“Making dance is a continuous process interrupted periodically by performance.” comments choreographer Janice Garrett. At a panel discussion for soon-to-graduate Western Michigan University dance majors, Garrett, with Joe Goode and Brenda Way imparted experiences and advice to the young crop of students. The panel was part of the class’s “dance immersion trip” to explore the scene in San Francisco, entailing an impressive week-long curriculum of performances, visits and regional dance exploration.
Goode, Garrett and Way established themselves as dance leaders through major contributions extending well beyond the Bay Area, where they’ve been based for decades. All three developed skilled companies and bodies of contemporary work emergent from personal influences and cultivation of individual dance languages. Additionally, serious dance real estate in the region, which helps drive the development and exchange of artists and choreography evolved from the work of both Way, with the multifaceted dance campus, the ODC Dance Commons (where Garrett teaches), and more recently from Goode with the Joe Goode Annex.
All three fuel the potency of Bay Area dance and when the choreographers were each asked to describe their life at 22, the responses served as a reminder that time can be big and we may possess not one, but many lives. Each choreographer shared discoveries about, as Way put it, “Who are we really? Not, who do they want us to be?” – “they” being teachers, families, previous generations of dancers, and mainstream culture full of “shoulds” and flippant assumptions about “real jobs.”
I remember director Mariano Pensotti’s talking about his play, The Past is a Grotesque Animal suggesting that the decade between age 25 and 35 is the time you let go of the person you thought you were going to be to become the person that you are. I’ve also heard since moving to San Francisco (where astrology plays a bigger role than, say, Pittsburgh where I grew up) that one experiences Saturn’s Return – a time of challenge and change – during one’s late 20s and resolves with some shifts by about age 30. Astrology believer or not, these formative years shape divergent lifestyles, including those of the choreographers at the table.
Goode was in New York City at age 22 and did not yet know he’d make his own work. Garrett held a math job at a San Francisco law firm and hadn’t event begun dancing seriously. Way had two kids and was living in Paris with the intention to live an adventuresome life. At the time she ran a restaurant and participated in performance Happenings, but did not yet envision a career in dance ahead.
Goode was about 30 when he moved to San Francisco where he danced with Margaret Jenkins and convinced himself to make the work he wanted to see. Garrett, having completed her masters in dance at Mills College, went to New York where she was deeply influenced by Dan Wagoner. Garrett danced in his company and was later exposed to European values through her work with London Contemporary Dance Theater.
Way, at Oberlin College, started an inter-arts department. She questioned how women might express a more complex reality than Balanchine (her mentor) envisioned. Having migrated to the Bay with KT Nelson and Kimi Okada with the vision to develop a company and dance center, Way mentioned owning that vision as a group was key to having the confidence to build.
Her advice to the Western Michigan University seniors: “You will need to free up time for the unconscious scanning upon which all creative work depends.” Garrett then spoke to the uncertain nature of the creative process, stating “I’m more comfortable with the terror since I’ve been in that state for so many years.” Goode added, “It’s good to be annoyed,” because it can act as a catalyst.
So are dancers better today? The trio agreed that the answer depends on the specific skills to which you refer. Technically, dancers can do more these days, however performers develop over time and presence cannot necessarily be taught. I agree. Presence is why I loved watching the dynamic cast of mature self-aware dancers gathered by Hope Mohr to perform Behold Bold Sam Dog at the ODC Theater last week. The nuance and commanding attitude demonstrated by these performers cannot be taught in a program. It is achieved through lived experience, self-study and time onstage in performance.
Finally, Way spoke to the strength of dance in today’s digital age: “Who would have guessed that at the turn of the 20th century, the radical contribution of dance would be to bring people together in the same room.” To gather around live art offers the ethereal, visceral, physical presence. The mysterious and unfixed emergence is something your iPhone gadget can never provide.