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Laura O’Malley, Evan McKie, Friedemann Vogel, and Diana Martinez Morales in EDEN/EDEN by Wayne McGregor. © Stuttgart Ballet.
The fearless Stuttgart ballerina Marcia Haydée once said, “A dancer is only as good as the choreographers they have the chance to work with.” John Cranko, the Stuttgart Ballet’s founder (who died in 1973), introduced Haydée and a myriad of other dancers to the world with his exceptional choreography. He also fostered an atmosphere where other choreographers were nurtured to do the same. At different times in the past, William Forsythe, Jirí Kylián, John Neumeier and the late Uwe Scholz have surfaced from these waters, gushing with creativity.
This tradition continues today under the current director Reid Anderson. Some choreographers come from outside the company, and others reach out from their own turf to deliver their contributions to the world. Either way, I never take for granted the chance to work with someone who wants to actualize the imagery that’s in their mind.
My experiences at the Stuttgart Ballet are giving me new scope to move and act onstage in ways I hadn’t thought I could. I’ve started to discover the layers of who I am as an individual dancer, and I love to watch some of my friends do the same. Wayne McGregor, Marco Goecke, and Kevin O’Day are three of the choreographers who have helped me see things that I hadn’t before.
The first time I met Wayne McGregor I couldn’t help but be fascinated by him. It was my first year in the corps, and I wasn’t sure I’d have a chance to work with the hyperactive choreographer I’d read so much about. But he auditioned every single dancer in the company, looking for youthful dynamism. He enforced an exact discipline within 10 seconds at our first rehearsal. He’d show a long, precise sequence and then have you interpret it immediately. Break-dancing with static popping and locking meets the high-speed intensity of J-setting à la Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”
And that’s just the beginning of work that goes far beyond the confines of most choreographers’ phraseology. His lack of classical ballet knowledge means that he’ll show movements without naming any steps. It’s all very intricate but the lack of body memory doing tendu here, allongé there, makes his work unexplored territory for a ballet dancer’s brain. He can wedge a triple fouetté in without you even realizing that it is a ballet step.
Most of his pieces are driven by debates in the science world that would pique anyone’s interest. His piece for the Stuttgart Ballet (and later danced in San Francisco) called EDEN/EDEN addressed the future of copying DNA fragments (a.k.a. cloning). His currently touring work Entity is based on, in his own words, “gaining a deeper understanding of the cognitive tool-kit of dance-making.” Dancers who love narrative works can also indulge in the different meanings that create the bold tone of McGregor’s style. The way Wayne pushes dancers to physical and mental extremes stimulates self-reflection that is different for each person. I started to become interested in what coordination between brain and body is really about and how dancing with “your heart” has a surprisingly mathematical side. Wayne uses the word “proprioception,” meaning how each person perceives their inner selves while moving. This sort of inquiry sets a special mood. We are brought together by the steps and themes of each of his ballets but are now much more aware of how differently we all feel while dancing. Audiences get a glimpse of each dancer’s reaction to this process in addition to the intense choreographic language itself.
Marco Goecke is another breed of choreographer altogether. In fact I think he might be his own species. He grew up watching Pina Bausch in Wuppertal, and perhaps this is what initially sparked the Goecke fire that now burns across stages around the world. I started working with Marco in 2001 on what would become his hugely successful piece Blushing. I have never had a boring rehearsal with him. Marco gives a tremendous amount of leeway to his dancers. We seem to be the frenzied flames that flicker up from the many layers of choreography that are as dark as the blackest charcoal. The result is a cloud of smoky mystery that bewitches audiences.
Goecke comes into the studio and asks a dancer to embody an idea or their own personal image of something. He gives steps quirky names like “schnap-schnap” or “boofta” that one of my colleagues had to yell onstage while aggressively stomping! In a piece called SweetSweetSweet I had to shuffle backwards topless, pushing my stomach out as far as it could go while making “little boy playing with trucks”-type noises. His vocabulary is obscure, dry, and very witty. His musical choices range from Keith Jarrett to Mahalia Jackson to Tchaikovsky. He is calm but his work can be brilliantly chaotic for the eye. Each dancer is forced to reveal their innermost self while being unified by the context of each piece.
Kevin O’Day has a far more laid-back approach. Maybe this is because he has seen so much as a dancer for ABT, New York City Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet, White Oak and of course, Twyla Tharp. He has created more than 40 works and always seems to be having fun. Last season, he decided to tackle full-length storytelling in Hamlet for Stuttgart. I love his upbeat, positive, and persistent energy. He doesn’t stop discussing until he sees that something has clicked with that dancer. His steps have a certain O’Day fluidity, and he is not afraid to get really physical. In a rehearsal where I was particularly uncoordinated, he ran up onstage, smiling as he leapt through the air and landed in a sort of dive and roll. His cell phone and glasses went flying, but he didn’t seem to care.
With Hamlet, Kevin gave me more freedom than I could have hoped for. I had always dreamt of doing this role and was nervous that my strong notions of the character might stray from what O’Day wanted. Even though he made it clear that he was open to bold differences in portrayal, I still felt almost guilty as I added drastically different inflections to certain places. Many choreographers would be afraid to give a dancer this privilege, but Kevin was incredibly open and supportive. This allows his ballets to have new amplitude and reach an even broader audience. I received an unexpected promotion after dancing the role, and I can honestly say that I would not have achieved this honor if Kevin had not been so open-minded.
Dancers vary in what they can take from and give to a choreographer. Some crave a physical thrill; others yearn to portray characters. A few become involved in a muse-like relationship that lasts years; others challenge themselves with an array of different dancemakers. I feel like a better dancer when I am given the liberty to trust my gut while simultaneously finding new ways to fulfill the choreographer’s fantasy. Each performance I become even more grateful for the chances to get to know McGregor, Goecke and O’Day. I haven’t a clue what kind of reservoir I have inside me until I am in a creatively charged situation. It still kind of baffles me how realizing another artist’s concepts often allows us to detect new things about ourselves. So to these three passionate choreographers I say, Thank you!
Evan McKie wrote a “Why I Dance” in the November 2008 issue.
Inset: Marco Goecke’s SweetSweetSweet: “brilliantly chaotic,” here with McKie. © Stuttgart Ballet