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pnb: choreographers’ showcase – interview with sonia dawkins and ray allan

[sorry, no legal pix available yet…but here’s a link to one in the NYT]

Sonia Dawkins joined the Pacific Northwest Ballet School faculty in 1997. She is founder and artistic director of S.D. Prism Dance Theatre, here in Seattle. Their website has a nice list of her choreography. Dawkins has also been artist-in-residence at Duke Ellington School of the Arts and has taught at Hudson Repertory, Pennsylvania Ballet, and University City Arts League. A native of Orange, New Jersey, she received her BFA from the University of Arts and her MA from SUNY. Dawkins danced with the National Dance Company of Jamaica and with independent choreographers in New York and Philadelphia.

Ray Allan is an accompanist at the PNB School. I haven’t found a link with loads of information—sorry!—but he was the classy-hip young man sitting near the piano for most of the Choreographer’s Showcase…and at the piano for Sonia Dawkins’ piece.

How fun to meet with two of you together.
Sonia Dawkins: Ray is the accompanist for my piece. There’s live music for this piece that we’ve created. I’ve been collaborating with him on the selection of the music, so I brought him in. He’s been part of the process.

What is the music you’re using?
Ray Allan: We’re actually using a prelude and fugue of Bach from the Well Tempered Clavier and a prelude and fugue of Shostakovich. The Shostakovich is derivative: his 24 Preludes and Fugues were kind of an homage to Bach. The Well Tempered Clavier is a seminal piece of Western music.

Have you worked together before?
SD: Yes. For five years. He plays for my classes and also he composes music for me for other pieces not at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
RA: This is sort of a departure for both of us, because it’s a very classically rooted piece.
SD: Yes.
RA: Musically it’s very classically rooted, and in the movement.
SD: I’m a contemporary/modern dance choreographer—I teach modern dance here at [PNB]—but I’m taking a different avenue with the choreography of this piece.

What made you decide to do that? That sounds challenging and exciting.
SD: He presented the music to me, and when he played it, it hit something in me, so I decided to take a challenge and work in that direction.
RA: Sonya Dawkins is actually a very organic creator. Usually she finds some sort of a kernel…something she feels…and that grows. It’s a very organic process. It’s not really pushed or forced.

So you start first of all with a feeling?
SD: Most of the times, yes. Most of the times I choreograph a kernel—some type of a variation—then I search for music. But this time, the music came to me first.

Are you finding it’s a different kind of challenge, since the music is already there? Or is it supportive?
RA: The music is extremely complex.
SD: For me, I hit off ideas to him, and then see what his thoughts are, so we can see the relationship to the music and the choreography. I think a little big bigger, out of the picture, as in with a prop, or something like that. So, [in this piece], we have a pew and mirrors .

I’ve seen one of your pieces and there were crates and fishing nets.
SD: Ripple Mechanics.

How will you use the mirrors in this piece?
SD: The mirrors will be on stage right, just there, and the dancers will be dancing and looking in the mirrors.

I think mirrors are pretty important to dancers…
SD: Oh, it’s not in that fashion though.

Does the mirrors have a special meaning that you want to share with us?
SD: It just felt right, but it’s also however the audience wants to interpret it. [This piece] is based on the music, but also on the sculptures of Rodin. However the audience wants to interpret it…I really don’t like to give an answer.

I guess I’d interpret it—without having seen it yet!—as the mirrors showing the reflections of Bach’s work in Shostakovich’s.
RA: The idea of a Bach fugue—the form—it’s kind of as if you take “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,”—only a really complex version, where every time someone comes in they sing it a little bit differently, and yet everything still works out. And you can have four or five or six people singing their own independent voices—a fugue is a very complex idea. Musically, a fugue looks a lot like if you took two mirrors, and set them opposite each other, and stood between them: you know the infinity sensation [you get]? Musically, that’s what you get. It’s almost like listening to a crystal. Listening in. You can hear all of these inter-relationships. So, when I see the mirrors, I think of that…even subconsciously.

