floyd prior to this piece?

Some of them knew their greatest hits, but not everyone was familiar with the music and frankly there wasn’t much time to delve into the history and the body of work of Pink Floyd. And I’m sure the dancers kind of felt uncomfortable like they were flying blind because I didn’t explain much to them while we were working except for the basic quality of physical movement that I wanted. I think it was tough for these dancers to not deal with definites. A lot of times in my process of choreographing the intention of a part is unclear and I’m waiting for it to reveal itself. Again that is kind of flying blind and is a much different approach to making work than they’ve been used to so, that was a learning curve all around. They would ask me questions like what are we here and the most I could tell them was that they are the weather of the piece.

After this experience what would you say is the biggest difference between choreographing for college students and seasoned professionals?

I think for the students it’s just a matter of trusting their own artistic identity. They haven’t had that long to forge their own artistic identity and their own movement quality, and I think they’re not used to relying on that and capitalizing on the individuality that they bring to a piece. That’s the biggest difference between so called seasoned professionals and students. I chose these dancers for the piece because there was something about their individuality that appealed to me and that fit right in with what I wanted to do.

What can you tell me about the dance sequences in the piece?

It’s mostly group dances onstage, but there are pas de deux that happen in the audience. What I wanted to set up is the protagonist, named Emily, goes on this journey as cliché as that sounds. So, I have her travelling around the auditorium and ultimately coming onstage to join the other dancers at the end. So, it is mostly group dances and the transitions, I hope, are seamless because as a director that is what I really work hard at is making things flow naturally. I tell the dancers it’s like these Italian road bikes are made really well and the way you see the craftsmanship is the links between the tubes where all the ornamenting is so, I go for that. I hope it flows and if it doesn’t there is still work that needs to be done.

What kind of atmosphere are you trying to create for the audience?

I would say it runs the gamut it terms of emotions. I do like psychedelic especially in the theater, but then there are moments of darkness and at the end I have attempted to do kind of an epiphany.

Looking back on your career what made you decide to leave ABT and join Twyla Tharp Dance?

I met Twyla at ABT when she was hired as the artistic associate and as a result the company absorbed some members of her company. I was amazed to see these totally different dancers in our ranks. ABT had been a solely classical company and in comes Twyla’s group of free formed versatile dancers. Classically trained most of them, but they had something that I had never heard before called movement quality. It was just amazing to have that kind of exposure to a whole other vocabulary of movement. So, anyway Twyla saw me in class during my first tour and she came up to me after and gave me a bunch of corrections on grande jetes and ever since then she has always invited me to work with her. I was just so fortunate that someone took an interest in me and was able to take my training as a classical dancer and extend it into something a little more accessible. Which is what I love about Broadway because you access a whole other audience.

What was the hardest part of transitioning from classical ballet to Broadway?

I don’t think it was hard at all. Working with Twyla on Movin’ Out I just felt at home and I felt like I had a role that was kind of tragic and I loved it. I mean it wasn’t Tommy Tune’s Broadway we were in. We weren’t in tap shoes and sequin vests. My character in Movin’ Out was a mix of Michael Jordan and Bob Dylan and it was a role I could really relate too. I would say it’s more difficult leaving Broadway. For me it’s the ultimate way to really work on your dancing. You have the same thing to do every night and you really get to refine it and really get into the role. It’s fantastic!

How was Twyla’s Broadway work different from what other choreographers were doing at that time?

What Twyla brought to Broadway it was she calls deep dancing. You are basically telling the story through the dancing and very seldom is that done. And it is not done as extremely as it is done by Twyla. I think she crafted a story that was relatively easy to follow, but for me was challenging to execute. Her trust in dancing to tell a story to a Broadway audience is the main thing I think she brought to the industry.

What are some of the lessons she has taught you as an artist?

I’ve learned from her to take no short cuts in the work that you do. I’ve learned to always keep it interesting for yourself. I’ve learned never to keep a regular rhythm when you dance. And I am still learning. There’s a new lesson basically everyday with Twyla.

This Q&A was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

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Forward Thinkers: Katie Puder, Avant Chamber Ballet

Photo: Robert Hart

Photo: Robert Hart

With numerous successes in its short history, including its first full-length ballet and performance at Dallas DanceFest, Puder’s Avant Chamber Ballet is one step closer to its goal of reconnecting live music and dance.

Over the past three years Avant Chamber Ballet (ACB) has accomplished what takes most small ballet companies years to do. Along with bringing together a cohesive group of talented professional dancers and building a solid audience base, ACB is also filling a void in the Dallas dance scene with the use of live chamber music at its performances. This feat can be attributed to Artistic Director Katie Puder’s tenacity and resourcefulness both artistically and enterprisingly speaking.

Puder began her ballet training with Wichita Falls Ballet Theater before moving to Fort Worth at age 13. She continued training with Paul Mejia and Maria Terezia Balogh and at 17 she joined the Metropolitan Classical Ballet. The idea for starting ACB came to Puder while attending multiple Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) concerts. “I was inspired to start doing more choreography just from hearing so much fantastic live music. Our first choice for the musicians for our performances are always DSO musicians, and I think very few ballet companies in the world can say they have musicians of that quality performing with them.”

With the aid of DSO principal horn David Cooper, ACB’s focus is on strengthening the ties between live music and dance in the Dallas area. Since its inception in 2012, ACB has performed eight new works, including Puder’sExactly Woven and Carnival of Animals, which premiered at the Eisemann Center in October 2014. This past year ACB also produced its first full-length ballet, Alice in Wonderland, with a commissioned score by resident composer Chase Dobson to positive reviews. “It seems that dance audiences have really missed live music. We also have a part of our audience who are music fans and we are their first exposure to dance performances. I love hearing from people who are discovering how exciting live ballet and music can be for the first time.”

Not one to idle, Puder is always looking for news way to increase exposure while also enriching the local dance culture. Participation in local dance festivals this year, including the {254} DANCE-FEST in Waco and the reimagined Dallas DanceFest at the Dallas City Performance Hall has helped ACB expand its reach within these communities. Puder’s plans for 2015 include the company’s first Women’s Choreography Project, which happens this weekend at Richardson’s Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts and a collaboration with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s SOLUNA: International Music & Arts Festival in May.

The Women’s Choreography Project, a series she plans to continue, features work by Puder and local choreographers Elizabeth Gillaspy and Emily Hunter, as well as guest choreographer Amy Diane Morrow.

