Jennifer Archibald, Robert Dekkers and Arthur Pita on Choreographing for in·ter·twine with AXIS Dance Company

10/17/2019

The Creative Process and Choreographing for Disabled Dancers

When Marc Brew, Artistic Director of AXIS Dance Company, wanted this season's repertory to show the breadth of skill and variety of his dancers, he coordinated his upcoming in·ter·twine with works in a wide range of styles by three very different choreographers: Jennifer Archibald's world premiere Petrichor, Robert Dekkers' Flutter, and Arthur Pita's world premiere Alice in Californiland. Recently all three choreographers talked with Michael Phelan of BayDance.com about the concepts for their works and how they set them on a company of disabled and abled dancers.

JENNIFER ARCHIBALD on the World Premiere of Petrichor

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the word petrichor as "A distinctive, earthy, usually pleasant odor that is associated with rainfall." Choreographer Jennifer Archibald likes to come up with a concept that both she and the dancers can become emotionally attached to. In Petrichor she thought of a concept "that relates to being grateful, honoring what's in front of you, being grateful for the present and what kind of experiences could cause you to be grateful, like revelations heard from a wise person in passing. It could be an unexpected event where it finally hits home to you, but psychologically you need to take a moment and honor your surroundings." From there she got the idea of petrichor, the smell of earth after rain, as a metaphor for gratitude.

Jennifer Archibald (Credit Anders J Larsson)
Jennifer Archibald (Credit Anders J Larsson)

Jennifer had only a short two weeks to work with AXIS, a challenge for a choreographer who wants to understand her dancers emotionally. "You have to kind of gauge their personalities and be really intuitive about who is in front of you. You have to look at their instincts, their emotional instincts, their physical instincts, to get an idea of how you're going to work. For me it's my job to make that happen, probably in the first two days, and from there start to create work. You're not just dishing out material, physically, but also making sure that you understand what they're thinking as you're giving the material."

Disabled dancers represented a different challenge for Jennifer. "I like dancers who are really, really physical and who can act, who are interesting and unique movers" she says. So for a company of mixed abilities, "It's how I'm going to incorporate all of them and make them strong and make sure they are working in harmony together. I think Marc has a couple of new company members this season, so they hadn't all worked together before. So I was in a new situation and so were the dancers, which made it slightly challenging because they were still learning how to partner each other. But by the end of the first week we were successfully partnering and it definitely was becoming more natural."

Despite the challenges, Petrichor is true to Jennifer's style and spirit. "You definitely see moments of the classical line in the work, but then the hip-hop, the sharpness, those different textures of the hardness of it, you'll see elements in it," she says. "It keeps the audience a little more interested."

But if her work is very physical, and the dancers have physical limitations, how did she retain that physicality? "I tried to wrap my head around that before I got there," says Jennifer, "That was the first time I'd ever worked with a company that had different disabilities. When you're working with an inclusive company, you have to make sure you're not focusing on the disability aspect. Once I started looking beyond the challenges, I started to realize that your creativity doesn't get blocked. I think if you're looking at how it's not going to work, it's just not going to work. It took me two days to kind of refocus and create the way I would normally create, and just let these dancers respond as well as they possibly can. And that's when things started to fall into place.

AXIS has two dancers in wheelchairs and one dancer, Lani Dickerson, who has one arm. "Lani is incredible," says Jennifer, "When you're watching her move, she does partnering better than some dancers who are completely abled. There's a dancer in a wheelchair, the way he uses space is incredible as well. It's interesting. He's seeing space and understanding what I need choreographically better than some dancers who are completely abled. That's a testament to just how artistically gifted these dancers are."

