As in art, every obstacle in life can teach us something and transform us little by little into who we are meant to be. Obstacles are the very things needed to create beauty in both a person and in a work of art. It’s all about process.
Janet Lilly and I grabbed a cup of coffee to talk about the process of “Requiem”—the piece she was here to set on Danceworks Performance Company’s upcoming concert of Breathe (March 5-7). It’s a tribute to the beloved late choreographer/dancer/performer/mentor to many of us, Ed Burgess.
“Dancers will want to fix everything for you.” Janet said. “They will say, ‘I can step over here…’ ‘No, no,’ I tell them. ‘Be the obstacle to the phrase and then we’ll figure out, together, how to turn that obstacle into something interesting. Whenever I taught choreography, I’d say it’s about fueling and training your intuition.”
Ed and Janet were mentors to most of us at Danceworks. They were a special duo, working together as professors of dance at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, for 15 years of remarkable work. Janet refers to Ed as the cool big brother she always wanted to have.
Ed died suddenly of a heart attack in 2011 at the age of 58, leaving a big hole in the dance community. Being with Janet again was like bringing Ed back to life. Below is some of our conversation, which reflects the inspiration and impact they both have had on Milwaukee’s dance community:
“Requiem“ was my own process–journey–of memory, letting go of memory and moving on. I didn’t want it to be sad. It’s not a wake; there are points where it’s solemn but it’s also really about beauty and movement and dancing and soaring through the air. It’s something you want to explode into. The space is really lively, intricate, swirling. There’s a lot of swirling in the still points. I told the dancers (it’s as though) you are holding something inside and you have to hold onto that thing tight, when things are swirling around you—other emotions and demands and whatnot. There’s some of that expressed spatially in terms of how the movement works.
What fuels your intuition is doing it, watching it, learning it. What’s the cause and effect? If you do this, what happens? How does it resolve? You follow the task all the way through the phrase and then you move on to something else.”
It was unexpected that Janet would be hired as an assistant professor when she had come from Santa Cruz as a guest artist to teach a master class for UWM, but that’s what happened. She would not have applied for the position. Though she knew she liked teaching, she was afraid of getting unconnected from her own body practice at a university. But when she met Ed, she saw someone who was teaching his artistic craft at a really high level in an academic setting and was inspired to accept the position.
In 2012, Janet accepted a position as Chair of the Dance Department at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. She had originally set “Requiem” on students who didn’t know Ed.
Coming back here, what was so special for me was that I was going to get the chance to remake the piece with people who knew Ed. I used the same structure, the same technique that came out of the Post Modern tradition (which wasn’t Ed’s tradition at all); but in using the same dancers who knew him and had studied with him, resulted in creating some really rich material for me to work with.
Having Janet set this piece on DPC is especially meaningful for me because of the impact both she and Ed had on my life. It’s also meaningful because I lost my own cool big brother named Ed, suddenly to a heart attack, not long before Ed Burgess died. Though one was a dancer and the other an architect, both were designers, creators, builders, makers of beautiful things—and they used their talents and expertise to build up those around them. The dance Janet gives us is about how to use our obstacles to create beauty and movement—to swirl, to soar—she shows us how to create art in our lives and in our work. That’s what the ‘dance’ is all about.
Danceworks Performance Company: Dani Kuepper (Artistic Director), Kim Johnson Rockefellow (Artistic Manager), Alberto Cambra, Gina Laurenzi, Liz Tesch,, Christal Wagner, Joelle Worm, Andrew Zanoni, Liz Zastrow. Not performing: Melissa Anderson.
Guest Artists: Neil Davis, Joe Fransee, Elizabeth Johnson, Emma Koi, Janet Lilly, Kym McDaniel, Joseph Pikalek, Natasha Posey, Madeliene Schooch, Dan Schuchart, Alicia Storin.
Welcome to the Danceworks blog, where we're hoping to share a little bit more about the heart and soul behind Danceworks… what made us join the dance and keeps us dancing, what keeps us inspired, and where we can share some of the stories worth telling.