A firm believer in supporting other local artists Puder has invited local dance companies such as Dark Circles Contemporary Dance to come perform with ACB. Puder is beginning to see this supportive stance spread across the whole dance community. “I have this feeling of a real community between different companies and circles. There is more awareness of what other people are doing and people are being supportive.” With Puder’s work ethic ACB will continue to draw in new audiences and raise the bar for other professional dance companies in the area.

This piece was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Loop Review: NICE, Danielle Georgiou Dance Group

Photo: Trenton Ryan Stephenson

Photo: Trenton Ryan Stephenson

At Out of the Loop, DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) playfully takes on etiquette and gender in NICE.

Addison — If you have seen previous works by Danielle Georgiou then you know she dances to her own rhythm and is not afraid to push the audience outside its comfort zone. Her latest work for DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group), NICE, which premiered in November as part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, brings audiences face-to-face with the many underlining themes of what it means to be nice in today’s world. Georgiou and her conceptual partner Justin Locklear used spoken word, full-body movement and the catchy lyrical musings of composer and comedian Paul Slavens to drive their point home at Saturday night’s showing of NICE at the Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. The effect is a full emersion into a world that pokes fun at Emily Post and society’s addiction to false niceties especially in regards to women. A touchy subject indeed, but Georgiou’s satirical approach brings a lightheartedness to some of the more controversial themes present in the show.

The fourth wall is immediately brought down as the 10 performers escort us to our seats. They smile politely as they make comments on our wardrobe choices or lack of a wedding band. The overly fake smiles take the sting out of these comments and the interactions show Georgiou’s knack for pushing people’s buttons without pushing them over the edge. As the show starts the performers walk across the stage, make eye contact with an audience member and again offer a back-handed compliment such as “that juice cleanse looks like it’s really working for you” or “those jeans fit your body real well.” From here Georgiou sets up different scenarios using individual or group movement choices as well as spoken text and the grandfatherly advice of Slavens to pick apart this social norm of being nice.

Following a monologue by newcomer Nick Leos, who fits right into the group with his silky voice and grounded movement, a 50s-inspired housewife stands demurely by as her husband verbally belittles her and then physically pushes her down. In another scene two males grope a female as she tries to push them away to no avail. As the music swells the dancers begin shoving away from one another only to be pulled back together like magnets, caging the female between them. The tension that has been slowly building is suddenly released as two females run on stage in their underwear in an act of rebellion. Their movement is spastic yet free-flowing as they run and fall to the ground in alternating patterns.

These intense sections are broken up with more upbeat group dances, which make audiences members laugh despite their discomfort with the accompanying culturally insensitive tunes “Slap Her Down Again Pa” and the Polka classic “She’s Too Fat For Me.” The first is a flapper-inspired number where four females dressed in gold fringe dresses shimmy and shake as the male’s cat call to them. The movement was simple—foot shuffles and hand flicks—but the fast timing of the song added suspense. It was obvious the females were enjoying the attention they were getting, but still pretended as if the men weren’t there. Slavens also took part in the changes of pace with a role alternating between humor and the voice of reason. During the show, he emcees a “Dear Abby”-style Q&A where performers showcase racist views within earnest-sounding questions on “nice” behavior, and he responds with even more shocking advice or justifications that add comic relief to a potentially volatile theme.

Despite having received negative attention in the flapper number, when the women were ignored by the men in the final dance section, this was even worse. Spread diagonally across the stage the men remained stoic as the females tried to draw their attention by kissing them, flailing their arms, dropping to the ground and smacking their butts. When this didn’t work the female’s movements became more desperate as they screamed in the men’s faces to look at them. As this is occurring a lone female is having the same battle with a long panel of white paper hanging from the ceiling. In her desperation she rips the paper in half so she is now exposed to the audience. Her focus turns on us as she yells at us to look at her, once again pulling the audience into the piece.

This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Q&A: Parisa Khobdeh, Paul Taylor Dance Company

Photo: Paul Taylor's Cloven Kingdom. Photo: Courtesy of PTDC

Photo: Paul Taylor’s Cloven Kingdom. Photo: Courtesy of PTDC

Dallas native Parisa Khobdeh shares what it means t be a Paul Taylor dancer, fostering her free and easy movement quality and the company’s upcoming performance at the Eisemann Center.

Richardson — It takes more than strong technique and individual virtuosity to make it as a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. It also takes humility, authenticity and a natural self-awareness as company member Parisa Khobdeh has discovered over the past 12 years.

Born and raised in Plano, Khobdeh trained with Gilles Tanguay at Dance Consortium and Kathy Chamberlain at the Chamberlain School of Ballet. It was Chamberlain who encouraged her to audition for Southern Methodist University’s dance program where she got the opportunity to work with choreographers, including Robert Battle, Judith Jamison and Donald McKayle. Her path as a professional modern dancer wasn’t cemented until she attended the American Dance Festival (ADF) as a Tom Adams Scholar where she saw the Paul Taylor Dance Company perform Promethean Fire (2002). The first time she auditioned for the company she didn’t make it, but that didn’t deter her from her ultimate dream of becoming a Paul Taylor dancer. After attending a Taylor intensive in New York Khobdeh made it through her second audition and premiered with the company at ADF in summer 2003.

One of the last living pioneers of modern dance, Paul Taylor first presented his choreography with five other dancers in Manhattan in 1954. Over the last 60 years he has become a cultural icon thanks to his vivid imagination, all-encompassing intellect and quick eye for uncovering a person’s character, which continues to captivate audiences around the world. Formed in 1993, the Paul Taylor Dance Company has performed in more than 540 cities in 64 countries, representing the United States at arts festivals in more than 40 countries and touring extensively under the aegis of the U.S. Department of State.

The company returns to Dallas Feb. 7 for a one-night only performance at the Eisemann Center for Performing Arts in Richardson, TX. The program includes the Dallas premiere of Diggity (1978), Beloved Renegade (2008) andCloven Kingdom (1976). There will also be a screening of the Paul Taylor documentary Creative Domain, presented by the Eisemann and the Arts Incubator of Richardson, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 5 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson. Tickets for that are $10.

TheaterJones asked Parisa Khobdeh about her training in Dallas, becoming a Paul Taylor dancer and having work set on her by the legend himself.

