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Growing Dance: Dancers’ Workshop nurtures new piece by Gallim, plants inspiration
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – While in Tel Aviv, dancing with the Batsheva Ensemble, Andrea Miller stopped one day on the beach and watched surfers cut through the water, balancing, bending in a complicated dance in the waves. They had a special, almost perfect understanding of the world, she thought, as they took each wave, unchangeable and an unstable force, and created their own movement, tricks and choreography.
“That’s what I think the creative process should be,” she said.
It should have momentum. People should be able to carve out something special that is their own.
When Miller formed her own dance company a year later, she named it Gallim, which in Hebrew means wave.
This month, Miller and her company are in Jackson, where they will teach classes, but most importantly retreat from the normal hustle of urban life in New York where the company is based, to work on a brand new piece that Dancers’ Workshop has co-commissioned.
In January 2011, Babs Case went to a performance of a new and up-and-coming company at a YMCA in New York.
Case, the artistic director for Dancers’ Workshop, has seen a lot of dance in her lifetime. What she saw in that YMCA surprised her. The modern dance company combined athleticism with art, creating a visceral experience. What she witnessed was Gallim, the fledgling company started in 2007 by Miller.
“I was very, very moved by Andrea’s work and her thought process and the way she integrates her dancers into the work and the way they are a part of the process,” Case said. “I just strongly connected with them.”
Case took a risk. She brought the modern company to Jackson in February 2012, unsure how even Wyoming’s most arts-supporting community would receive them. They were raw and unlike anything Case had brought to Jackson before. The audiences at the performances were small, but enthusiastic. The open rehearsals were packed.
This summer, Case is taking the relationship with Gallim a step further. Dancers’ Workshop is co-commissioning a piece for Gallim. Co-commissioning means Dancers’ Workshop is providing rehearsal space, housing and financial support for a new piece Gallim likely will perform across the globe, taking with them the Dancers’ Workshop name and its association with Jackson, Wyo.
Commissioning a piece has long been a dream of Case’s for Dancers’ Workshop. “It’s another level of us supporting artists,” she said.
For three weeks, Gallim will live in Jackson and work at Dancers’ Workshop. The company will focus on a piece named “Fold Here,” which is inspired by Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral.” In the story, a man’s wife invites over her blind friend. The friend makes the husband uncomfortable and finally he turns on the television. When an image of a cathedral appears on the screen, the man attempts to describe it for the blind guest but discovers he’s at a loss for words.
The early stages
“This piece is a little about trying to understand things, especially things that have some sort of formula or form, like the way happiness should look,” Miller said.
It’s a piece that investigates perception and how that can be shaken and expanded. To explore those themes, Miller turned to cardboard boxes.
“We can be inspired by them, but unlike any other unit, there is something indescribable about them,” she said.
The piece, which will include seven or nine dancers when finished, is in the very beginning stages, Miller said. She knows the dance will be extremely physical. The concept of the piece and its form is set, but the actual choreography has not been finished.
Miller is also working with a video artist and special lighting designer, as well as incorporating theatrical work like vocalization, character development and props into the piece. The company will start a technical residency in Wisconsin after leaving Jackson so the goal is to choreograph most of the piece while in Wyoming.
When a dance company is creating new work, it’s valuable to do it in retreat, away from the stresses of daily life. Aside from the isolation, this helps give the dancers new perspectives, makes them look at things in new ways, Miller said. Part of it is the location, but part of it is the feedback and interaction the company has with people who offer fresh perspectives.
When Gallim visited Jackson more than a year ago, the company, like they often do, opened its rehearsals to the public, said Max Hodges, executive director with the company.
“What was atypical was the engagement of the audience,” Hodges said. “When we finished and asked for questions dozens of hands went up. Adults, kids, everyone felt really empowered to engage and ask questions.”
Revering dance form, composition
In addition to open rehearsals and classes, the company plans to return next year to perform the finished piece. It’s a rare chance for the community to witness and understand the entire creative process behind creating a dance piece, from putting the steps in place to watching it on stage.