Did you say Rodin sculptures?
SD: Um hm.

One in particular you had in mind? Will we see them?
SD: You’ll see it in the movement. There’s about five to six of them that I selected.

It would be fun to see which ones.

What was the very first piece you ever choreographed?
SD: It was called Dreamtime. It was based on a person sleeping, and you could vividly see the dreams in her body. There was a second person lying there, who was the person sleeping. It was very simple. It was done when I was at University of the Arts. That was my first piece of choreography.

And what drove you to choreograph?
SD: Assignment! Honestly, I knew I was going to be a choreographer when I was in fourth grade.

How come? How did that happen?
I’m from the East Coast, from New York…just seeing so many Broadway shows and ballet companies and modern companies…I was much more inspired in that direction—with how things were created.

Rather than with the dancing…
Rather than with the performing aspect, yes.

So does that mean it was a little different for you…going through classes, learning to dance, knowing that you wanted to be a choreographer?
SD: Most of the time when I was taking class, I would hear what the instructor would say. Or, if class was done by the artistic director/choreographer, I would be watching them create rather than [focusing on] the steps.

I think that’s a fascinating way to go through dance school. I don’t think that’s common at all.
SD: It isn’t. Not so much.

So, you get to college, and you’re given this assignment to choreograph, and it’s your first time… Were you excited?
SD: Honestly, I really wasn’t excited, because it was an assignment. But then I started getting into the assignment: I love music a lot, so I went into the avant garde music, like Brian Eno and Tangerine Dreams, and started using music like that to explore.

What number is this for you? (This is kind of funny, since I’ve been asking this question quite a lot during my interviews today. I imagine you’ve done quite a lot! For some of the Showcase choreographers, it’s #3 or #4.)
SD: This is probably number 55.

SD: I’m not in the company here. I’m on the faculty. And then, also, I have my own company.

I’d love to talk a bit about your company.
SD: Is it politically okay [given that we’re at PNB during the interviews].

I’m fine with that. The idea is that all dance in Seattle supports all dance in Seattle. We saw that with Peter Boal’s festival the first year he came here, where he had many NW dance companies on the stage. Let’s say it’s okay.
SD: Okay. The name of the company is Sonia Dawkins Prism Dance Theatre.

And you perform where and how often?
SD: Actually, we’re performing June 26 and 27 at the Leo K. Theatre/Seattle Repertory Theatre. We just came back from Bulgaria about a month and a half ago. And we’re performing in Tacoma this weekend [June 14].

But basically, this company started in Philadelphia, and then when I got work here, we went bi-coastal. I couldn’t manage that so well, so I brought the company here for a few years, and then it disbanded. I tried to put my name out more, then…and just went from there.

You actually brought some dancers out with you? Wow. So, if I go online, I can find a website, right?
SD: Um hm.

What was your initial goal or focus with this particular piece?
SD: When [Ray] presented me the music, I wanted to explore that avenue of my choreography, to challenge myself, basically. I do use classical music, but I use it in a different realm than in the way he has presented it to me. I really wanted to challenge myself.

So that was the focus: how to get through…
SD: What did I want the piece to look like? And incorporating it with Ray Allan’s thoughts. And also focusing on the sculptures, too, and seeing how that incorporates with the music and my choreography.

Do you know some of the people that you’re working with? They’re your PNB students, right?
SD: The dancers? Yes.

That kind of puts you in a good spot, since you already know how their bodies move.
SD: Yes.

One of PNB’s choreographers was saying that he’s realizing that through choreography he can have an affect on another dancer’s growth…because he has seen growth, even in the short amount of time he has had with this Choreographers’ Showcase. Did you see that as well with your dancers? Is this something you see regularly as a choreographer?
SD: I’m the type of choreographer that sculpts the movement around the artist. It’s a little bit harder. I don’t just give you a step: I see if you can do that step and then I let it fester around you. So I’ve seen a tremendous growth with this cast, especially because I used some of the Level VIIIs, who don’t get the opportunity to perform as much as the Professional Division. So, I saw an increase in their technical and performance aspect.