TheaterJones: You have been with the Paul Taylor Dance Company for more than 10 years. What is it about the man that instills such loyalty from his performers?

Parisa Khobdeh: I don’t see it as loyalty so much as it is a commitment to him and his work. We are really a family and look out for one another. Mr. Taylor has an eye for uncovering a person’s true character. He notices things that aren’t always apparent to the rest of us when he is auditioning people. He chooses not only really beautiful dancers, but also people with really great souls. And because of that you don’t see a lot of turnover among the dancers in the company. I joined the company at 22 and it has been a place that fosters artistry. There are a lot of revolving-door companies out there. They emphasize the technical virtuosity and not necessarily the depth of humanity, which is what Mr. Taylor’s work, embodies. His work reflects his physicality, beauty and well-structured physique. And then the dance itself is structured to show architecture through space and that is something that sets his work apart from others choreographers.

In a 2007 Dance Magazine article Mr. Taylor refers to the way you move as eye-popping. How does it feel to receive such a compliment from such an illustrious source in the modern dance world?

Oh gosh! I don’t really think about it to be honest. What I feel for Mr. Taylor is complete love and support. He has a beautiful soul and such a big heart. Every day we get the opportunity to work around a genius. So, back to your question I really don’t think about the things you just mentioned. This has definitely been a wonderful place for me to foster my artistry. Mr. Taylor really allows the dancer to speak and fulfill the role given to them. And I think that’s why his company attracts more mature dancers. It’s woven into the work, these subtleties of being human. He sees things a certain way and then shows you where to look and it’s really just been a wonderful place to expand and experience life for myself. To learn from him, watch him create and then to be created on is such an honor.

You are the focus of his works Lines of Loss (2007) and To Make Crops Grow (2012). What is the atmosphere like in the studio when the company is working with Mr. Taylor?

We are all very present when he is creating. Entering the studio Mr. Taylor already has the music broken-up and counted out; he has his notebook; and he knows what and how many dancers he is going to use, but he knows there is only so much you can plan. It’s now a matter of going into the studio and having the process and that’s when the energy between the dance maker and the dancer really comes to life. And you need that process and coming into the studio. You can’t just make a dance in your head in your house. It’s exciting and seldom is it disappointing because if you are not being created on then you are watching him create which is a gift in and of itself. Sometimes he will articulate what he wants and if you don’t get it then he will get up and show you and you get to experience the dancer that he is. There is such a beauty when he comes up and touches you. When he actually moves you there is a touch memory there that stays with you even after performing the work for the hundredth time. It’s really a sacred process.

When did you come to the realization that modern dance was the right path for you?

I actually started my dance training with Julie Lambert and Gilles Tanguay at Dance Consortium with would later merge with Kathy Chamberlain’s school. I was 14 at the time and I really danced because it was fun. With Gilles I learned a lot of modern movement, but when I joined Kathy’s school the focus was more on classical ballet. The school also offered classes in other styles of dance, but most of the students spent their summers at the School of American Ballet and I was never really moved by the storybook ballets. I appreciated them, but the form didn’t really speak to me.  It was Kathy who encouraged me my senior year of high school to audition for the Southern Methodist University’s dance program. So, I auditioned and got in and really had no idea what I was getting myself into. At the time I wasn’t interested in becoming a dancer, but I began to waver after taking Graham technique and working with various choreographers such as Robert Battle, Judith Jamison and Donald McKayle. But most importantly I was seeing a lot of modern dance work created by Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham. I was starting to see works that really spoke to me and that was a big game changer. So, it wasn’t until the end of my junior year when I went to the American Dance Festival (ADF) where the Paul Taylor company premiered Promethean Fire (2002) that I knew this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t just want to dance for Paul Taylor; I had to dance with Paul Taylor.

Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

Looking back how did attending festivals such as ADF prepare you for your future as a professional dancer?

The SMU dance program required you to attend festivals, but Kathy Chamberlain has always encouraged her dancers to go and see dance and for good reason because perspective is everything. And honestly I didn’t know what dance was capable of doing. And I sense that had I not seen some of those performances I wouldn’t have known what I wanted.

As a dancer who is over 30 years old how do you avoid burning out or becoming jaded by the industry?

I think it’s about awareness and consciousness and you are ultimately in control of all of that. Nothing external to you like a choreographer, job or partner will make you happy. Happiness is our birth right. Ultimately, we all have our different paths, but it’s still up to us to have that consciousness to dream up what our life could be. We all have the same potential and it’s just a matter of how bad do you want it. How hard do you want to work at it and I think that’s just consciousness. Mr. Taylor beautifully transmits content and depths of life. There are probably a lot of young dancers that it’s all about becoming a star and in that case the Paul Taylor company is probably not right for them. It’s definitely not the place for them because it’s not about you. If you can come from a place of true contentedness and not competing with other dancers then the work doesn’t become hard or unenjoyable. It becomes an experience and it becomes gratitude. You get to see the beauty in life for its simplicity and sweetness.

The other part of it is being healthy and not smoking or drinking, and to really have a clean lifestyle. That’s what I need to be able to do the work that I’m content with and happy about. I am not saying any of these things are wrong. The kind of vigor and the expectations that the work demands of an artist actually causes me to eat consciously. I had a major injury that took me out and it was really a gift because it allowed me to want to come back to dancing. It was a gift to be able to watch work and watch my colleagues do what they love to do it. It gave me perspective. And then to be able to go back to doing it, I only felt gratitude.

How does it feel to get to perform in your hometown?

I definitely feel like I have come full circle. But what is most exciting is seeing how the city and dance community has changed since I left 12 years ago. That’s really the beautiful part of coming back to Dallas. It’s wonderful that there are presenters like the Eisemann Center and TITAS to bring in such amazing dance companies. You know, it’s not just about the dance schools, but it’s also about seeing dance and gaining perspective.

The evening’s program includes Diggity (1978), Beloved Renegade (2008) and Cloven Kingdom (1976). Which pieces will you be performing and how does each piece speak to you?

