Choreogapher Ben Needham Wood: Creating and Taking Risks for Amy Seiwert's Sketch 9


April 26, 2019—Ben Needham Wood is one of three choreographers working on this year's performance of Amy Seiwert's Sketch performance series for risk-taking in ballet-based choreography. The ninth in the annual series, this year's theme is Perspective, making use of projection as a theatrical lighting source.'s Michael Phelan talked with Ben about his creative process in this project.

Michael Phelan: What is the Sketch series about?

Ben Needham Wood: Sketch, ever since it started, has always been a platform for choreographers to experiment, to try something that they might not have the support to do with a full company commission. A lot of times when a choreographer is established and they get a commission with a major company, there's pressure to create something that is already very polished, and that works, and they know will succeed. And so the risk-taking isn't as supported in that process. But we want Sketch to be something where choreographers can try something whether or not it's going to succeed and know that we are going to support them in that effort. So as it pertains to this year's Sketch, Sketch 9: Perspective, we are encouraging our choreographers to integrate film or projection into the work. And all three of us, Amy Seiwert, myself, and Stephanie Martinez, who is our guest choreographer from Chicago, are probably going to take very different approaches to whether it's projection design or specifically film material. We're probably all going to work at it differently, but we haven't talked to each other about what it is that we want to do yet.

Ben Needham Wood, photo by Michael Phelan
Ben Needham Wood, photo by Michael Phelan

What I can say for my own journey, though, is that I've actually had an idea that I've never seen done before that I've really wanted to explore this year. So what we did was we actually went to the theater that we're going to be performing at, ODC, and we tested some of the ideas that I had. And we actually found that there were a lot of hurdles in order to make that successful, that would probably inhibit the success of this immediate production. So we're in the process right now of reworking it—how do we take some of those ideas and actually put them back into play with a different manifestation? But what I can say that's really awesome about this process for me already is that's it's changing the way I think about how it can be integrated into dance. Because I started this process of one idea about how I might want to use film, and I've realized that even if that specifically wasn't working, there are these other avenues that I hadn't considered before that are helping me reassess my creative opportunities.

MP: You've participated in some dance films before. There was Baseballet, and Cardiac Dances, and now Avoidance, which will premiere at the Amy Seiwert's Imagery Gala next month.

Ben: The idea for Avoidance started with how do two people react when they don't know what it is they're missing, but that missing piece is right in front of them? And so for me, conceptually, this whole idea started as a collaboration with my director Matt McKee. He and I had worked together on Baseballet, and he is someone who likes to dream really big and then problem solve and figure out how close we can really get to it. We wanted to create something where we felt we could push the boundaries of dance film where we could try different techniques, where we could work with the dancers and give them a chance to have a voice within the creative process. And so Avoidance is about that friction where two people don't know what they're looking for, but they're in that same place together. Two people trying to find something to help them move forward, but not being able to connect in that moment.

I related it to when I lost my mom, when I was 25 years old, to breast cancer. That was a moment for me where I saw that she was battling not knowing how to accept death, when that moment came when she was going to pass. I think she was fighting because she didn't want to feel like she was abandoning her kids. So she was holding on for fear of us being able to be on our own. And it wasn't until a couple of weeks into that process when she was home in hospice care that we had some moments together where I finally told her, "Mom, it's okay." And that piece, I feel to some degree, with me and my other siblings, they had their own interactions with her, I think it was that missing piece that she needed in order to let herself go.

And so I feel that for me that's where my process for Avoidance started, was in that moment we were both trying to find happiness and peace, but didn't know what the right way to do that was. How do you tell your mom it's okay to die? How do you accept that you won't be there for your son? It's something that doesn't have a right answer. That's the experience I hope to tap into with this dynamic. The tricky part with that is you only have a fraction of a second where you have that exchange. It's an instant where suddenly it changes. But what was really important to me, which kind of separates Avoidance from other projects that I've done, is, well, let's backtrack a little bit...My belief as a choreographer is that my voice is only one piece of the equation, and in order for the work to find it's full form, it needs input from and a connection to the dancers who are involved in that work, or with the director who's crafting the film.