So is this the first time we’re seeing the Level VIIIs in the Choreographers’ Showcase?
RA: Possibly, yes.
SD: Possibly.

Lots of firsts in this piece.

What are some of the things that you love about this piece that you have both created?
SD: I think that for me, right now, it’s very new to me now, so it’s more of a work in progress.
RA: A what?
SD: Because I still see it evolving. But I think…The way he plays the music, moves me to create. There are parts of the music that have so many dynamics, that it helps me to create what I want to get out of the artist. There are sections in there that move me extremely. Especially where it comes to the parts where they take off some of their clothes…the dynamics of their bodies…how they move…really strikes me.

So the dynamics of their bodies…how they move from one movement to another…the sort of in-between…
RA: Because again, there’s a very stark contrast.

There’s 250 years between the first piece and the second piece.

It’s the same form; that’s what interesting about this. The prelude form is very free; the fugue form is like a straitjacket, both choreographically and musically. A prelude and a fugue generally go together. You start with a prelude, which is like an improvisation. Then what you do is you take elements out of that, and you use those as the basis for the fugue. You turn them upside down, you flip them, and you just look at the little tiny element every possible way, which is very much what Sonia has done with her movement. The shape of the sounds really does mirror the shapes that are created.

So, both the Bach and the Shostakovich, each have a prelude and a fugue? Will we see two different forms of music and two different forms of dance…classical and modern?
SD: No-o-o.
RA: Bach is from the Baroque era. And Shostakovich, because he was doing it almost as an homage, there are moments in the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Shostakovich where he directly quotes the Bach Preludes and Fugues. So it is really a derivative work, and there is an extreme, strong tie between the pieces, which is why they do go together, even though you have this distance of time.

It’s almost like you take a form, and you stretch it out just past where it’s supposed to be stretched. Bach would have turned over in his grave, had he seen what Shostakovich was doing. But I feel that if Bach had been around and seen the development of those 200 years, he would have…
SD: appreciated it.
RA: Yeah.

Is your take on classical dance a little stretched out like that?
SD: I would say yes, but then you start [moving] into where you’re talking about contemporary. I know that there’s a very fine line between what is contemporary and what’s not contemporary. A lot of people look at modern dance as contemporary. If you go to some modern dance companies, they say they are contemporary, not quote: modern dance. I think that what I’ve done is stretched the classical element into the contemporary, but I could go further with it.
RA: It’s definitely rooted in classicism.
SD: Right.
RA: Just like the music is. It’s tonal, it’s melodic, you can listen to it and understand it. It’s not just noise-noise-noise-noise. You can see parallels in dance and music—in all the arts, really. But modern music: you had this whole atonal period that is really difficult for people to grasp, because they don’t have a language. It would be like if I started speaking in Russian to you. Unless you spoke Russian, you wouldn’t have a straw to grasp at. So classicism in dance for me, I recognize the shapes and movements. They’ve been around. We’ve seen them over and over and over, so they’re something we can relate to.

Some of the choreographers we’ll see this weekend have been to choreography workshops. Is that something you did as well? Did you have a lot of people along the way helping you learn to choreograph?
SD: I went to university, and then for my master’s I focused on choreography and kinesiology.

Is that a route that you would recommend for others?
SD: I think it’s a good route, but you have to go to school, it’s only offered in universities and colleges. But, for example, Jacob’s Pillow, has a one-week choreographer’s workshop. And ADF [American Dance Festival] does, and Bates. Those are places where, if a choreographer can get themselves into that, it’s a good opportunity, because you can start get to know your voice more.

Is there a specific moment when you recognized that you had a voice? What’s it like?
I would say yes, because Joan Myers Brown, who is the artistic director of Philidanco, she said to me that I had a voice. I had created something for them…after their summer program.

