Poised to unravel, dancer Brandon Private Freeman, dashes forth, head first, and pushes his entire body weight into dancer James Gilmer. Towering a foot taller, with a long body and sphinxlike poise, Gilmer receives and redirects Freeman’s electric charge with the contained calm that a tai chi master might use to divert an assault. Freeman leans into Gilmer and collapses onto his side, only to be brought up and held by the taller performer. Are they a father and a son, the latter rebelling against his parent? Two sides of a same man, boyhood and manhood, exposed? Their striking duet, so precisely crafted that it recalls a defined sculpture whose edges have been softened by time, was part of a preview of Sketch 5: Stirred presented at the Joe Goode Annex two weeks ago.
Each summer, the Sketch series, created and curated by Bay Area choreographer Amy Seiwert since 2011, offers artists the challenge to step out of their comfort zone and explore new choreographic avenues in contemporary ballet. During the past two iterations of Sketch, Seiwert and the participating choreographers investigated their relationship to limitations (Sketch 3: Expectations) and to music structures (Sketch 4: Music Mirror). This year, Sketch 5: Stirred is about collaboration within the creative process. For this edition, Seiwert and ODC Co-Artistic Director KT Nelson are editing each other’s work and interrupting each other’s process, to co-create Starting Over at the End, which will be presented at ODC Theater next week, along with Seiwert’s Traveling Alone (2012) and the premiere of Back To.
Seiwert and Nelson’s idea of collaborating arose while they presented work at the Walla Walla Dance Festival last summer. In lieu of lecture demonstration, Nelson proposed they create a piece together while in front of the audience. “I was terrified at first,” Seiwert recalled during the work-in-progress showing at the Joe Goode Annex. “We went into the studio, took some material each of us were working on, spent an hour working together and had some lovely moments.” Back in San Francisco, and some months later, they decided to do it again, this time “more seriously.”
Although Seiwert has collaborated with many artists before, including composers and software artists, she had yet to make a piece with another choreographer. On the contrary, Nelson has been involved in several collaborations with other choreographers in the recent years, including New York-based choreographer Kate Weare and ODC Artistic Director/Founder Brenda Way in 2013 for Triangulating Euclid, and again with Way for the evening-length piece boulders and bones in 2014.
Along with stylistic and aesthetic differences, Nelson and Seiwert approach the creative process and the autonomy of dancers differently. Seiwert usually starts her process with music, which in turn plays a role in generating the material and potential direction of the work. Alternatively, Nelson wants her dancers “to experience the physicality of the movements without being influenced by the music. I want dance to have an equal voice, and not the music to be the driver,” so she often asks the dancer to research movements in silence.
“We began the collaborative process with each choreographer generating a gestural phrase with the upper body. Those gestures were manipulated individually by the dancers, then edited and composed by both choreographers together and separately. The dancers acquired each other’s manipulations, combined into partnered and group interactions, and only then applied musicality,” writes dancer Sarah Griffin about the process.
During the showing, Seiwert iterated that it takes committed dancers to perform in Sketch. They need to be open to experimentation, and in this case, able to navigate two artistic voices and at times conflicting directions. Throughout the talk, Seiwert and Nelson shared how schizophrenic the process could feel for dancers, especially when the choreographers “would see a problem and each try to fix it.” Nelson mentioned going to Griffin at one point and asking her to change one section. Puzzled, Griffin turned to Nelson and said: “Amy just asked me to change it this way.” In this short video, Freeman explains that working with two choreographers on a piece is alike “the mom and dad thing, when mom says one thing and dad says another,” but “working with two of my favorite choreographers at the same time is pretty dreamy.”
Seiwert’s biggest hope for this collaboration was “to be influenced in some ways.” “KT made me rethink a lot of musical and port de bras choices,” explained Seiwert. Nelson had always wanted to work with pointe shoes, and by working with Seiwert, she also discovered to work with “nuances and let your imagination be in that one point.”
For Seiwert, Sketch 5 is an exploration of the fine line between having one’s creative habits challenged, yet retaining one’s artistic voice. Giving up a part of one’s autonomy within collaboration “can be alienating and disorienting but if you are open to being lost, it can be exciting,” Seiwert stated. The work shown at the Joe Goode Annex demonstrated that both choreographers are succeeding in making choices that integrate both of their visions in a graceful and powerful way. As Nelson shared, “I think the piece does have both Amy and KT in it, as opposed to some composite. We are still both there.”