While this was my story that this was developing off of, we spent a lot of time with the dancers, Jennifer Stahl of San Francisco Ballet and James Gilmer of ODC, and our director Matt McKee, and our costume designer Susan Roemer, talking about our individual stories that related to that type of emotional line, to that type of experience. And so we all sort of put our own pieces of our life stories together to that moment, and the brilliant, uh, sort of toy, that you get out of film production is that you don't have to create it all from a linear perspective, but you can build all this material that has the same inspiration. And then you can go into post-production and start manipulating the order and the fragments of it to create a new story. That's where we are right now, pulling together those pieces into the story that will result in the film.

MP: How are you using projection and film in Sketch 9?

Ben: For me, for the projection work in Sketch 9, what I'm looking to do now is I want to develop a work that has a storyline that, in the face value of what you see from the dancers live is not complete. There's something that's missing. And the integration of film will actually be comments that were recorded in the rehearsal process that cast a new light on what you're seeing on stage. It's my hope that by offering this other perspective on what these dancers are performing that you can actually pick up on different communication skills and different interactions to have, uh, more human emotions that are exposed in the relationships that come out of it.

MP: Is it typical of a lot of choreographers to include the dancers in creating a work?

Ben: I don't think I'm necessarily unusual. I think every choreographer has their own process, and I've definitely been influenced by my mentors, for sure. Amy Seiwert is a huge mentor of mine, as are Val Caniparoli. I worked very closely with Adam Hoagland for a long time, and Trey McIntyre recently has been a force that I've been very connected with. And working with dance makers of that caliber, I know that I've been influenced by their process and by their work. I like to take my experience as a dancer within their pieces and try to use that to inform my choreographic process. So, I think that a lot of my approach is informed by what they offered me as creatives themselves, and I think that where I differ is that I make a new combination of those influences coming together in one form.

MP: Amy Seiwert has said she asks choreographers to self-identify a risk before going into the studio to work on Sketch. What is your risk?

Ben: My initial risk was that I was going to try to bite off way more than I thought I could chew (laughs). That was my initial one, but for a lot of reasons that's now changed. My risk—I've never really worked with projection before. My risk is that I get very cerebral when I'm processing information, and sometimes choreographers have a tendency to get too cerebral and forget about the conversation with the audience. So my risk in this process is because I have put a lot of thought into the narrative that I want to articulate, is making sure that while I am developing the narrative for a performance I don't get so far down the rabbit hole that the audience doesn't know where I've gone. I want to make sure that it's still a personal journey that they can follow, that they can feel that they are experiencing it with some relative form that can relate to in their life.

MP: That sounds like a tall order.

Ben: Yeah. It's tricky. I think that with everything we experience in life we can break it down to the emotions that we felt and the influence that they had on us, regardless of the particulars of what that instance was. For example, getting back to when I lost my mom, that for me was the biggest loss I ever felt. It was transformative, and it totally changed the trajectory of my life. But, I have many friends who didn't lose their mom, but they had some other moment in their life when they faced something that they thought was insurmountable or they felt that their world crashed and they had to rebuild. And in that, I think there's a lot to be said for tapping into that emotional line and knowing what emotions are guiding the piece rather than it being guided by the specifics of what the story is. And if you strip back those specifics and let the emotions be the guiding force, people will start to interject their own understanding of what that is.

I created a work when I was in Louisville Ballet that was for me about one of my close friends who as a kid developed anorexia. I choreographed with that story in mind, and when we had an audience Q & A afterwards, somebody else saw it as this girl was battling with sexuality. Someone else saw it as she'd had a fight with her best friend. And somebody else did see it as anorexia. So there were all these different narratives that were unfolding, but they all made sense within the emotional progression that happened in the work.

