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Larry Keigwin joins other major choreographers to change the rules
In modern dance, it's been a tradition for many decades: a choreographer launches a company bearing his or her name, and audiences come to see a program of that person's works. Merce Cunningham's company existed to perform the brilliant, groundbreaking pieces that he produced until his death at age 90 – and then it dissolved, having lost its raison d'ètre.
Similarly, Martha Graham's troupe was definitively about that great lady's dramatic, probing movement explorations, up until her death in 1991. It was only when it confronted life without Martha that the company started presenting dances by others.
Alvin Ailey – an exception – made his modern-dance troupe a repertory venture quite early on, including the works of his colleagues and contemporaries, and eventually those by members of the next generation. But with most companies, the name on the program cover has been the one whose dances people expect to see on the stage.
Recently and rather suddenly, however, the single-choreographer model has become less sacrosanct. The most high-profile break with this tradition came last year, when Paul Taylor announced plans to present landmark works from modern dance's earlier years, and to commission new dances by contemporary choreographers. Just like that, the 16 incredible movers known as "Taylor dancers," who inhabited his style and vocabulary so completely and eloquently, would be showcased in different and unexpected ways.
Now in his 80s, Taylor is putting his enterprise on this new footing with an eye toward its long-term future. But two other younger choreographers have also announced a new direction for their companies, opening up the repertory to include other names.
Stephen Petronio Company launched Bloodlines, a project that has his dancers performing "works by choreographers who have inspired Petronio as a dance maker and with whom he has a strong connection." The initial result was seen earlier this year, when his troupe performed Cunningham's Rainforest. Next up will be Trisha Brown's Glacial Decoy.
Larry Keigwin, whose company performs at the Joyce Theater next week, is also taking his 12-year-old venture in a new direction, becoming its curator as well as its choreographer. The Joyce programs will include premieres by two emerging choreographers he selected to share his stage. Both Loni Landon and Adam Barruch have been in residence with Keigwin + Company, receiving rehearsal space with the dancers, support for original commissioned scores, and mentoring from Keigwin.
In an intriguing twist, Keigwin, 43, is also on the receiving end of this new trend – he (along with Doug Elkins) was chosen by Paul Taylor for its first season of commissions. Its March season at Lincoln Center will include a work Keigwin is choreographing on the entire company, So while he has been offering his largesse to two younger freelancers, he himself has the opportunity to create on a more expansive and prominent scale than ever before.
Known for works that often allude to the club scene and vividly reflect current fashion and cultural obsessions, Keigwin is obviously well-positioned to discuss this new trend. Asked about his reasons for commissioning Barruch and Landon, he says, "It felt like a natural evolution – inviting others in. Sometimes I enjoy going to a program that is mixed, that has a lot of variety. It's a way to keep things fresh. For me, it's still very much an experiment. – and for the dancers too. They need experiences to mature, and it's invigorating for them, to work with a different process."
He'd been very impressed by Landon's work last year when they both had premieres in Juilliard's annual New Dances program. "The pure physicality is so refreshing. And I thought she actually had something to say. She has a great use of the group, while also highlighting the individuals. I thought it was physically challenging – and poetically it was saying something."
Keigwin took note of Barruch's work when he encountered it at the Bates Dance Festival. "It was so fluid, and he's got a luxurious use of port de bras that I found captivating – and foreign for me, because I don't really focus a lot on the arms! I thought he was a great craftsman, and witty."
The invitation to be part of Keigwin's Joyce program gave Landon, a busy freelancer whose work has turned up in a variety of venues around the city, a chance to further her collaboration with composer Jerome Begin. "His music creates another layer and possibility of something new that I maybe wouldn't have thought about on my own," she says. "His music pushes me to make different choices. I'm so grateful for the opportunity."
Keigwin fans will still find plenty of his own choreography at the Joyce. He'll be dancing a three-part solo set to Peggy Lee songs – the first solo he's made in a decade. His seven dancers will also perform Sidewalk, his smart, sophisticated blend of pedestrian and athletic movement, set to Steve Reich's shimmering Double Sextet. They'll be joined by eight guest dancers for the company premiere of Exit Like an Animal, the playful, surging piece he created for Juilliard last year.
While preparing his own season, Keigwin has also been busy at the Taylor company's studios, where he's the invited one. His premiere to a score by Adam Crystal is inspired by New York City's grid patterns and resonates with its energy and hectic pace. "I wanted to tap into the effort it takes to get through the day – just the recognition that can be a struggle," he says.
He learned of his Taylor commission in unexpected phone call; he had no way of knowing he was being considered. "It's like being given a bigger canvas – and larger brushstrokes, and richer paint," he says. Interestingly, he uses a visual art analogy when discussing his own decision to reach out to other choreographers: "I have a company, and you can look at it similarly to art collection: you want to have not just one artist on the wall, but a gallery of fascinating artists."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, we are offering discounted tickets to the Keigwin + Company performance at the Joyce. Go here to browse all our offers for dance, theatre, and concerts.
Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages.
Photos by Matthew Murphy. Top photo: Benjamin Freedman and Kacie Boblitt.