Have you ever wondered how a choreographer comes up with all those steps? This blog post celebrates Danceworks Performance Company’s 20th Anniversary Season with a look into what inspires Artistic Director Dani Kuepper’s choreography. Read on to learn more about the fascinating process behind her dance-making.
I have always loved choreographing dances. As a child, I made dances in my living room, at lounge areas in the mall, empty school hallways and backyards. Even more than performing, I have always had a passion for inventing and organizing movement for myself and others. My first formal gig as a choreographer was for my peers in sixth grade choir. Upon the choir director’s request for said gig, I created an elaborate system of color-coded graphs that I taped to the wall of the cafeteria prior to each rehearsal for easy reference. There were excessive formation shifts (hence the color-coded graphs) and a lot of jazz hands.
I still enter every project with the same zeal, but the notion of a predetermined outcome rarely exists anymore. Anyone that knows me well, is sure that I don’t have any charts or graphs in my rehearsal notebook. The rehearsal process is an unfolding of curiosity, research and exploration on the chosen theme or topic. I’ve engaged in the process of creating a new dance on nearly every concert for all 19 years of my time as a DPC member. I joined the company in its’ second season and have missed one concert due to my wedding, and one concert due to pregnancy. Aside from the very rare occurrence of resetting archival dances, DPC produces three original concerts per season, and has been doing so for the past 20 years. That’s a lot of original dance making!
Friends and family often ask, “How do you come up with all this stuff?”. The answer is collaboration. Collaboration is a source of rejuvenation and inspiration, and has, in part, come to define the company. As DPC’s artistic director, I’ve had the honor of working with organizations as esteemed and varied as Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Present Music and First Stage Children’s Theatre, to name a few.
Collaboration can mean working with the skilled and generously inventive members of DPC. Or it can be engaging with a broader cross-section of the community through Danceworks’ Intergenerational Mult-Arts Program (IMAP), that brings children and seniors together to create dances and visual art in community. Whether engaging with professional artists, children or seniors, my aim is almost always to discover the unexpected—a rather elusive goal that requires a strategy. How can a group of intergenerational people with varied artistic experience and physical capabilities inspire a dance?
My strategies are largely inspired by the following brilliant artists that I’ve crossed paths with:
*2016 MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ Anne Basting, founder of TimeSlips Creative Storytelling Process; www.timeslips.org
*Liz Lerman, founder of the intergenerational dance company, Dance Exchange; www.danceexchange.org
*Joe Goode, founder of Joe Goode Performance Group; www.joegoode.org
I typically enter a creative process with an open-ended question in mind – that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, depending on each individual’s personal experience. An open-ended follow up question can help provide detail. At the start of a rehearsal process, I often ask a group of people the same open-ended questions and have them write their responses anonymously. Each individual decides how much or how little they’ll share with the group, and can share their answers in words and/or movement. For instance, some examples of intergenerational responses to, “What is something that you’ve lost? ; How did you lose it? ; Where is it now?” could likely include:
My contact lens; It fell out while I was swimming; I rinsed it off in the lake and put it back in my eye! (40 year old)
My dog; She chased a rabbit and never came back; I think she’s in heaven.(10 year old)
I lost my youth; I grew up; It’s in my memory—in the past. (80 year old)
It’s hard to imagine a dance about a contact lens, a dog and lost youth. But the juxtaposition of these three lost items can yield an unexpected outcome in terms of movement invention. Imagine a dance where I do the following:
Right and left arms swim the backstroke.
Right hand covers right eye while left arm swims the backstroke.
Right hand covers right eye while left arm swims the backstroke and I run in a circle as fast as I can.
Right hand covers right eye while left arm swims backstroke and I run in circles, decelerating gradually to a standstill.
Hold breath for 30 seconds with my right hand still covering my right eye.
Exhale, uncover right eye and slowly look upward, to the heavens.
Now I repeat the same steps while saying, ‘I lost my youth,’ repeatedly. I will say it loudly at first, and get quieter with every repetition.
This is a dance score that I couldn’t have made if I hadn’t looked beyond my own experience. This is a dance that could be performed by professional dancers as well as intergenerational community members. How does a child, a professional dancer and a senior adult decelerate and come to stillness together? What does it mean when a 10 year-old child, a 40 year-old professional dancer and an 80 year-old retired teacher stand side by side saying, ‘I lost my youth’? How differently would the three of them hold their breath and look up to the heavens? What distinctive, personal history does each of them bring to the activity? This is a dance that has the potential to mean many things at once and gradually shift from idiosyncratic physicality, to jubilation, to poignancy. This is a dance that could mean many other things too.
This is the kind of dance-making I will continue to pursue as I move into the second half of my career—assuming I’ll make it another 20! This is the kind of dance-making that teaches me about being a more effective mover, thinker, artist, mother, wife, daughter, teacher and citizen. And this is the kind of dance that can embed arts in daily lives and daily lives in the arts.
A primary mentor, the late Ed Burgess, always advised me and many others, “Always surround yourself with great people.” Every collaboration I’ve embarked on has challenged me – either to rise to the caliber of artistry of others, or to consider how we are all alike in our differences. Working as an artist at Danceworks is a rare, and cherished opportunity to have a variety of resources at my fingertips—that are necessary to make large, ambitious projects a reality.
Whether that means working with the most exciting interdisciplinary artists in town or gathering wisdom and eclecticism from intergenerational community members, I have been surrounded by great—people. These collaborations have fueled my career and my soul and I am forever grateful.
Next up at Danceworks:
Stories From a Life
March 3-5 & 10-12, 2017 at Danceworks Studio Theatre
What is memory? How do we define ourselves by our memories? This multi-media work reflects on the story of guest choreographer Daniel Burkholder’s grandmother, Sophia Saren. Filmed interviews about her childhood, marriage and her journey are interwoven with athletic dancing, monologues, diverse music and audience interactions that invite guests to consider how their own story will live on in history.
Danceworks Performance Company will also present Stories From A Life at Dance Place, Washington D.C. March 25-26, 2017.
Welcome to my blog, where I'm hoping to share a little bit more about the heart and soul behind Danceworks…what makes me tick, what keeps me inspired, and where I can share some of the stories worth telling.