I will be performing in Beloved Renegade and Cloven Kingdom. Having a strong ballet background and exposure to other styles thanks to Kathy and SMU made learning the material easier for me. And obviously Mr. Taylor is from the school of Graham so his style is not too far off from what I am use to. Still, I was young when I joined the company, 22, so there was a lot for me to learn and it takes years to become a Taylor dancer. With more than 140 works in his repertoire these three pieces give you only a small taste of Mr. Taylor’s aesthetic. He shows you where to look in all his works, but then you have to do the discovering for yourself. Beloved Renegade is a perfect example of this. It’s inspired by Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” And how it looks to me is Mr. Taylor is reflecting on his own life or man reflecting on his own life and reminds of a quote “find death before death finds you.” I think Mr. Taylor even said that all stories end the same way and that’s with death. That’s the one thing we do know. But the work is not morbid at all.

Cloven Kingdom is the earliest work on the program and really reflects Mr. Taylor’s intellectual hunger. You can see the tension between the Baroque and modern music, but also the tension among the dancers as they struggle with social conformity as they try to disguise their own animal motives. So, you see that struggle and that conflict and the movement vocabulary within the work ultimately came out of this tension between what’s socially acceptable and our true primitive nature. Diggity is a work Mr. Taylor did with long-time collaborators Donald York (composer) and Alex Katz (sets and costumes). There’s 20 some cutouts of dogs placed around the stage which in turn creates an obstacle course for the dancers.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Dysfunctional Beauty

Photo: Courtesy of DCCD

Photo: Courtesy of DCCD

Montreal-based choreographer James Gregg brings his eccentric style and unique sense of humor to Dallas in his new work, Boonflood, U.S.A, part of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance’s Winter Series.

Fort Worth — Joshua L. Peugh has a knack for finding choreographers who are just as curious and quirky as him and who possess their own distinct voice to come to Dallas to work with his company Dark Circles Contemporary Dance (USA). Peugh looks for guest choreographers who have his similar ‘sight’ when it comes to the creative process, but who can also challenge the dancers physically and intellectually. Over the past two years the U.S. branch of the South Korea-based DCCD has successfully introduced North Texas audiences to choreographers such as Chad El-Khoury and Mike Esperanza, whose works were enthusiastically received by critics. DCCD is hoping to continue this trend with Montréal-based choreographer James Gregg’s new work, Boonflood, U.S.A. The piece, which uses six DCCD company members including Peugh, is part of DCCD’s Winter Series which runs Jan. 29-31 at Erma Lowe Hall, Studio Theatre on the Texas Christian University Campus in Fort Worth.

An Oklahoma native, Gregg moved to Chicago in 1999 to dance with River North Chicago Dance Company. He was with the company for several years before moving to Montréal where he currently dances with Les Ballet Jazz de Montréal. He has also danced with RUBBERBANDance and Azure Barton and Artists. Last year Gregg was one of the winners of Ballet Austin’s New America Talent/Dance choreographic competition for his work The Space Between. Peugh and Gregg met last year in Philadelphia where they were both setting pieces for BalletX.

While watching a run-though of Boonflood, U.S.A. at Preston Center Dance on Sunday afternoon it was easy to see why Peugh was drawn to Gregg’s work. They both have a penchant for distorted body shapes, whimsical gesturing and full body contact partnering. They also find humor in the most simplistic of tasks such as walking, hugging and staring. Gregg displays this side of himself in the opening section of Boonflood, U.S.A. Dressed in folksy attire, denim button downs, beige pants and floral patterned dresses, the six dancers shuffle across the stage frozen in what appears to be an awkward family portrait. They go back and forth about five times, dropping off a member of the family each time, which causes them to shift their pose. The music is an original score by Austin-based composer Jordan Moser that starts with an upbeat banjo ditty, then morphs into unsettling heartbeats before finally bringing back the banjo in a very complex electronic remix of sorts.

Whereas Peugh’s movement choices typically emphasize a certain body part such as an arm, shoulder or hip, Gregg leans more toward full body motion as evident with Sarah Hammonds’ open-chested releases and loose leg lifts during her solo. Gregg advises her to think about compressing the muscle so it doesn’t look floppy. The group sections are where we see Gregg’s true chorographic genius come out to play. Having been working in Montreal for the past 10 years, Gregg says he has gotten to experience everything from classical and contemporary styles of dance to more avant-garde and risqué ways of moving. In the groups sections of this pieces Gregg plays around a lot with the texture (i.e. sharp, weighted, calculated, loving) as well as group partnering.

For example, in the waltz section the three couples go from pushing and pulling at one another to placing their head on the other person’s shoulder as they spin around with their arms extended out. In the group partnering section everyone stays connected as Peugh supports fellow dancer Alex Karigan Farrior as she pushes off someone’s back with her feet to end up on Chad El-Khoury’s shoulders. As this is happening the entire group is steadily moving upstage while staying connected as a whole. These extremely intense sections are balanced out with more whimsical moments such as the family photo session where everyone strikes a June Cleaver pose before returning back to their true characters. Everyone in the audience can relate to this dysfunctional family theme. And while at certain points the piece evokes feelings of grief, anger and isolation Gregg says there is an uplifting quality to it all.

The DCCD Winter Series also features two new works by Peugh, Critics Of The Morning Song and You and Me. The first is a duet between Peugh and Farrior which premiered in New York City last October at The Ailey Citigroup Theater. The piece is quintessential Peugh; isolated body gestures, rhythmic pedestrian movements, body music and of course uniquely comical. You and Me includes a minimal techno soundtrack, vintage arcade sounds and features Peugh’s knee-bruising floor work and primitive body positions.

This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Shaping Dance

 

Photo: Shaping Sound

Photo: Shaping Sound

Travis Wall discusses his choreographic journey on So You Think You Can Dance, expanding the commercial dance industry and cofounding the L.A.-based contemporary dance company, Shaping Sound.

Fort Worth — The commercial dance industry has gone through a major transformation over the last 10 to 15 years. Being a professional commercial dancer in the ‘90s meant moving to L.A. and auditioning for music videos and TV commercials. The term ‘dance celebrity’ did not exist. The closest a commercial dancer would get to fame was dancing in the background of a Britney Spears video. Commercial dancers today has seen an increase in jobs and exposure thanks to TV shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing With The Stars and Dance Moms. These shows have jump-started many dancers’ professional careers, including Travis Wall’s. The public first got to see Wall as a contestant on Season 2 of SYTYCD, but it wasn’t until Season 5 when he was brought back as a choreographer that we got to see the emotional storyteller underneath all that incredible technique.

