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.