Archaeological Digging with Charlie Hodges

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Written by Anna Waller

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Pablo Piantino in Twyla Tharp’s Fugue
Photo by Steve Korn

Resetting a dance is no light work, especially when that dance originated in the body and brain of Twyla Tharp. But Charlie Hodges, a ten-year veteran of Tharp’s company and a University of Washington alum, tackles the challenge of resetting her 1970 work, The Fugue, with vigor. “I was just looking at this black and white, grainy footage, so blurry, of just chaos,” he recalled about the first time he set the work a few years ago. But from that chaos, Hodges inevitably coaxes the clarity and complexity so key to the Tharp repertoire. This summer he brought his skills as a repetiteur to UW’s Chamber Dance Company, who will perform The Fugue as part of their October 10-13 concert, In Gender.

Seattle is getting quite a slice of Twyla this fall. In addition to Hodges’ work with CDC, Tharp is currently an Artist-in-Residence at Pacific Northwest Ballet, where she is setting a world premiere, Waiting at the Station, for PNB’s season opener, AIR Twyla. In performing The Fugue, CDC will present the oldest of Tharp’s dances to be seen in Seattle this fall. Dating from 1970, The Fugue features three dancers in hard-soled dance shoes, whose footfalls create a rich rhythmic structure against the silence. Each performer dances their pattern so the voices layer on top of each other, as in a fugue.

Currently, Hodges doubles as a dancer and the Rehearsal Director for Benjamin Millepied’s Los Angeles Dance Project (LADP), but he also does stints with companies nationally and internationally, setting works by Tharp and Millepied, as well as Amy Seiwert of San Francisco’s Imagery and Dwight Rhoden of Complexions Contemporary Ballet. He spent ten years with Tharp, danced on Broadway, and toured around the world. Before that, he danced four years with the Sacramento Ballet, and has since guested with many other companies. His list of experiences is long and diverse. All of which is fitting for a man whose goal as a dancer is “to become the most efficient tool for any creator” and encourages other dancers “to want to be the best in the room at everything.” For Hodges, “everything” has also included a non-dance education during a break from the often frustrating world of professional dance. While his UW degree says dance (and lists some honors), he graduated the school with an education in architecture, and is currently deferring his masters studies at Pratt in their Industrial Design program.

Hodges’ intellectual side shines through when speaking with him. He talks about dance in the same way he talks about everything: carefully, precisely, and with insight. One gets the sense that his brain is always working at several things simultaneously, always problem solving, always asking, how can I make this better? How can I make this more efficient? This is to everyone’s benefit when he works as a repetiteur—he understands his role as a messenger from the original choreographer, and asks questions about every aspect of the dance.

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Dancer and repetiteur Charlie Hodges

“My first responsibility is always to the choreographer and their vision for the piece,” says Hodges. To return to the grainy video from 1970: “I’d be watching the video and have to decide [if] that dancer [was] doing the choreography exactly as Twyla wanted.” For each question, he asks, “Is it the choreography, is it the limitation of the performance, or is it the limitation of the dancer” that makes the choreography appear a certain way? He likens the process to an archaeological dig, asking questions and stripping away layers to get to a “skeleton” that you dress up with new dancers in a particular time and place.

It’s not only the excavated movement that new dancers must take on. For The Fugue, each of the three dancers has a part to play, a character, that comes directly from Tharp, Sara Rudner, and Rose Marie Wright, the original performers of the piece. Hodges cites an understanding of these originators as key. He tells his dancers to “understand who Twyla is when she gets cheeky in the choreography and sets up these moments that allow her to play with Sara and Rose.” At the same time, he says it would be pointless to expect CDC to perform the same piece from 1970. It’s a new iteration, so “maybe some other character in the cast is actually the feisty one, and it gives it a different twist”—a sort of letter versus spirit tension between maintaining as much of the original work as possible and allowing for new possibilities that still keep the “ethos” of the piece alive.

In the rehearsal studio, the two casts—three women and three men—are split into their pairs of Twylas, Saras, and Roses. They all have papers out, going over brain-teaser combinations of movements, combined and recombined in complex patterns. As they practice, Hodges has his iPhone out, reading over an email from Tharp. Even now he asks new questions. “She says the movement needs to fall with the body,” he tells the dancers, “but I wonder if she meant the body needs to fall with the movement.” The movements they are practicing follow the rhythm of Einekleinenachtmusik’s opening measures, and Hodges sings the melody in numbers that correspond to movements, first at a moderate tempo, and then at the more fiendish performance pace. As the dancers leave their unison pairs and divide into their trio casts, the rhythm loses its recognizability as it gains the fugue structure, and the spatial structure starts to weave its own dance as well.

Hodges describes a dancer as “a master of movement, of movement manipulation and illusion,” and this is clear. Even in an imperfect state of rehearsal, when their performance was still a few months down the road, these MFA candidate dancers moved with a clarity and intent that shows more than just the skeleton of the dance. But dance also needs its master translators, artists who can take a choreographer’s work and make it come alive on new performers for new audiences. Hodges, with his diverse experience, his constant questioning, and his thirst for new challenges, fits this role to a T.

Chamber Dance Company will perform The Fugue October 10-13, as part of In Gender, their 2013 annual concert. Tickets available here. Find more information on CDC, here. For more information on Hodges and his work with LADP, click here.

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