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A Choreographer Finds American Poetry in Central Asia

Date: Sep 28, 2015

Inside Séan Curran's latest work at BAM


In the spring of 2012, choreographer Séan Curran and a slew of his dancers traveled to central Asia to visit the Kyrgyz Republic. As art ambassadors of Brooklyn Academy of Music's DanceMotion USA initiative, the modern dance troupe crisscrossed the country, seeing performances and meeting artists. Though far from his Irish roots, when Curran heard the pulsing music performed by Ustatshakirt Plus ensemble, he felt uncannily connected to their iteration of folk music.

"I was at once struck by how alien and yet how familiar the music was," says the NYC-based choreographer. "It's paradoxical, considering there were instruments we'd never even seen. But folk art spans the world, and from the Irish jig to the dances and music in Kyrgyz, it connects us."

During the jittery van ride afterward, Curran found it difficult to silence the entrancing beat of the music in his mind. So he returned to meet composer Nurlanbek Nyshanov. While he hoped to ignite a future collaboration, he wasn't expecting a story that would bring his artistic exploration right back to America.

"When I met Nurlanbek, he asked what narrative we would tell in a piece; he didn't understand the idea that you could make a dance about dancing – abstraction," Curran remembers. "Since he wasn't fully buying it, I asked him to play the piece of music I loved most. Then I asked him what it was called, and he explained it was titled Dream, inspired by a poem by Walt Whitman, his favorite American poet. The piece quickly took shape: I offered that the dance would deal with dream logic and a journey. Like the Italian proverb says, 'The world is my hometown.' That's the journey."

That serendipitous and unlikely blend of modern dance, international folk music, and American poetry takes center stage at BAM (where Curran made his performance debut in 1984) in Dream'd in a Dreamplaying as part of the Next Wave Festival from October 7 to 10.


And while a trip across the world might seem adventure enough, the process of creating the work has taken Curran on an odyssey, too. When he returned to New York, he started choreographing movement as he normally would, building phrases and using memories from the trip as fodder. But because of the loose narrative the poem provided, he found himself working in unfamiliar territory, layering the "traveler and tribe" story idea on top of his abstract dance.

"I mostly want to share ideas and push my dancers forward," Curran says. "Even so, I had a hard time deciding if I'd be in this piece or not" He ultimately opted not to appear on stage this time, explaining, "I could have been the leader in this piece's tribe, but it's not about that. It's about the tribe. The tribe is the leader, and I saw that I'm at the part of my journey where I can honor that. Like Hillary said: 'It takes a village.' But it's also about a village."

To that end, in Dream'd the audience chugs along with the dancers as they traverse the figurative landscape as a communal tribe, swooping together in duets, solos, and group sections. In one group phrase, the dancers emerge like an elegant flock of geese, moving in a gentle V, landing in a corner as a strong whole. In another, as performers stream on and offstage, their intricate, calligraphic hand and body gestures are reminiscent of a wide swath of cultures, recalling everything from Egyptian hieroglyphics to the shapes of classical Indian dance.

Within the 12 sections, Curran allowed himself space to solve the equations he finds most interesting as a choreographer, narrative or not. "During the section with my three women – goddesses or perhaps mothers and sister from the mountains – I was working on accumulating in a diagonal, imposing on the dancer who is in the middle," he says. "I'm very interested in craft, so that's when my postmodern toolbox comes in. The limitation of how you can solve the problem of the diagonal fosters creativity, so that in the end, I get a rigorous, formal design, while the dancers add flowing movement. Then I layer the narrative. I'm responding to the country of great natural beauty, the poem, the feeling of traveling – all at once. In that way, the dance – narrative and abstraction together – is not something you make. It's something you find."


TDF Members: We're currently offering discounted tickets to this show (listed under BAM Next Wave Dance presents: Dream'd in a Dream). Log in here to see all our currently available performances.

Lauren Kay regularly covers dance for TDF Stages. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photos by David Samuel Stern. Top photo: Séan Curran (center) and dancers in "Dream'd in a Dream."