ROBERT DEKKERS on Flutter

Robert Dekkers taught a company ballet class at AXIS and set his solo Sixes and Seven on AXIS dancer Julie Crothers, who has described herself as "a 1.5 armed dancer", and he himself can empathize with the limitations of mobility.While teaching classes with AXIS dancers Robert was walking on crutches and not sure he'd ever walk again. Robert has a mechanical heart valve and had to take blood thinners in case of any internal bleeding. The blood flow affected his spine, and his left leg "kind of went to sleep". Eventually he got the movement back in his leg, but it hasn't been quite the same. The experience of limited mobility has transormed his view of his art. "That for me was," he says, "I'm very interested in exploring this."

Robert Dekkers   (©Michael Phelan)
Robert Dekkers (©Michael Phelan)

"Getting to work with AXIS has been real good for me" says Robert, "I think my experience with them would not have been the same had I not had the experience that I did, gone through a period of time when I could experience, in a physical way, what they were experiencing, in my own way."

AXIS uses the term "translate" to describe adapting choreography to disabled dancers. "You have to translate for yourself," Robert says, "You're in a position where you're not able to move part of your body. You don't have certain movements that other dancers have. Finding the ways of translating, for me it's just opened up my view of what dance is. It's about rhythm, musicality, personal connections, dynamics. These are things that can be cultivated and expressed, with anybody. If you have a body, you can dance; you can express yourself with movement." Although he has translated the vocabulary of Flutter, Robert insists that, "It's still the same piece. Every count is in it."

Robert says that, while everyone's experience is different, learning how to translate has been, "Like, 'Oh, how else can we express this idea?' Sure, you're in a wheelchair, but you're teaching them ballet, you turn, and you're creating specifications for them to do this type of turn, centrifugal force, a larger rotation around the axis. It's been really fun to translate vocabulary with them and explore ballet. It's not what most people think of ballet, as a very specific body type, foot shape, all those things that are expected of ballet dancers. It's been fun."

Flutter debuted in 2010 with an all male cast, and later with an all female cast. "Everything about Flutter is dichotomous," Robert says, "Breaking down gender barriers is something I do in all of my work. My goal is to kind of bring those qualities to the work," he says, "It's very physical and athletic, but also very fluid and soft. I think for the dancers it's a really fun challenge to try to express those ends of the spectrum of movement. For instance the difference between individuality and moving as a collective." He points out that the dancers never touch one another, and there's no partnering, even though there are tight patterns. "If one person gets off, the whole thing can kind of derail. So every person is responsible for themselves. There's no 'Oh, you dropped me.' It's a team sport. The piece works because everyone is fully focused and together."

ARTHUR PITA on the World Premiere of Alice in Californiland

Arthur Pita has been involved with disabled dancers before. He taught a workshop with AXIS and worked with dancers of mixed abilities with CandoCo Dance Company, a contemporary physically integrated dance company, on his production of The Stepfather.

Arthur Pita (© Vivian Altair)
Arthur Pita (© Vivian Altair)

As Artistic Director Marc Brew puts it, London-based Arthur Pita "takes dancers to another world" and "can go to dark places and beauty." For in·ter·twine the dark place is the world of homelessness choreographed surreally in Pita's world premiere Alice in Californiland. Arthur was inspired to create this work about homelessness in general, not specifically to California. "It's everywhere," says Arthur, "but I think particularly in San Francisco it's so visible, the mental health problems with people on the street and the drug use. It's so openly visible. There's the juxtaposition of this glorious, beautiful city, and I love California, so really this is a love song for California in terms of this ultimate dream state."

The concept of escaping to a Wonderland comes from one of Arthur's personal experiences in San Francisco. "One day I was walking down the Mission," Arthur relates, "and I saw a lot of homeless people, and there was a lot of marijuana in the air, and a lot of people using drugs very openly, and everybody seemed quite happy, really, on this beautiful, sunny afternoon. Even though they were homeless, there was a sort of escape going on, and I was wondering where they went. I looked at someone and I thought, Wow! You could be a character from Alice in Wonderland."

As to how the analogy of Alice in Wonderland applies, Arthur says, "Falling down the rabbit hole is definitely a metaphor for a human being hitting rock bottom. I think of the piece as a psychedelic tragedy," pointing out that Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland has hints of an opium dream, and there is a lot of drug use on the city streets, people numbing their pain.