Growing up in his mom’s dance studio in Virginia Beach, Wall always knew he was destined for more than just dancing at a very young age. He landed his first professional at age nine when he appeared in a Dr. Pepper commercial. And he was only 18 when he became a contestant on SYTYCD in 2006, a blessing and a curse he says. A blessing because his body was able to keep up with the grueling schedule, but he says he found it hard to open up to the camera. “I really didn’t know how to act especially with my sexuality (at the time noSYTYCD contestant had ever come out). So, instead I just made it about the dancing. I wasn’t going to make it about anything else.”

After the show Wall became more focused on creating work with the hopes of one day returning to the SYTYCDstage to show off his choreographic chops. “It was a passion of mine to become a choreographer in the commercial dance industry and I told the show’s producers that they would invite me back.” Wall got his chance in Season 5 with a contemporary routine featuring Jason Glover and Jeanine Mason. “I was actually assisting Wade Robson that week and the night before the show the producers called me and asked me if I wanted to do my first piece. I basically had 12 hours to pick music and set the routine on the dancers.” Having guest choreographed on the show for numerous seasons now, Wall is quick to point out that he usually only gets five to six hours to work with the dancers. Outside of the show Wall has worked with Florence and the Machine, Chelsea Handler, Eminem and Rihanna. He also choreographed the contemporary numbers in the film Step Up Revolution and currently teaches on tour with NUVO Dance Convention.

When asked how it feels to have his journey as a choreographer documented in such a public way Wall says it is simply amazing. “I think it’s really cool for people to feel like they are part of a journey.” Wall also gets the added bonus of having these clips of his work forever archived on the Web. “I can just randomly go on You Tube and watch the pieces and remember what I was going through at that particular time. I always put a lot of myself into the pieces I do on SYTYCD and so I’m really watching my life process through these videos.”

Having spent so much time in front of the camera it only seemed natural that in 2012 the camera would follow him as he and his buddy’s Nick Lazzarini, Teddy Forance and Kyle Robinson launched their contemporary dance company, Shaping Sound. The trials and triumphs that occurred during the company’s first season were documented in the reality series All The Right Moves, which aired on the Oxygen channel. While Wall is thankful for the exposure the show provided he says if he had to do it over again he probably wouldn’t have agreed to do the show. “At times the cameras really stunted the creative process. I felt like what came out wasn’t the true version of ourselves. We were constantly nervous about what someone was going to say and how the work would appear on camera so we just decided we needed to keep our art separate from the other stuff. So, what we ended up presenting on the show was really a stage show which was the product of constantly having the stress of the cameras on us.”

Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

Even with its bumpy start Shaping Sound has thrived over the past four years captivating audiences across the U.S. with its dynamic mix of energy, emotion and athleticism as well as its celebrated cast of dancers, including SYTYCDAll-star Jaimie Goodwin and Season 10 winner Amy Yakima. The 12-member company also includes Dallas native Skylar Boykin who trained at Dance Industry Performing Arts Center in Plano, TX. The working dynamic between the four friends is quite cohesive according to Wall. “We are like brothers so we know how to work with each other and we know who pushes the other’s buttons.” As far as creating and choreographing Wall says it’s really a collaborative effort, but that over the past year he has taken more of a leadership role when it comes to the staging and directing aspects of the work.

Shaping Sound is produced by Break the Floor Productions and seeks to provide audiences with a greater understanding of contemporary dance through a fusion of jazz, modern and hip-hop choreography. North Texas audiences’ will get a chance to see Wall and the rest of the company when Shaping Sound comes to Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth on Wednesday, Jan. 28.

Wall describes the one-night only show as a dance theater experience in two acts. “You’re following this girl whose spirit is completely damaged and you watch her fall asleep and enter this dream where she learns how to love. She goes through all these experiences so she can take what she learns and apply them to her real life.” Wall adds, “There’s lots of different styles of movement and amazing music you’re going to love. The louder you cheer the harder we perform. We thrive off the noise.”

This article was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

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Body Music

Photo: Mike Melnyk

Photo: Mike Melnyk

Body musician Keith Terry brings his unique style to Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF) happening this weekend at the Majestic Theatre.

Dallas — Finger snaps, foot stomps, chest womps and butt slaps. These are just a few of the body parts Keith Terry uses as musical instruments in class. He also pops his fingers, shuffles his feet and whistles. He calls this blending and bending of tradition and contemporary musical and dance elements body music.

As a trained percussionist Terry was a drummer for the Original Jazz Tap Ensemble when he started incorporating hand claps and foot steps into his work. His “ah ha” moment came in the late ‘70s while playing drums for a tap dance class. “I had this thought about what it would be like to make music with my body so, I stood up and started playing around with this idea of being a body musician. After class Charles “Cookie” Cook and Charles [“Honi”] Coles came up to me and encouraged me to pursue it. I took their advice and I am still pursuing it.”

Over the years Terry has studied a variety of rhythmic techniques from Japanese Taiko and Balinese Gamelan to North American rhythm tap and Ethiopian armpit music. He travels extensively in the U.S., Asia and Europe where his body music performances, workshops and residencies are popular among professional performers and educators. “I am fortunate that I get to travel a lot and it has really opened my eyes to different ways of thinking about rhythmic time in different parts of the world.”

As a soloist Terry has been featured at Lincoln Center, Bumbershoot, NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition, PRI’s The World, the Vienna International Dance Festival and the Paradiso van Slag World Drum Festival in Amsterdam. From 1998 to 2005 Terry was on the faculty at UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, where he designed and taught a dozen courses on the relationship of music and dance, including deep listening, synchronicity, time and timing. Terry is also the founding director of Crosspluse, an arts organization dedicated to rhythm-based intercultural music and dance located in Oakland, California. In 2008 he formed the International Body Music Festival (IBMF), a 6-day festival that explores the language of body music from culture to culture. It was actually at the 2014 IBMF in San Francisco where he met Katelyn Harris, the co-producer of Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF).

Terry is currently in town for the festival which runs Jan. 16-19 at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Dallas. He is teaching alongside Chloe Arnold (Beyoncé and founder of Syncopated Ladies), C.K. Edward (national tour of The Book of Mormon) and Harris (artistic director of Dallas-based Rhythmic Souls Dance Company). For those dancers taking his class for the first time, Terry says not to worry. “I see body music as the first music. I mean before we were making instruments we were stomping and clapping. There’s just something really old and familiar about it makes people feel comfortable when doing it.”