MP: That sounds like some reviews I read.

Ben: Yeah. And that's the beauty of art. People can watch the same thing, but they don't have to agree on whether it was good, bad, whether it moved them or not, or what the story line was necessarily. They can take whatever they choose within a piece, but art is beautiful in that it allows differentiating opinions. It allows people to share their differences and see another perspective on what it is that they're experiencing.

MP: San Francisco Ballet has their Unbound performances where different choreographers contribute their original works. How is Sketch different from SFB's Unbound?

Ben: So, part of the difference between Sketch and Unbound is the magnitude of choreographing for San Francisco Ballet. That is such a huge platform, such a huge stage, that even though Unbound was designed in a way to help those choreographers create new works meant to push the boundaries of dance, it is still a production that is on one of the biggest stages in the country. It is with one of the best companies in the world. So the risk inherent in that for a choreographer, if they are putting something on a company of that magnitude, and it's not something that they think will succeed, they are probably more likely to pull back and do what they know is going to be successful. I'm not saying that's what happens with those choreographers; I know a lot of those choreographers and we've worked with them at Smuin. They're amazing, and I think they've made some incredible works. But Sketch, because it is a more intimate audience, because it is something designed not for the finished product but for the process itself, I think that Sketch is much more conducive to experimentation. So one of the choreographers, one of the big ones who's worked with us a lot, Val Caniporoli, he's now done two different Sketch programs. He's one of the most performed choreographers in the world, and Val has said that having the opportunity to choreograph for the Sketch program changed the way he viewed his process because he was so supported to just take a risk and try something he wouldn't do with San Francisco Ballet, or another company, and see what was possible.

MP: How can you avoid being ordinary or generic and yet relate to everyone?

Ben: Well, that's one of, I think, the biggest challenges in being an artist in a public platform is I have been most inspired, personally, by artists who are very genuine and who are creating what is inspiring for them and they are very honest about how they've been moved and how they represent that for the public to consume. I think that it's complicated, though, because oftentimes in a public platform, like professional ballet or contemporary ballet, you know that your work is going to be received by a public who might have a different taste. So there's that balance between being true to your voice but also making sure that if you're communicating with an audience, their lived experience might receive communication differently than you speak it. It's a very individual balance, how that's going to play out within the creative process.

Some choreographers do focus very much on how they think an audience will receive it, and there are other choreographers who totally disregard the public perception and they just do what they want. I think that there's value in both of those. For myself, I have felt most proud of my work when it's been very personal and when it's been very honest. But I know I do have a tendency of thinking too much about the audience perception, and sometimes I think that takes away from the potential for my work to develop a true voice. It's a balance I'm still trying to navigate as a young choreographer, but people I've seen do that very well are people like Amy Seiwert, Val Caniparoli, Trey McIntyre. They have a very strong voice that understands how to communicate with an audience, but they know how to do it from a place that is genuine and true. I think that's why I've been so inspired by working with them so much.

MP: Is there anything that you would like people to know about Sketch and what you're doing?

Ben: Sketch truly is a unique opportunity to see a group of artists who are generously striving for others' success. There are many companies where they produce a show and they're like 'Oh yeah. This is our gig. We're gonna do that.' But that's not the case with Sketch. In Sketch everyone who comes into that equation is someone who wants to grow, to push, to become something more. And so I think that audiences who have come to Sketch feel very moved and inspired by that process because of how generous these artists are with each other. And they are truly seeing something that has elevated the entire collective. I would encourage people to come to see Sketch in order to feel that energy and see what that's really like in person. And it's having that access to seeing it face-to-face that I think will help the next generation understand how valuable dance is as something that can improve our understanding of one another.

Amy Seiwert's Imagery will perform Sketch 9: Perspective at ODC Theater from July 17-20. The premiere screening of the dance film Avoidance will be at the Amy Seiwert's Imagery gala held at Salesforce East on May 28.