“For every piece that she makes, Andrea creates what we call a new world,” Hodges said.
Each piece exists unto itself and most are evening length, meaning you will see just one piece at a performance.
The company is distinguished by its athletic and virtuosic movements, which are visceral and emotional, Hodges said. They attract a passionate group of young followers, usually people in their 20s and 30s, that often perform and teach at universities, she said.
Miller was only 24 years old when she created Gallim. As a young dancer in Salt Lake City, Utah, she focused on improvisational dance and storytelling. She continued her dance training in Connecticut and by the time she entered Julliard she had danced only few pieces by living choreographers.
Julliard fostered Miller’s already growing interest in choreography. A teacher taught her to revere the form of dance and the composition, not just the movements. Looking at dance through a compositional eye fascinated Miller. In high school, she began making up her own dances and decided then she would one day have her own company.
She wanted a company that would bring artists she respected together to collaborate in dance and performing. While the dance world is changing, there weren’t many companies at the time that encouraged dancers to be part of the process. Often dancers instead offered their bodies to the vision of the choreographer. Miller wanted a company of dancers that were artists, not just tools in creating someone else’s vision.
“We’ve taken that and lived it authentically,” she said.
Miller’s choreography and philosophy attracted notice early from investors, supporters and eventually the artistic director of a dance company in Wyoming.
A company in full
When Case took over as artistic director of Dancers’ Workshop in 1999, the company had cornered the market on kids’ classes. Case wanted to do more. Even then she was dreaming of something bigger, something that at the time many might have thought impossible, creating a community in Wyoming that supported, and attracted, the highest caliber of dance.
In recent years, Dancers’ Workshop has brought in internationally known companies like Alonzo King Lines Ballet and Diavolo. Three years ago, Case scored the ultimate coup. The New York City Ballet, one of the most famous dance companies in the world, agreed to something unprecedented, sending a group of principal dancers on the road to perform, teach classes and offer open rehearsals. This summer will be the third year the company is coming to Jackson.
But Case’s vision for Dancers’ Workshop isn’t complete. “We’re only scratching the surface of what could be an incredible place for long-term residencies,” she said.
Co-commissioning a piece is a step toward building those relationships and building national recognition for Dancers’ Workshop as an organization that supports artists and other dance companies, said Meleta Buckstaff, administrative and marketing assistant with Dancers’ Workshop.
“This puts us on a bigger platform than we’ve been on before,” she said.
While the time that a company like Gallim spends in Jackson during a residency benefits its dancers, it also benefits Jackson’s dancers, from young kids to the professional members of Contemporary Dance Wyoming, the modern dance company based at Dancers’ Workshop.
Buckstaff, a member of Contemporary Dance Wyoming, said Gillam’s previous residency “freed us.” We took classes from Gallim dancers and observed the company’s creative process in rehearsals. It was inspiring, she said.
It also exposed the community and people who wouldn’t necessarily seek out dance, to different art forms. People who had never been interested in dance came to check out the free, open rehearsals, where they saw modern dance for the first time, or heard a director explain the creative process, Case said.
Exposing people to the process and different forms of art develops people who value art. Even if they don’t always like it, they see the meaning in it.
“That’s what we’re in the business of: creating meaning in people’s lives,” Case said.
The residency provides important opportunities for students at Dancers’ Workshop to work with and observe professional dancers. It could be years before the impact of hosting a company like Gallim, and co-commissioning a piece, can be measured.
“You don’t know which kids’ lives are changing,” Buckstaff said. “You don’t know until they grow up and become their own artist.”
In recent years, Dancers’ Workshop has seen more students pursuing dance after they leave Jackson. KT Fuchs recently was accepted as a transfer student to the prestigious Alvin Ailey School and the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City. Other former students are dancing in Central America and Africa and teaching dance in other states.
“Those are the kinds of things that measure the success of what you are doing,” Case said. “You are building art for lives. You are developing artists.”