His teaching style has grown organically throughout the years. He requests his students to wear sneakers as tap shoes will overpower the other sounds. During warm-up he views his body as a drum set with the claps being the snare drum, the bottom being the tom-toms and the feet being the kick drum. His says his classes are more than about just training body musicians. He has taught ballet, modern and taps dancers as well as actors and theater folk. “It’s about using the material to get that rhythmic understanding inside them so they can then express whatever style they are doing.”

This feature was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

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Q&A: Choreographer Ronald K. Brown

Photo: Ayodele Casel

Photo: Ayodele Casel

Choreographer Ronald K. Brown on 30 years of making dance stories, traveling to the birthplace of West African dance and his company’s upcoming performance for TITAS at AT&T Performing Arts Center.

Dallas — Ronald K. Brown doesn’t just make dances; he makes dance stories. Using a combination of contemporary and African dance styles, including Afro-Cuban and spiritual movement, Brown creates work that provides a unique view of human struggles, tragedies and triumphs. His choice of music, literature and spoken word reinforces these themes and helps acquaint audiences with the beauty of African forms and rhythms. This kind of physical storytelling along with Brown’s humility and emotional depth is why he is considered one of today’s leading contemporary choreographers.

A Brooklyn native, Brown began studying dance at a Police Athletic League summer program at age 6. His dream was to train with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, but in high school he changed his focus to creative writing and journalism. After spending the summer before college dancing, Brown realized his true calling and resumed his dance training. Brown has studied a variety of dance techniques, including Graham, ballet, traditional West African dance and Brazilian capoeira. At 16 he began studying at Mary Anthony dance studio in Manhattan, and two years later founded Evidence, which is named after the first dance he choreographed in 1985.

Entering its 30th season, Ronald K. Brown/EvidenceDance Company has traveled across the U.S. and abroad, including Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria and Senegal, to name a few. In 2010 the company joined the U.S. State Department’s DanceMotion USA tour to perform, teach and conduct demonstrations. In addition to Evidence, Brown has also set works on Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Cleo Parker Robinson Ensemble, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Jennifer Muller/The Works, Philadanco, Muntu Dance Theater of Chicago and more. He has collaborated with such artists as composer/designer Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya, the late writer Craig G. Harris, director Ernie McClintock’s Jazz Actors Theater and composers Robert Een, Oliver Lake, Bernadette Speech, David Simons and Don Meissner. His other accolades include the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Choreographers Fellowship, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, United States Artists Fellowship and The Ailey Apex Award for teaching.

Evidence will be performing at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas on Jan. 17. The program includes Brown’s Come Ye (2002) and On Earth Together (2011). Using music by Nina Simone and Fela Kuti, Come Ye is a call to all those willing to fight for their lives with the ultimate goal being peace. In On Earth Together Brown uses music by Stevie Wonder to reinforce this idea of a loving and compassionate place to celebrate a world view.

TheaterJones asks Ronald K. Brown about his travels to West Africa, incorporating his writing lessons into the choreographic process and the life experiences that ultimately led to the creation of the two works his company will be showing in Dallas, Come Ye and On Earth Together.

TheaterJones: Critics are always quick to comment on your poignant storytelling. How did you uncover this ability?

Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

Ronald K. Brown: What’s interesting is that I had all these false starts with my interest and love for dance. I remember at 12 heading to an audition at the Dance Theatre of Harlem when my Mom went into labor with my little brother. I decided then to forget about dance and focus on being a big brother and a writer. So, I went to the Arts Center in Lower Manhattan where I studied creative writing and journalism with the intent of making this my career. It wasn’t long after that when I bit the bullet and realized I did want to dance and I wanted to have a company. I knew I wanted the work to be about something. A kind of physical storytelling in a way. So, when I am creating something I write a lot and I share that with the dancers to help them embody the words of the story. It’s not about acting it out or pantomime. It’s about capturing the true essence of what the story is.

How does your creative writing background aid you in your choreographic process?

I usually come into the studio with ideas and music, but no steps and am improvising while the dancers follow me around. So I build a phrase, which is just like writing a sentence, and from there I build paragraphs and organize it so that they make sense. So the structure of the work is similar to that of writing a story. Writing also makes me conscious of what is and isn’t necessary in the work. Even with that said editing a piece is still very hard. I remember in the early 90’s I was as physical as I could be in my dancing. And then I starting playing with gestures and getting a little more introverted with some of my work. In 1994 everything started to come together in terms of dealing with the physicality and gesturing of my movement.

In the early ’80s was physical storytelling a new concept to dancers and choreographers?

Trisha Brown was really popular in the 80s. The downtown dance world was really about the Alexander technique and about finding the facility in your body absent of emotion. In the history of dance everyone is trying to learn from the generations before, but I think with traditional modern dance a lot of us teachers were then having hip replacements and wanted to develop a teaching and way of moving that really takes care of the body. So, for a young black man from Brooklyn creating movement that was absent of emotion and story just wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. Even though I was working downtown I was still trying to say something with it. I am also in the mindset of not harming the dancers’ bodies. There is nothing aloof about our dancing. An example is Doug Varone and his company. I am drawn to the fire of the company’s dancing and the overall physicality of it.

Can you tell me what was going on in your life during the creation of Come Ye (2002) and On Earth Together(2011) and how it impacted the work?

Our country had just gone into Afghanistan when I started working on Come Ye. And it got me thinking about the men and women willing to risk their lives for us and I am just so thankful for them. I was really aware of all the young people going over there. While my company was touring I remember seeing these young people in uniform sitting and playing on their portable video games and my heart felt so heavy. That stayed with me and one day while I was on my hands and knees cleaning my apartment this song by Nina Simone came on. And I had figured that I would do something to her music at some point. It was Come Ye, and in the song it says everyone who is dedicated to fighting for your life, it’s time to learn how to pray. And I realized that is how I feel. This song is over 30 years old, so what happened to all of the lessons we were taught by the revolutionaries who believed that in the time of war that the destination is still peace? The piece began to unfold as I thought about all the unrest in the world and how we try to deal with it. It starts with Simone’s Come Ye and goes into her Sunday in Savannah, Revolution and ends with a song by Fela Anikulapo Kuti nicknamed Amen. He wrote this song after his mother was thrown out of a window because he had spoken out against the government in Nigeria. So, the song speaks of this tragedy and yet is so full of prayer. In the last three minutes of the piece you see images of Gandhi, Bob Marley and all these people who are about liberation while the dancers on stage are trying to embody their warrior nature.

