From theatre honk to dance theatre maker: A long and fateful journey

How did I, a theatre dude that before this Spring had never so much as taken a modern dance class in his life, end up performing a solo dance piece in front of a bunch of dancers at SFDI?

Follow this chain of events. This is long, but each of these events carries importance because if a single one of them doesn’t happen there’s no way I end up dancing in front of these people.

– Shortly after getting back into theatre (Fall 2010), I looked into classes to not just redevelop my acting chops but also develop other skills. I didn’t want to take simple acting classes as I studied acting in college and, though I needed to shake the rust off those skills, acting classes weren’t going to teach me much that I didn’t already know.

Seeing tons of shows, I got hooked on improv and enjoyed the consistently high quality of Theatresports at the Market Theater, plus noticed the long line of improvisers that channeled those skills into acting careers. So I started studying improv with Unexpected Productions (which produces Theatresports). I also began the year-long Stage Combat class series with fight master Geof Alm through Freehold Studio, and took interest in George Lewis’ Personal Clown class at that studio. Though I was going to wait to do it, Sara Mountjoy-Pepka (a U.P. improviser and actress I met that fall at a park show and got to know) talked me into taking it that fall.
Good thing I did Personal Clown that fall, as only did the experience took my performance ability to a whole other level that enhanced pretty much everything I did (improv, stage acting, etc) going forward, but the following would not have happened:

– Local group Ear to the Ground produces an annual clown show called Not All Clowns Are Bozos. My initial clown training experience piqued my interest so I checked the 2011 edition out that January. Though some parts of it featured more clown than others, I enjoyed the spectacle and variety of that particular show… especially the closing number, a dueling beauty-queens number with a pair of expressive, engaging and colorful dancers named Jenna Bean Veatch and Naomi Russell. I had heard of Jenna and her work but this was the first good look I had gotten of it.

– My improv class with Brandon Felker included a quirky trio of dancers named Scott Davis, Louis Gervais and Christian Swenson. The three specialized in an unfamiliar (to me) dance form called contact improvisation, which they discussed and occasionally demonstrated before, during and after class. I enjoyed learning comedic improv with them, but I bring them up because I heard through the grapevine that Scott and Louis were performing at Velocity Dance Center for the Dance Art Group benefit Hot Diggity DAG. Curious to see them do their thing, I dropped into the Center on that night in March 2011 to check them out amidst a room of strangers.

My colleagues opened the show, incidentally, along with a couple other dancers in a fun contact improv exhibition, looking right at home in their element. However, also in this show were the aforementioned Jenna Bean and Naomi, teaming with a dancer named Wylin Daigle to perform an excerpt of Jenna Bean’s dance theatre project, a little thing called Sideshow. With Jenna painted yellow, Naomi wearing a hump on her shoulders underneath an ewok robe, and Wylin dressed like a flapper out for a swim, they swiveled through an imaginative series of short pieces that piqued my interest and left me wanting me to see the whole thing someday.

– Imagine my surprise when Annex Theatre announced Sideshow as part of their 2012 season, and subsequent surprise when they announced auditions for the show early in 2012. Though I was excited to see the eventual show, never did I imagine I had any real chance to be part of the show. At that point I wanted almost as much as anything else to be a part of this show.

Even after announced auditions I still had doubts I fit a vision centered around three modern dancers, but scanning the itemized roles I noticed they sought in one role, the Tree Person, a physical, expressive actor who could improvise. Over the past year I performed, honed my improv, intensively studied and practiced theatrical movement to where I most frequently drew praise for my physicality… so I knew by this point that my strength lied in physical theatre.

The role required Tuesday afternoon rehearsals. I work weekdays and weekday rehearsals are almost universally a dealbreaker for me. However, for a role in a show I really wanted to do I was willing to somehow make it work. I talked with my boss and worked out an arrangement where I could use amassed PTO (and since I hardly take time off I had a lot amassed) to take Tuesdays off so I could rehearse for the show. I signed up to audition, but incidentally my improv group needed to me to run rehearsal on the night of auditions. I contacted Annex to let them know thinking it was all over, but they helpfully agreed to let me drop in on the subsequent weekend’s callbacks to audition then. I dropped in that Sunday and not only nailed one of my best auditions ever but felt from the moment I walked in the first time that I absolutely belonged in the show. After much deliberation Jenna ultimately agreed and casted me in what became one of my favorite shows ever done.

– During the preceding fall, I decided to audition a piece for the next Not All Clowns show. While not averse to collaborating, a request to collaborate on a clown piece produced no response so I went solo and quickly honed in on an idea inspired by a schlocky techno-pop song I kept hearing on my alarm radio every morning. The song was LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It”, and every time I heard the familiar refrain ‘Girl look at that body… I work out!’ I couldn’t help but imagine narcissistic hard-bodied schleps flexing their muscles… and some total loser trying and failing so hard to be like them.

Quickly I rehearsed and prepared a four minute clown piece around the song and my clown Crap the Clown to audition, which Cecelia Frye and the crew enjoyed enough to include in the show! I spent the first three months of 2012 aggressively developing my 10 minute solo clown piece “Crap the Clown Works It Out” with Cecelia and others before performing it to big audiences and raves at Not All Clowns that April.

The attention to detail I learned from Geof Alm in the stage combat work coupled with the focus emphasized by Cecelia and George in the clown work played a huge role in the effectiveness I had with developing this solo process, one that served me going forward.

– Here’s the thing with doing a dance theatre show with a bunch of modern dancers: You really get to know how modern dancers work, what they can do, what they’re into. I was impressed with the shape they were in, their physical ability, coordination and flexibility, how quickly they learned complex choreography and movement that most of us as-is couldn’t hope to do a fraction of. Bear in mind I’m an experienced physical theatre performer who does clown and draws raves for his physicality… yet even I was blown away at this level of skill.

