Music, Poetry and the Day-to-Day: Talking Process with the choreographers for SFDanceworks’ 4th Season

June 20-22, SFDanceworks presents their fourth season, featuring works by Alejandro Cerrudo, Brett Conway, Laura O’Malley, Andrea Schermoly, and Olivier Wevers. The performances include three world premieres and a special Opening Night Dinner with SFDanceworks’ artistic director James Sofranko and associate artistic director Danielle Row. { DIYdancer } caught up with Sofranko and four of the featured artists on a conference call to hear more about the inspiration behind these works.

James Sofranko: I founded SFDanceworks four years ago to fill what I saw as a void in the Bay Area dance scene for a true contemporary repertory dance company. The Bay Area has such a rich tradition and culture for dance and there are so many choreographers and pieces that I would love to present. The hard part is picking which ones — and then raising the money to bring them! In the past, we’ve shown works from some of the world’s best choreographers, including older pieces by José Limon, Lar Lubovitch, and Nacho Duato. This season I’ve chosen to focus on more recent works from both established and emerging choreographers.

Cloudless, choreographed by Alejandro Cerrudo, is an intimate dance for two women, and the viewer is engaged by the way the dancers relate to each other and intertwine their limbs in unusual, even other-worldy, ways.  His dances seem to exist in alternate universes where the laws of physics and human possibility don’t apply. I’m very happy to have Ana Lopez, on whom Cloudless was created, dance with us as a guest from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.  She will be dancing with our own Laura O’Malley, who is also one of our five choreographers.

Olivier Wevers’ Silent Scream was made on his Seattle-based company Whim W’Him in 2018, and I love the way this work is not only an homage to the silent film era, but also a reflection of our current times. Danced in part to the words of Charlie Chaplin from his 1940 film, “The Great Dictator”, the piece has an “old timey” feel yet still feels fresh and new.

Andrea Schermoly is a choreographer who has been steadily making herself known around the world, and we are lucky to have her here creating new work specifically for our dancers. Brett Conway and Laura O’Malley both began their choreographic explorations in January for our new 4PLAY program, and I’ve asked them to extend and embellish upon those explorations. Conway has built upon The Bedroom, which was originally a solo and now incorporates multiple artists. In Room for Error, O’Malley draws inspiration from famed pianist Glenn Gould and his mental struggles amidst artistic prowess. She has staged her work in such a way that allows you to delve into the character’s mind in a moving and powerful way.

{ DIYdancer }, Sydney Burrows: Can you tell speak a bit about your creative process?

Olivier Wevers: I usually start with a story or message, a concept of some subject. I get a lot of inspiration from music and often start with that. I don’t come into the studio with any prepared steps; it’s a very spontaneous process that happens with the dancers. We’ll share what the concepts and ideas are, what the story and the message are, and then work together. I create the steps right then in the studio, but I generally have a sketch of the flow. The beginning of the process is a lot of vocabulary and movement creation. Then I start putting the sections together and it becomes mostly about transitions and making those things fit. It’s very fluid, and I keep it as spontaneous as possible.

Andrea Schermoly: My process is similar to Olivier’s. I think I’m inspired by music most often initially because all of us are archiving and listening to music all the time. So that seems to be a jumping off point for me. If something really catches my eye, or catches my ear and inspires me, then I can’t let go of it. I’m also very concept driven. I do some abstract things, but it’s fun to work on themes and concepts. I don’t always have a message, but it tends to go that way for me.

This process has been a little different because I had another plan completely in mind, but just before arriving, I heard a song that was reminiscent of a childhood image and memory of a familial situation, and I felt compelled to express it. And so that was kind of fun and unusual and very surprising to have that inspiration all of a sudden. This was also different from other projects in terms of trying to find characters without knowing the dancers well beforehand. When you come into a room and you don’t know everyone and you’re trying to find a way to navigate through it, it’s beautiful and it’s challenging. Like Olivier, I don’t come in with any steps. It is a fluid process.

