SFDanceworks Choreographer's Debut Portrays Moving Personal Story

06/13/2019

Dancer Brett Conway is making his choreographic debut this month with the world premiere of his work The Bedroom with SFDanceworks. In January Brett performed a solo work-in-progress version of his new work at Dance Mission Theater. His career includes dancing with Alonzo King's LINES Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater 1. Currently he is a freelance artist, dances with San Francisco Opera, and is on the faculty of the LINES Ballet Educational Programs. Brett talked with Michael Phelan of BayDance.com about the inspiration and meaning of The Bedroom.

Laura O'Malley and Babatunji rehearse The Bedroom to the direction of choreographer Brett Conway. Photo by Michael Phelan
Laura O'Malley and Babatunji rehearse The Bedroom to the direction of choreographer Brett Conway. Photo by Michael Phelan

MP: Where did you get the idea, the inspiration, for The Bedroom?

Brett: It was inspired by the experience I had when my father was ill with cancer. I went home-I was living in the Netherlands at the time-and he was nearing the end of his battle. The doctors suggested I come home and help take care of him with my mother. My parents still lived in my old childhood home at the time. My mom and I took shifts looking over him at night. So it's a tribute to my father for being the most loving, supportive father I could probably have. The inspiration for the piece takes place in that moment in the middle of the night, reflecting on all the memories from childhood, growing up in that room, and everything I'd gone through up until that point and how we got there. I was always a dreamer and wondering what life would be like outside of these walls and outside of Indiana, and where would dance take me. I think there are definite, significant moments that we all hold, that take place for us, in our bedroom, and I'm taking those sacred, personal moments to the stage.

Brett Conway photo courtesy of SFDanceworks
Brett Conway photo courtesy of SFDanceworks

MP: A universal theme, expressed personally. A few months ago I talked with a choreographer who created a work based on the loss of his mother to cancer.

Brett: As I'm getting into choreography I think story is really important, and inspiration. I haven't been inspired to do something for pure movement's sake. I feel like I really wanted to have the driving force of a story, and bringing these little narratives, and expanding the piece. There's a section that's based on an intimate moment of looking over a loved one who's on their deathbed. But then other, intimate situations and relationships when you're young, when you're dreaming of what possible lifes could be, dreams in general. In the protection of your own room, in private, you can feel that you can completely be your whole self there and not hold anything back. I'm sharing what's within our own human nature, and what we value, and putting that on stage.

MP: What music are you using?

Brett: In the first rendition of The Bedroom, back in January, I used music by composer Ezio Bosso. This time I'm using tracks by Sufjan Stevens, a track by Keynvor, and Luke Howard. And I'm still debating if I can get a small, transitional section in. The time left to rehearse is very limited.

MP: Besides Alonzo King, you must have been influenced by some of the choreographers at Nederlands Dance Theatre, like Jiří Kylián or Mats Ek.

Brett: Of course. Mats Ek is very interesting. I feel like his work is very theatrical. Doing his Sleeping Beauty was really inspiring just to see a classic story kind of turned in a different way, and how to story-tell through this iconic physical language he's developed over time. I'm exploring theater right now. I take classes at ACT, and I'm dabbling in a lot of different things. Now I have time to explore other avenues and see how they can feed whatever work I decide to do. Mats Ek was very inspiring to work with. Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon, I did a lot of their work in the Netherlands. I think all three of them have theatrical, high production value that really spoke to me.

MP: Do you think The Bedroom was influenced by them in terms of how people interact?

Brett: I think it's more relating to the human experience, relationships with people. We've all been young once. We've all had a curiosity about what we want to do with our lives, where we want to go with it. I feel like I'm trying to touch the spectrum of life with that sort of young, imaginative phase of dreams and aspirations, and of developing relationships into maybe ending relationships and then tackling death as well. We all experience these for the most part.

MP: Lightfoot and Leon have said they always knew they wanted to be choreographers. Have you always wanted to choreograph?

Brett: I remember, as a child, hearing a piece of music, and then I'd go to my room and dance around to it and sort of create stories in my head. And the innocence of doing that is part of the inspiration for The Bedroom. I dabbled a little bit in choreography in high school. And I thought I could see myself pursuing this, but I wanted to also have a career as a dancer, to do the dancing bit first. I felt that I had more to learn and experience before contributing my voice. This is the very early stages of that.

MP: Who are the dancers in The Bedroom? Did you have a choice of dancers?

Brett: Laura O'Malley, Babatunji, Dennis Adams-Zivolich, and Katerina Eng. Because of my other, outside commitments I needed to choose dancers who are local and do some work before the season started. But if I'd been assigned dancers, I would've just made it work. As a choreographer you have a vision, but you also need to make it work with who you have in the room and try to bring part of them to the work. That's my hope, that it's not just me telling them what to do and how to do it, but that it opens up a platform for them to bring a part of themselves to the work, so that they really embody it. My hope is to make a collection of stories that could be of individuals or they could all be just one person. I think it's open to interpretation. In a way we are all connected and one, or if you want to look at it like isolated, separate situations, it can also be read that way as well.

MP: Other choreographers have told me the same sort of thing. It's like different reviewers having different interpretations.

Brett: It's so subjective. It's like you go to a museum and you view an artwork, and what you think and feel can be totally different from the person next to you. That's what's really beautiful about it. In some works I find myself more taken with two bodies that are really connected and have a sort of comfortable awareness and sense of one another and really trust one another. They don't have to be doing something that's impressive or technically hard, it's just that connection between two people. And then there's also, as a dancer, to watch dance that's technically challenging, executed so well, that it's thrilling. When you get the combination of both, that's magic.

MP: You said it's open to interpretation, but do you have in mind what roles each of the four dancers has?

Brett: The sequences are driven by dreams of a young child wondering what life will bring. That's one concept. The development of love, whether toward a family member, a friend, a lover, when you first start to develop feelings for someone, that's another theme. The next theme is the end of a relationship. Some relationships don't work out, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but the acceptance of moving on. It could be the loss of anything, not necessarily a lover relationship. The last one is dealing with death, the love you have for someone and then losing it, inspired by my relationship with my father. On top of that there's an original poem, that's going to be part of the piece, written by a local playwright, Christina Garcia. I feel it could really be a blanket for all of the stories, all the themes and ideas that I'm playing with. There are moments when you'll just hear the words and listen, and that can bring the focus of the mind into what the piece is trying to say.

MP: Who will read the poem?

Brett: It's a recording. It's me telling a story. We'll see how it all comes together.