Tomorrow night, March 30th, I’ll be taking a dozen undergraduates from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina to see Larry Keigwin + Company at Asheville’s Diana Wortham Theater. On the other side of the country, in Santa Barbara, the Brian Brooks Moving Company will be premiering “Big City,” created during a month’s residency at the beautiful Lobero Theatre under the auspices of a relatively new, uncommonly generous commissioning program called Santa Barbara DANCEworks. The overlap of these performances seems fitting.
DANCEworks, a partnership with the Lobero Theatre Foundation, is the creation of Dianne Vapnek, who was vividly captured in this profile by the Santa Barbara Independent’s DJ Palladino. Fifteen years ago, when I was a junior in college who dreamed of writing about dance, Dianne started a festival called Summerdance Santa Barbara and brought to town the kind of modern dance that makes you think, and laugh, and feel the performers’ superhuman movement in your own bones. Her first presentation: Doug Varone and Dancers.
Over the next 10 years, from 1997 to 2006, she presented (and frequently also commissioned) Doug Elkins, Mark Dendy, Tamango’s Urban Tap, Aszure Barton, and more. Dianne’s sensibility in choreography emerged as quirky, kinetic, sexy, smart but also emotionally gutsy. One year a young dancer named Larry Keigwin came to town with Dendy’s company, and said he was interested in choreography. Dianne commissioned an early piece. Now Keigwin’s own company—the same company I’ll get to see with my students tomorrow here in Asheville—produces acclaimed seasons at the Joyce in New York, while Larry travels the world choreographing for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre.
In 2009, having rested from Summerdance, Dianne created DANCEworks. She wanted to do more than bring great modern dance to Santa Barbara; she wanted to create a haven where choreographers could create new work onstage, seven days a week, for a full month, developing their new piece organically not just with their dancers, but also with lighting and costume designers and composers all present in ideal circumstances for collaboration.
There is no application process for DANCEworks; Dianne does all the scouting and selection. There are no prescriptions or restrictions on what the choreographer makes. The first choreographer, in 2009, was Aszure Barton; the second was Larry Keigwin. The third was Doug Elkins, and this year the fourth is Brian Brooks.
I was fortunate to be in Santa Barbara and see Brooks and his Brian Brooks Moving Company in action a few weeks ago during Spring Break. He darted around the theater with the crisp speed of a hummingbird, buzzing from the pit to the stage in a single bound, directing his dancers through phrases of cradling, spiraling, and unexpected levitation. He explained at an open rehearsal that he was working to create a movement vocabulary of “cacophony and density, and suspension you’re not sure you actually saw.” In some of the phrases, the dancers shot off the edge of the stage, towards the audience. In others, they ran backwards and then fell onto their backs, in a way that looked both violent and gentle, and certainly injurious. Yet the happy dancers popped up and ran the phrase again and again.
“Big City,” which has its first performances tomorrow, uses six dancers, and 300 pieces of aluminum rods suspended from the rafters. The gleaming rods begin in a collapsed tangle, and slow rise towards perpendicular stability. Some observers at the open rehearsal expressed worry that so many hanging rods would create onstage disaster, but having used 200 cables of shredded spandex to create a tunnel in another recent dance, Brooks was not concerned. And he talked about the risks—most of them not related to the set—that a month in Santa Barbara was making possible.
“It gives me time to be forceful and erratic but also to let things flow,” he said. “In New York, you don’t have that. Here, we’ll find a movement idea, and we’ll think, it’s going to take a lot of time and physical investigation to make that good. In New York, I’d think forget it, we don’t have time. But here I can say let’s dig in and unpack this.”
You can see video of “Big City’s” week-by-week creation via these links.
The piece is already scheduled for touring, supported by the National Dance Touring Project.
So I very much wish I could be in Santa Barbara tomorrow night to see “Big City’s” birth. Is it mere coincidence that instead I’ll be watching choreography by Larry Keigwin, another gifted dancemaker nurtured by Dianne from such an early phase of his development? Or is this overlap also testament to the ways DANCEworks is bringing great new modern dance not just to Santa Barbara, but to the whole country? I am not at all an objective commentator, of course, having known Dianne for so many years. But I strongly suspect the latter.