Laura O’Malley: I’m still relatively new at choreographing, and thus far each piece has had its own unique process. My past work has been driven by music, but Room for Error began with a concept. I like to use a variety of techniques to create movement vocabulary: improvisation, exploring patterns/counts that correlate to or offset  the music, creating movement inspired by quotes, and letting the dancers interpret instructions relating to the theme. I use different styles of music to play and create rhythm, and I explore using movement to mirror the music as well as use music as a backdrop for the movement and cinematic effect. I’m still very much dabbling and finding out what works (and what doesn’t).

Brett Conway: I too, consider myself a new choreographer. For the few pieces I have created so far, my process has started by exploring movement on my own before working with dancers. I like to have a general concept of the piece and music decided before starting to create the movement.

Burrows: How do you find your music?

Schermoly: I am constantly archiving things on Spotify – I have hundreds if not thousands of songs by all sorts of artists. The glory of technology is it can lead you on tangents and help you find something in a similar vein of an artist you love. Classical for me is my number one. That never gets old because there’s a million ways to interpret something that is both beautiful and long standing.

Conway: I agree. I would say I’m normally attracted to classical music. For the first edition of this piece that I did back in January of this year —  a solo work that I’m expanding for the season — I used classical music. But I wanted to challenge myself and take the vocabulary that I built and use different music to play with the same concept and idea, but with a completely different feel, tone, and sound. I challenged myself to use text in the original version of the piece. This time, I’m using a recording and layering text over popular music. All of that is new for me in this process and I’m trying to explore new avenues.

Wevers: I’m also a big lover of classical music but I try to challenge myself to listen to all kinds of music. I’m a trashy pop lover also – the trashier the better. When it comes to choreography I think the music has to have an intention in what you’re trying to say and what you’re trying to do. Sometimes the intention is to challenge or support what you’re trying to say. I try to find music that will support the work I’m trying to do.

Schermoly: I was just going through a couple things last night and it’s amazing to think about how we mature, and about what music says at different times in your life. It’s a beautiful thing to revisit a piece 10 years later and be like, “Oh my God, now I know what I want to do with this,” or “this speaks to me now.”

Burrows: How has your artistic path colored the experience of being part of this season of SFDanceworks?

O’Malley: SFDanceworks holds a very special place for me. This season will likely be the last time I’ll be performing, but who knows. Last season was especially unique, as I had colleagues from many different periods in my life: Dana Genshaft and I attended high school together at the Kirov Academy of Ballet, Brett Conway and Nick Korkos worked with me at Alonzo King Lines Ballet, Garrett Anderson, Penny Saunders and Pablo Piantino were with me in Hubbard Street Chicago, and Danielle Row brought me out of retirement (For Pixie). It kind of felt like this special reunion just for me.

Conway:  I’m excited for this season to be contributing as a choreographer. It’s been three years now since leaving full time company dancer mode with Alonzo King/LINES Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater. I definitely feel a shift happening away from performing and have been dabbling in teaching, choreography, theater and over the past three years. SFDanceworks has served as an outlet to continue performing and be a part of the building blocks of a new dance company. It’s an exciting time for me, as I’m tapping into a new creative side of myself that has been patiently brewing, and this season of SFDanceworks is giving me the opportunity to share it.  

Schermoly: First, I just want to say that I’m so sorry I’m not dancing Olivier’s piece! That would have been so amazing and was the plan, but unfortunately I’m injured. We all are fairly familiar with each other in one way or another through the dance circles, and I’m grateful that it’s easy to find a synergy between everyone. Everyone’s really open and easy to work with. In terms of coloring what I do now, it kind of touches on the music thing. I’m feeling a bit more daring now to try something I probably would not have done two years ago. It’s really cool to have the opportunity that feels like an experiment without a lot of pressure.

Wevers: For me, my connection was kind of random. I’ve been in touch with James, and he took over as Artistic Director at Grand Rapids Ballet where I have created a few pieces in the past. Through that path, he reached out to me about this piece specifically for SFDanceworks. I’ve worked with some of the dancers that are performing and I’m thrilled to participate.