"When you numb your pain and go somewhere else," asks Arthur, "where is that place?" Those of us who have homes and don't want to look at those who do not, "escape to something else that is obviously much more idyllic," he says, "There's a lot of symbolism within the piece in terms of falling down a rabbit hole and trying to suppress that, to put your brain somewhere else, to escape."

His inspiration for this work comes from witnessing drugs used openly by homeless people in San Francisco. "Just yesterday I was walking to Zspace Theater," he recalls, "and there was a syringe on the street. It's like that syringe on the ground has so much of a story to it. It's upsetting."

The driving force of Alice in Californiland is his reaction to not only the tragic condition of human life on the streets, but society's numbed attitude toward it. "What really got to me, got to my skin, was when I was working in San Francisco and I saw a woman shooting up on the street openly. The injection was literally going into her veins, pushing whatever she was taking into her system. And I was like wow! That's someone escaping somewhere." When a little later he passed by the same woman again, she was immobile on the sidewalk. "I just wasn't sure if she was dead or alive. I was there for a long time, and I watched other people walk past. No one was really doing anything because we're all acclimatized to it, desensitized to it." Arthur says he thought maybe he should call for help, but being a foreigner new to the city he didn't know whom to call. "When I went back in the morning she was gone, and I wondered whether she had died."

Arthur has also been moved by the contradiction between the ugliness of "human devastation" on the sidewalks and the beauty of ballet. "You're arriving at Civic Center to go to the Opera House to look at this beauty," he says, "this elegance, an absolutely high level of excellence and culture, and yet your journey there is ugly. When I was working with San Francisco Ballet I was exactly in that area. It felt like such a contradiction, where you're going to work with such beautiful artists, such beauty, and yet there's this devastation around you."

Arthur started putting all these experiences together to create his "psychedelic tragedy". Inspired to create from his experiences, he decided to familiarize himself with the lives of the homeless. Arthur worked in a soup kitchen and had conversations with homeless people. He set up a table and invited homeless people to tell him their story, and some of them opened up about their lives. "It was deeply moving and gave us wonderful insight," he says, "Some people are very honest and funny. There were some people who were very happy with their lives and said, 'I don't want shelter. This is my life and I prefer it this way'." Others, he found, have jobs but earn so little they are forced to live in their car or a tent."

He makes clear that he is not pointing fingers at anyone. His research on homelessness has made him well aware that many people, organizations, and businesses want to help the homeless.

The dark side of the Lewis Carroll story fits the darkness that some of Arthur's work is known for, describing the original story as, "a little nightmarish". He points out that the Caterpillar tells Alice, "You've arrived here and everybody here is insane. There is a darkness to it." He goes on to say that he didn't want to make a sort of documentary style piece about homelessness because, "We all know the facts. I would say it's dark, but I'm hoping to get to the heart of it so that we can connect to something human and what we observe around us."

But Arthur's work is also known for its beauty. "There's definitely a lot of beauty," he says about Alice in Californiland. Referring to AXIS, he states, "These dancers are wonderful and versatile. We have two wheelchair dancers, and we have a dancer with one arm who's playing Alice. So we have a diverse, fascinating cast who move in such beautiful ways and are able to do such incredible things." Among the beautiful in Alice in Californiland he includes Yann Seabra's stage sets and Ravel's orchestral composition La Valse. "This music," he says enthusiastically, "really feels right for what we're doing. There's such a beautiful elegance to it, and it builds up to such a climax. It almost feels like The Rite of Spring at the end of it because it builds up such a fantastic, chaotic crescendo. It's a waltz, but quite a dark waltz in a way."

Arthur's fascination with darkness seems to come from having such a deep appreciation for the beauty in life that he is deeply upset by the ugliness in it. "Even though there might be some juxtaposing," he muses, "I think there is always beauty."