In On Earth Together there is a song in the third section called They Won’t Go When I Go, which is the same song I used for a solo I did back in 1987. My mom passed on in 1996 and my dear friend Dr. Johnson passed on in 2010 and so this section is really about legacy. There’s a moment when everyone’s on stage and one person walks around to check on a few people who are just standing there. I had to give notes to this person and I was so overcome with emotion that I had to walk out of the room.

How do you encourage your dancers to get to such a vulnerable place?

During the rehearsal process I do use different exercises and techniques to help them embrace the essence of the work. Sometimes we watch a movie or share written literature. So, the dancers do have to do a certain amount of homework in addition to learning movement. Another example is when I am trying to have them embody fear I will just scream as loud as I can so they can experience a natural reaction. I also look for dancers who have a simplicity in their performance and presentation. How do they deliver the material in an audition or in a class? There has to be a humility and an openness to their dancing.

You have traveled all over the world experiencing different dance cultures. What dance styles did you encounter?

When I traveled to West Africa in 1995 I think my exposure to traditional, social, contemporary and spiritual dancing helped me understand where I stood in this continuum of contemporary dance. Before that I think I was nervous about using traditional dance steps. I would deconstruct the rhythm or play with the technique but realized I wanted to do something else. And when I started working there I was told that when you touch African dance it automatically becomes something else. A similar thing happened when I went to Cuba for the first time in 2001. I was exposed to traditional and social dances that really broadened my vocabulary and my eye. There is this one style I encountered in Senegal called sabar that makes sense to my body, but then Afro-Cuban also feels really good on my body. And I incorporate all these techniques into my movement vocabulary.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Tap Diva: Chloe Arnold

Chloe Arnold. Photo: Courtesy

Chloe Arnold. Photo: Courtesy

Professional tapper Chloe Arnold on her fly foot work, tap dance in the 21st century and participating in Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF).

Dallas — Savion Glover. Debbie Allen. Desmond Richardson. Beyoncé. Only a handful of dancers can say they have worked with these incredibly talented artists. And even fewer can say they have impressed them with their poignant and zealous tap dancing. By 10 years old Chloe Arnold knew tap dance was her calling. From that moment on she did everything she could to hone her skill set with the hopes of one day becoming a professional tap dancer. She sought out the best in the tap world to train with, including Savion Glover, Gregory Hines, The Nicholas Brothers and Ted Levvy. She continued her training while in college at Columbia University in New York City at the Broadway Dance Center and at backstage jams with the cast of Bring In ‘da Noise, Bring In ‘da Funk.

Arnold knew in order to make it big in a field largely dominated by men she would need to bring something fresh to the table. Ironically enough it was Arnold’s all-female tap group, Syncopated Ladies, that would catapult her career and catch the attention of celebrities such as Beyoncé and hit T.V. shows like So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent and Dancing with The Stars.

Arnold is also committed to sharing her technique and professional experiences with other aspiring tap dancers. In addition to being seen on film, television and stages worldwide, Arnold is also the co-founder of DC Tap Festival and co-director of LA Tap Festival. She has taught at studios across the nation, including Broadway Dance Center, Ailey Extension and Debbie Allen Dance Academy and also tours with New York City Dance Alliance. It was at a Tap Festival in Houston a few years ago when she met Katelyn Harris, artistic director of the Dallas-based tap troupe Rhythmic Souls. Harris and Malana Murphy are the co-producers of Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF), Dallas’ first tap festival, where Arnold will be teaching and performing. The event feature master classes, improv jams, tap battles and a performance showcase, and also features other percussive dance forms, such as Irish step dancing, flamenco and folklórico. RIFF takes place Jan. 16-19 at The Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas. You can see a full schedule below this interview.

TheaterJones asks Chloe Arnold about honing her skills, creating Syncopated Ladies and what she hopes tappers will take away from her classes at Dallas’ first Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF). There’s also a faculty performance at 8 p.m. Sunday, for which tickets are $35.

TheaterJones: How did you hear about the Rhythm in Fusion Festival (RIFF)?

Chloe Arnold: I met Katelyn at a Soul to Soul Festival in Houston back when she was a part of Tapestry Dance Company. I heard she was moving to Dallas and teaches at a studio where I also teach master classes and attends New York City Dance Alliance (NYCDA). It was cool because I met her in the festival world and then I met her again in the convention world. I have seen a lot of her work on our stages at NYCDA and it’s always phenomenal. So, it was cool to meet someone who can transition between both worlds and has such a wonderful voice in dance and in tap.

What are the main differences between festival tapping and convention tapping?

The primary difference would be that in the world of festivals the focus is on musicality and technique and getting these to their ultimate proficiency. Improvisation is also a big part of the festival setup. In the convention world they focus more on the performance aspect of tap dance. But what I have seen is that there are now more dancers from the festival world entering into the convention world by way of teaching at a convention or a studio like Katelyn’s, which has increased the skill level of these studio and convention tap dancers. My hope and vision is that through events such as RIFF we can bridge the gap between these two worlds so the art form as a whole can be elevated.

What motivated you to pursue a professional tap career?

I have always loved tap dance and when I was 10 I had the incredible experience to meet and work with many of the masters of tap. So, I got to see firsthand people having a tap career and living as a tap dancer and for me that was enough just knowing it was possible. So at age 10 I started to assert this dream of becoming a tap dancer. I have studied other styles of dance, but I knew I wanted to be a tap dancer. I have a really strong sense of conviction that has been fostered by my parents who raised me to believe that I can achieve anything I put my mind to. I have encountered many challenges and tons of rejection, but I am a cup half full type of person and so what some people might consider a loss I consider an opportunity to learn.

What was your first big professional gig?

When I was in college I did a musical in Atlanta with Debbie Allen called Soul Possessed. It was an eight shows a week production and the cast included Desmond Richardson, Carmen De Lavallade and Patti Labelle. That was certainly life changing because I got to experience what it’s like to live as a dancer. When the show was done I went back to school, and I just had a greater sense of mission and what direction I wanted to take with my career.

Why did you choose to attend college over starting your professional career?

It wasn’t even an option to not go to college. When I went to New York to see some friends who were in Bring In Da Noise Bring In Da Funk they told me I should go visit Columbia University. Actually, Savion Glover’s brother took me to Columbia for my college visit when I was 15 and I made up my mind right then that this was the place for me. I went back to my home in Washington, D.C. and did everything I needed to do to make that a reality.