Burrows: What do you hope audiences gain from your work?

Wevers: Contemporary dance has a really amazing platform. A lot of it is about storytelling, but not in the normal classical way. We don’t have princes and princesses – I mean sometimes we do, but we portray them as humans. It’s about capturing people’s imagination and people’s real human experience rather than just a fantasy. Contemporary dance has a way of reaching people’s humanity and hearts in a way that is different from other types of dance. The important part is to be able to change people’s minds and inspire them to fill in the blanks for themselves. They can find themselves in the work rather than imposing on them what they should be seeing or understanding. I’m hoping that people can connect with the work in a way that is personal to them, and it doesn’t have to be the same for everyone.

Conway: I agree. I’m trying to express the human experience, something that is relatable. At the same time, I think some things are literal. For me, I’m exploring the experiences of young childhood dreams, aspirations, young love, relationships ending, and experiencing the loss of a loved one. It’s sort of the whole spectrum.

Schermoly: I don’t want to tell an audience what they’re going to get out of something, so I don’t know what they will experience. For this piece specifically, the subject matter is fairly uncomfortable. And so I think to sift through that discomfort is going to be part of the task for the audience, and that’s my intention. The music is fairly aggressive and comical, which was part of my experiment to try and see just how much of it I am able to sit with, and therefore see if the audience can sit with it too.

Burrows: Olivier, how has the process of resetting this work on SFDanceworks differed from the first iteration? Has the process been iterative?

Wevers: I actually premiered a work last weekend and have been creating a new piece in Seattle for the last two months, so I wasn’t able to be there for the creative process. I sent Tory Peil, who used to dance with my company and performed the main part in the piece. I’m not good at re-staging my own work. As a choreographer, I think we can relate to having so much in our heads, and once the movement is passed to the dancers you kind of forget about it and count on them to remember the sequences. So for me, restaging my work is very difficult. It requires a mathematical mindset that I don’t enjoy that much. I like the creative mind much better. I created that work for my own company and I picked characters that they each could portray well. So it was fun to look at the new dancers and decide who was going to do what part and how it was going to work together. It’s not about replicating what was done, but rather fitting the piece on those artists. Also, I really want my dancers to be artists. It requires a lot of fluidity. We don’t have that much time for this piece, so it will be pretty raw. I will probably learn a lot about the piece by watching other artists perform it.

Burrows: Where do you look for inspiration?

Conway: It’s always hard for me to pinpoint specific inspirations. There’s so much inspiration in little day to day experiences, just like in actions you might see from other people that you’ve come across in your day, or something you read, music you hear, or maybe a little blip you see in a film. I feel that it’s more about what you experience through other humans, and other images, senses, tastes, sounds, etc. It all feeds inspiration for me.

Wevers: I take inspiration from everything around me. I try to be true to what my voice is, but I love watching other people’s work. I love discovering new voices. The world has so many voices out there and all of them are unique. And I love being inspired by all kinds of artists – and not just dance artists. I’m inspired by music, visual arts, and poetry. I get inspired by text in poetry a lot. It’s about people that have something to say and have some kind of interpretation of the world.

Schermoly: I feel similarly. Every day I feel inspired by people around me, both in the studio and on the world level outside of the studio. Last night, I watched a Bob Dylan documentary that’s on Netflix last night — which is so awesome — and that was inspiring. I’m also a big visual artist fan. My family members are painters and graphic designers, and I naturally gravitate towards that. There’s a South African artist I’m very fascinated with right now, Nelson Makamo. He captures a really interesting combination of desperation and hope, and I feel like that’s the world we’re living in right now. I do want to remain hopeful. There are so many things going on around us that are worth talking about and worth bringing to light. It is our job to illuminate the subject, but to also bring hope.

SFDanceWorks Season Four runs June 20-22 at the Cowell Theater.

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