In the beginning of your choreographic career?
SD: Yes. In, probably, 1994. She’s a mentor for me; one of my mentors. She said that she saw a voice, and she saw that that was the direction I wanted to go.

I heard that Twyla Tharp told Kiyon Gaines to go the direction he wants to go. And I just heard Olivier Wevers say that it can be really hard if the audience happens to not like a specific piece, but you still have to go the direction you want to go…because it’s unique, it’s yours, and who knows where you could go if you follow it far enough.
SD: Right. Exactly. I also think that it’s good to hear what people dislike (and like), because it helps me to see what they’re seeing in my piece.

Sometimes, there are times when [Ray] will tell me what he doesn’t like and I’m like: okay, and I’ll have to sleep on it. Just to see…just to see through his eyes…not to be defensive about it.

Which is really hard. I find that in writing too. And, you can always find somebody who likes what someone else didn’t like.
RA: It seems to be like a test of how strong her vision is.

That’s a great way to put it.
RA: Sometimes I’ll tell her what I like or don’t like, and she always will say: Well, I need to sleep on it. Because she knows whether it’s important. A lesser person will think: You didn’t like it? I’ll try to change it. But if you know whether it belongs or doesn’t…if it’s superfluous..whether it has a meaning… And she always, always knows whether it needs to be there or not.

So…inspirations? The Rodin sculptures, the music, the feeling…
SD: I call it the Vital Force…the feeling. It’s a vital force that triggers…you get chills.

Do you normally notice it in the music, or is it something you might get just walking down the street?
SD: It can be anywhere, really. Like, if I’ve started working on a piece of choreography and I can’t find my music…but if I’m researching music and I hear it…it’s just like: That’s it!

It’s fun to be in the audience, because that’s what we get to see so often—that Vital Force, right up there on the stage in front of us. Did you get a chance to see Louise and Oliver dance in Urlicht?
RA: I did.
SD: I didn’t get to.

That’s my Vital Force, right there.
RA: Yes. That was beautiful.

Art is so amazing.

I wondered if, as you’re teaching, watching movement happen, do you file things away for the next piece, ever? Like: Oh, they did that wrong, but that’s kind of cool. How naïve am I in thinking that actually happens?
SD: Sometimes it does and sometimes not. It depends on who I’m teaching, because I teach a certain technique.

And what is the name of the technique?
SD: I teach Horton Technique—Lester Horton. But if I give an improvisational class or let them create their own choreography, I’ll see different things and think: Oh, that’s interesting.

Not like you’re pulling it or copying it but…
SD: Just how it flows.

Do you have this improvisation in your PNB classes?
SD: Yes.

You do? That’s cool. How do the kids react?
SD: They’re scared, they’re nervous, they’re fearful. But then they get over it. They’re like 10 or 11 when I start. Because that’s when you should capture them.

I choreographed my first piece at about 11. My only piece. I had my red JC Penney’s leotard…and my music teacher thought I was so wonderful, and so she said: Well, just do this for us. And so there I was, a little chubby body, doing arabesques to “Plaisir d’Amour.” I thought I was in heaven! That, incidentally, was my last piece of choreography.

So you allow your kids to do this? That’s wonderful.
SD: It’s important to have a class like that, I feel. Because then they start to get to know their own voice as a performer. And so then you start to see whose voice is becoming stronger. I allow them a little bit of freedom, sometimes, in a piece.

These improvisation sessions…Are they a 20-minute session in a regular class every now and then, or is it an actual class in improvisation?
SD: It depends on my mood.

We’ve talked about so many things this past half-hour. Is there anything we missed? Anything else you want to add?
SD: Just that I’m just very appreciative of having another opportunity to choreograph—for Peter to allow me to be part of the Choreographers’ Showcase. Also, working with Ray, and him introducing me to another facet of music—which is so challenging for me—. I like working with musicians and exploring different avenues.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what you guys have created.