How did your all-female tap troupe, Syncopated Ladies, originate?

After college I move to L.A. and I would go to this tap jam on Monday nights and one night it was all ladies and I was blown away. I remember looking around the room and thinking these are amazing women who need to be in a group. So, I set a work on them that they did at an annual tap festival. That was back in 2003 and we all were so young and so green in terms of cultivating the whole package. But it was the foundation for what would one day become Syncopated Ladies. They were women that could improvise, learn choreography and were also learning other styles of dance. We have maintained a very close friendship over the years. And then one day while we were having girl time we decided we just wanted to rock out and that’s when we started creating videos and I started to expand my vision. It was time for me to go for it instead of just waiting for our once a year thing. The five stunning ladies I started with are still here plus two more that used to be my students. It’s truly a sisterhood and when we dance together its really cohesive because we know each other so well.

Syncopated Ladies is known for its girl power mentality. How did you develop this fierce and feminine style of tapping?

Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

I’ve always had a girl power mentality from childhood. I was always the girl who was doing whatever the boys were doing. I was not afraid to dive into “a man’s world” and tap is a man’s world even though more women are now doing it. So, when I moved to New York it was really a boy’s club and I knew I wanted in. Once I got my skills and taps together and was starting to be heard I realized that instead of fighting to prove myself it was time for me to be true to who I am. And that includes the feminine aspect which Syncopated Ladies touches on in our dancing. It’s centered on this idea that we can still be taken serious as tappers even if we are wearing a cute outfit and our heels. This is where the feminine style came from and it was really influenced by Debbie Allen and Beyoncé. I have worked with both and they really brought out the woman in me.

Where you surprised by the vast support the Syncopated Ladies received during the dance crew battle portion of Season 11 of So You Think You Can Dance?

There are far more tap dancers now connecting because of social media, but largely because there are more tap festivals than ever around the world. We are really a global community and I think that is our greatest strength. When Syncopated Ladies was on Season 11 of So You Think You Can Dance the producers were surprised by the number of votes we received from countries all over the world. We had people tweeting from Brazil, Japan and Europe. People don’t know this, but the world of tap is vast and united. And sometimes when you are marginalized it makes for a stronger fight. We still have a long way to go, but I think it was great that this past season SYTYCD had two tap dancers in the final. I also think it’s great that Dallas will know have its own tap festival because it’s only going to increase the appreciation and the visibility for the art form and that’s the key. The more people feel welcomed to the field and feel like they can do it the greater the visibility.

What would you like the young dancers at RIFF to take away from their time with you?

I am aware of what my colleagues are doing and teaching so I think about that when I am preparing to teach a class. If the other teachers are covering x, y and z then I am going to focus on a different aspect of tap. I like to inspire people to go beyond what they have learned already so it’s very much in line with my life and my career. I want to make people believe in themselves. For me, it’s more about challenging your fears and finding inspiration and I do that through technique, choreography and improvisation. Tap is huge in Dallas and this festival is going to be the perfect timing to, like I said, bridge the gap in the tap world. It’s a place where everyone who thinks they are different can come together and realize how similar they are and how they all share the same love for tap.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

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Gayle Halperin: Dance Maven

Photo: Robert Hart

Photo: Robert Hart

After launching the Dallas DanceFest and positioning Bruce Wood Dance Project for its future following Wood’s death, Gayle Halperin is a major force in the dance scene’s growth.

When Gayle Halperin comes up with an idea that could benefit the Dallas dance scene, it is full steam ahead, regardless of the budgetary and timeline pressures associated with producing a large event such as the new Dallas DanceFest, or the personal challenges that can arise from continuing the legacy of the Bruce Wood Dance Project after the passing of choreographer Bruce Wood last May. While Halperin is quick to credit her “village of supporters, patrons and passionate dance lovers, it is clear that she is nonetheless an invaluable part of the local dance community, with her arts organization knowledge, list of contacts and passion for the dance art form.

Halperin’s intuitive sense of the community’s needs are why so many of the programs she has championed over the last couple of years have met with such success. “Looking back, my first project was Dance Planet and expanding exposure of dance at the community level—bringing all styles together at one venue. Then TITAS made living in Dallas manageable for me by bringing in nationally and internationally acclaimed dance companies. Then, I kept taking on more and more roles at the Dance Council of North Texas.”

Most recently Halperin steered the committee within The Dance Council of North Texas to create the Dallas DanceFest that took place in August at the Dallas City Performance Hall. With the number of artists living and working in the area growing and the exquisite Arts District at their disposal, Halperin saw a unique opportunity and pounced on it. “I was blown away and overwhelmed with the whole event. Each day was an amazing experience—shows had such a great variety of high caliber dance—all the dance companies were at the top of their game. Each show was inspiring and as excellent as the one before. The audiences embraced the variety and were enthusiastic.”

Halperin also has close ties with the Bruce Wood Dance Project (BWDP) since it was she who approached Wood about restarting the group and moving it to Dallas in 2011. After Wood died unexpectedly in May, some in the arts community questioned whether the company could sustain itself.  Thanks to Halperin’s and the other board members’ quick thinking the BWDP’s September performance went on as planned. “I was following my instinct. He taught me so much about courage, drive, passion, responsibility, work, and more. I could feel it in my bones that B. would want us to keep going. It’s been not easy going forward without him. Not easy at all. But as artists we know how to be flexible, how to problem solve, and so we continue. Bruce lives on through his choreography, aesthetic, teaching, and dancers. Continuing onward is the best way to celebrate his life.”

Halperin’s ultimate legacy may be succeeding in her goal of making Dallas a “dance destination” in the same vein as New York, Los Angeles, Miami or Chicago. The development of new local performance opportunities, and paying jobs, through projects and events such as those Halperin has helped spearhead are going a long way in helping artists make Dallas home rather than just another stop on a performance tour.

The 2015 Dallas DanceFest is scheduled for Sept. 4-6, 2015 (check the website for info about submitting an application); and the Bruce Wood Dance Project is rehearsing for its next performance at Dallas City Performance Hall. Also, a photography exhibit chronicling Bruce Wood and his work runs Jan. 10-Feb. 15 at the Arlington Museum of Art.

This profile was originally published on TheaterJones.com.

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