I developed a covetous respect for this ability to where I wanted to grow those skills and learn to dance as well, and like many people the deal was sealed when I took Jenna’s advice to see a little 3D film memoir called “Pina”. The magical depths to which Pina Bausch took dance theatre and inspired those who worked with her shoved me over the edge. Even before the theater’s lights came back on I knew then and there I had to learn to dance and make dance theatre.

– Sure, there’s drop-in dance classes for beginners. I took a few with Ricki Mason at Velocity and did okay. But you can do that for years and growth that route can be sporadic at best. Practicing for 90 minutes once a week or two doesn’t really build those skills as quickly as an intensive gauntlet can. Intensives with George Lewis, sustained weekly stage combat training with fight master Geof Alm plus side rehearsals, plus coupled improv classes with weekly practice through my improv group all did a lot to shape my physical theatre ability not just because of what I learned but from the relentless practice the schedule forced me to put in. With education plus the required work ethic I had no choice but to develop and improve. I needed an experience like it with dance, and needed more than just an 8 week weekend series (though I did sign up for such a Basic series).

During production of Sideshow, I went internet-fishing for such an experience and discovered that Velocity Dance Center produced an annual three week intensive for all levels in July called Strictly Seattle. They also offered a mass-discount if I also signed up for the subsequent Seattle Festival of Dance Improvisation all at once. My savings account nearly imploded from how quickly I signed up for both. I quickly arranged to take the week of SFDI off from work (intensives all took place during the day)… and this was all before May. Neither event started until July.

– Before Strictly began, I quickly took Emmett Montgomery up on an offer to open July’s edition of his comedy variety show Weird and Awesome and rehearsed to develop a piece called “Swimming” that was about 50% physical theatre, 40% clown and 10% dance. The week before Strictly I opened Weird and Awesome with the 4 minute piece, drawing a combination of confusion and raves… appropriate since I not only enjoyed it but also didn’t really know what it was either.

– To quickly sum up three intense, ‘put some hair on your chest’ weeks at Strictly Seattle, I had a trying but educational and formative experience with challenging dance teachers in overheated dance studios that beat some dance chops into me the hard way (strained ligaments, ankles and hip flexors aside… all minor enough to heal without terribly much trouble). And I did enjoy the final performance.

But the subsequent week at SFDI blew me away. Even with high expectations the experience of learning countless ways to create and grow your own work, while bumping elbows with, hanging (despite my relative dance inexperience) along-side and getting to know dozens of talented and experienced modern dancers from here in Seattle and across the globe, was more than I could have dreamed of.

The kicker: The schedule vaguely referenced a Participant Performance along with a mandatory Monday meeting for interested parties. I was interested but wasn’t sure if a relative dance novice like me was allowed to play along. No parameters were given as to who could and couldn’t do it, so I figured what the hell and dropped into the meeting. Sure enough, it was an informal arrangement and anyone who wanted to do something could pitch a piece idea right then and there.

A word about “Swimming” from Weird and Awesome: I’ve actually cooked a bunch of pieces in my mind, many more so once I got into dance and cultivated the idea that I could do dance theatre, lack of lifetime dance chops be damned. “Swimming” was one very small part of a larger, full length solo piece I’ve slowly cooked and developed in my mind for months.

I didn’t walk in the door of that meeting with a firm idea, but once I saw I had the green light to do something, and feeling inspired from my first Gaga intensive session with Danielle Agami that I could create choreography in a hurry, I quickly decided at that moment to take “Swimming” plus another part of my full-length idea and choreograph them into a seven minute solo dance piece for the Participant Showing I would eventually title “Rediscovery”. I quickly pitched it and, having shown confidence in a relatively well formed idea, it quickly got thrown onto the lineup. I now had five days to make a dance piece for a show.

Yes, I had formed “Swimming” for Weird and Awesome but it definitely was more theatre than dance and I now had developed enough dance skill to make more dance of it. I could keep the score (the skeleton of beats to hit) but would have to actually create new choreography to connect those beats as well as the 2nd half of the piece, which would have to be completely choreographed from scratch. The music I eventually picked wasn’t actually my first choice, but I told Kim Lusk I needed 7-8 minutes and my first choice was a longer piece that not only would have pushed my piece to 9 minutes but for which I didn’t have as many concrete choreography ideas off the bat as the music I eventually settled on.

Improvisational concepts I learned during the SFDI Gaga intensive and the process I used to develop the clown piece and “Swimming” were my guide for building choreography. With six total hours of rehearsal between Wednesday and Friday (plus helpful feedback after running it for a couple SFDI colleagues) I fully choreographed about 80% of the piece and had full confidence that I could lean on general ideas and improv skills to improvise the remaining 20%.


And there I was on August 4, 2012, dancing like mad through 7.5 minutes of dance theatre for an audience that largely raved for what I produced. I won a surprising amount of respect that night, and walked away from that and SFDI excited for the next step. Shortly I’ll start aggressive rehearsal on that full-length piece, and may possibly have a chance to show more of it to audiences this fall and winter.
But what blows my mind the most is when I look back on how I got to this point, and realize how much random fate fell into place for it all to happen. If any of the above events didn’t happen, what I did for SFDI’s audience and am doing now with my artistic life would have never happened. I don’t believe in destiny, and certainly don’t believe fate is any sort of ordained destiny. I consider fate a confluence of one’s decisions, the decisions of others and the timing of events (some in our control and some a product of random chance).

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