After a program of Doug Elkins' works last Saturday, I moderated a post-performance talk with him. This was part of the high-powered Peak Performances series at Montclair State University in New Jersey, in which Doug premiered a film and a new dance and reprised his popular Mo(or)town/Redux. Students from MSU as well as Rutgers, where Doug teaches, were in the new piece, O, round desire.
Doug is a wild one to interview because his mind races all over the place. But he's also terrifically entertaining, so I had the feeling the audience was hanging on his every word—and every impromptu sound effect. Here are a few of his scintillating remarks, lacking exactness due to the fallibility of my memory:
Artistry isn’t something you can build simply by showing up at the barre every morning. It’s a mysterious, elusive quality, one of the most difficult to master in dance. And yet it’s the ultimate goal of every dancer. So, how do you get it?
As we put together our first Artistry Issue, I reached out to a friend, Batsheva’s supremely quirky Ian Robinson. He’s the kind of dancer who disappears into roles as though he’s traveled to another world. I wanted to know how he does it—where does his artistry come from? “I think it has to do with being mindful about the way you see the world,” he told me. “Mindful about experiences, or habits, or weaknesses—and how you combine all that into your craft.” He thinks of his creativity like a muscle, and strengthens it by seeking out other kinds of art, by stepping outside, by paying attention to the idiosyncrasies of the people around him.
Photo: “Sometimes my approach to choreographing is like, ‘Mark, come in at the wrong time.’ ” —Doug Elkins. Deborah Lohse, Kyle Marshall and Mark Gindick rehearse Doug Elkins’ Hapless Bizarre.
Every dancer has to find their own way of working their creativity muscle. Throughout this issue, we asked a number of dance artists to share their tactics. For choreographer Doug Elkins, it’s about staying open to mistakes, seeing where “the mess-ups” might lead. In our “In Training” column, Helen Pickett talks about teaching students to dance in silence to help them dig deeper inside themselves for inspiration.
Ironically, the dancers who often have the biggest challenges developing their artistry are the ones who’ve earned acclaim for their preternatural abilities from the time they were students. Our cover story profiles one of the latest, Catherine Hurlin, who’s just joined American Ballet Theatre as an apprentice. The 18-year-old prodigy seems to have been born with charisma and stage presence. But how will she deepen her artistry now that she’s a professional? Naturally, we turned to former ABT prodigy Paloma Herrera, among others, for her advice: “It has to come from within yourself. You want to keep growing. You have to really love what you do and always want to make it better. I’m always happy to be on the stage and working. That fulfills my soul.”
Editor in Chief
Photos from top: Kyle Froman; Nathan Sayers
All photos by Kyle Froman
Above: Elkins demonstrates a step. Here: Mark Gindick and Cori Marquis work on a phrase
It’s been a while since Doug Elkins has made a dance without a big story to guide him. In 2006, he affectionately spoofed The Sound of Music with his popular Fräulein Maria, which toured 17 cities over three years. In Mo(or)town/Redux (2012), he used Shakespeare’s Othello as a framework for risky partnering and steps inspired by his b-boying past.
His latest work, Hapless Bizarre, maintains his signature wit—made goofier by new collaborator Mark Gindick, a visitor from the world of clowning and physical comedy—but forgoes any predetermined storyline. At a rehearsal at DANY Studios in New York City, prior to the piece’s February premiere, five of his dancers played around with new material as Elkins nudged the dance in different directions. Siobhan Burke spoke with him after.
What were you working on today?
Transitions. Right now we’re tying loose ends together. If something’s ambiguous, should it stay ambiguous? I don’t necessarily feel the need to resolve everything.
Do you choreograph with a story in mind? It seems like there are a lot of little narratives happening at the same time.
I’m not looking for a linear narrative, but I’m looking at things accumulating, and you build meaning out of that. More of a collage than anything. There are definitely a lot of little stories and premises that bang into each other. Watching those things happen, watching them connect or fail to connect, is interesting for me. Part of the structure is its own failure. That sounds a little esoteric, but the missed opportunities are just as important as when connections are made.
Left top: Kyle Marshall with Mark Gindick. Bottom: Marshall with Deborah Lohse.
What’s an example of that?
Like, someone going to do something and doing it poorly—which isn’t really poorly, it’s just the failure has a different quality.
What are you exploring in this piece that’s new for you?
Well, integrating a range of people. But I tend to always be interested in playing with everyone’s collective corporeality—their movement languages and ideas—and how that either synthesizes or fails to in rehearsal. It’s interesting watching Mark, who’s not a “dancer.” After a while, I don’t even think that’s a special feature. He just becomes part of the community, and he brings his movement palette with him, or a new palette is made out of everyone’s abilities.
But do I feel it’s new? I feel it’s developing in a different way. Part of me wants to satisfy you by saying what I think this piece is about, but I have no real idea yet. That’s fascinating for me, too, because with my last two works, I knew what the vessel of the ideas was. Watching these narratives appear and fade into smoke—it’s more abstract than anything I’ve done in a while.
How do you approach making the actual movement?
If you and I and Mark were making a work, we’d get in a room and just start asking, “What interests you in terms of moving? All right. Teach me a phrase of yours so I can learn the DNA of it. Wow, you like to lead with the joints a lot. You like to spiral forward before you go back.” Or sometimes I ask the dancers to build a phrase with me. “Can you retrograde it in the middle? Now can you use the phrase to go under me when I go up and around? Can our dances dance together?”
You’re known for combining different movement languages very fluidly, like Scottish dance and voguing, or break dancing and Graham technique. What are you working with this time?
New vaudeville. Strange snippets of odd musicals. Cinematic ideas, from silent comedians like Keaton, Chaplin, a French filmmaker named Jacques Tati. And Jackie Chan.
What do you look for in a dancer?
People who are willing to play seriously. Deep play. People who have a very strong tolerance for uncertainty. Like, “Hmmm, I don’t know if that’s right. Hmmm, that looks pretty. But do we want it to be pretty? Pretty’s just one choice.” Sometimes my approach is like, “Mark, come in at the wrong time. Come in after you’re supposed to come in. Amusing. Let’s try that a few more times."
For Hapless Bizarre tour dates, see dougelkinschoreography.com.
Above, clockwise from left: Gindick and Lohse. John Sorensen-Jolink and Cori Marquis. Elkins watches a scene come together.