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pnb: choreographer’s showcase tonight—interview with olivier wevers

Lucien Postlewaite and Kaori Nakamura in
Wevers’ Shindig at PNB
(photo © Angela Sterling)

On Thursday, I met with five of the seven choreographers whose works will be presented at PNB’s Choreographers’ Showcase tonight. I’ll be transcribing the interviews all weekend long, so check back for more. Here’s the first one: Olivier Wevers.

Olivier Wevers, principal dancer at PNB since 1998 and principal dancer at Royal Winnipeg Ballet before that, has participated in PNB’s Choreographers’ Showcase every year since 2004.

Wevers has also created a work for PNB’s main season (Shindig at PNB in 2008) as well as works for Spectrum Dance Theater, Seattle Dance Project, Cornish College of the Arts, the Reiko Yamamoto Ballet in Japan. My personal favorite so far is the one he choreographed on Liora Reshef and Andrew Bartee for the Showcase in 2007; that piece has been seen twice in Seattle and once in Japan. PNB presents his Ultimatum (a new work, I think) at Bumbershoot this year; it has been selected to be part of the four-night choreographers showcase A.W.A.R.D. Show! 2009 at On the Boards in December.

Wevers participated in the New York Choreographic Institute in 2006 and later this year travels to Irvine, CA, for the 2009 National Choreographers Initiative. He received a 2008 Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship Award.

Oh, and he’s starting his own company right here in Seattle; their first performance is in January at On the Boards. [link to his personal website]

Rosie: What was the first piece you ever choreographed?
Olivier: Back in 1993. A pas de deux in Winnipeg, for their choreographers workshop.

Were you in it?
Yeah. It was bad.

Oh no!
That’s why I didn’t choreograph for ten years. It was hard, because I was young, and it was reality check that some people didn’t like it. There was a review that trashed it, but in a poor way: the reviewer said that it wasn’t valid and that I shouldn’t even try to be a choreographer. It was my first attempt of trying to do something and here he was destroying everything that I was thinking about [laughs] so it was kind of crushing. I was like: I don’t think I want to do this.

So, ten years later…you choreographed another piece, which was here at PNB?
Yeah, for the school. And that’s when I discovered that I really liked to do this.

What made you come back and try choreographing again?
The creativity. I was craving the creative process. I had lots of ideas.

Already, floating around in your head?
Yeah. Ideas of things I wanted to do—and try.

Were they ideas of how things would look?
I usually start with more of a feeling/atmosphere thing first…and the rest is just details that I work out.

So what number piece is this for you?
15 maybe?

What made you sign up this time?
Habit? It’s actually very restricting, the Showcase, because of the scheduling conflicts. For example, I just did the lighting: we had half-an-hour.

That’s it? That’s not very long.
No. What can you do in a half-hour? You can get three spotlights focused. It’s kind of limiting: the amount of time you can get, when you get your dancers, and how long you can have with them.

So, with some of your other pieces—for example, the Men in Dance piece you did a few years ago—did you get more time?
Yeah. And that’s also why I want to start my own company. I want to be able to experiment. That’s what choreography is about. It’s not about just throwing up steps and putting them together and putting it on.

I really liked that piece. What’s your favorite piece so far, out of all the ones you’ve choreographed?
Oh! The next one that I’m working on. It’s always the next one. Once I’m finished with one, I’m excited to start the next one…to try new things and move on.

This time around, what was your initial goal or focus?
Well, actually, this time, it’s the piece that I choreographed for Cornish College last fall. I only had three girls on pointe there, and I wanted to put everyone on pointe. It’s the same format, same music, same ideas, but now I have everyone on pointe. I was able to give a different kind of movement for some sections that I wanted to work on or fix. That’s why, in the title, it’s called “No. 2.”

I was hoping I would have more time to work on it, so I was barely able to restage it and work on some of the sections that I wanted to.

What have you noticed about getting the dancers off the floor and onto pointe?
What’s interesting is that they’re totally different dancers here than they were at CornishHere they’re classically trained, so they’re more upright. It’s a little more difficult for them to use their bodies. [Wevers moves his torso in a very non-balletic way to demonstrate what he means.] A lot of the stuff I do asks the dancers to really use their bodies; I don’t like that stiffness. It’s about using all your muscles and not just a certain group of muscles. So, it’s been challenging for the dancers here to adapt to that. It’s funny, transitioning from one kind of dancer to another.

Did you change the choreography?
A little bit.

Did you learn a lot about movement in the process?
That’s right. Working with the dancers…and seeing how they respond.

Why did you want to get everybody up on pointe?
They wanted me to do pointe [at Cornish], but not everyone could do it. So, I decided for the quality, just to have the stronger ones on pointe. But I’ve wanted to put this one on pointe. I love pointe work.

I think that just because you’re on pointe doesn’t mean you can’t do modern, that you can’t use your feet like you would if you’re barefoot or in soft shoes. I will always use pointe shoes in some way. Oh, maybe there’ll be a piece when I won’t, but…I love the beauty of pointe shoes and that [they are] so versatile. I want people to get used to using them as if they weren’t pointe shoes.

What was your goal at Cornish when you started this piece?
The whole inspiration behind it was this Philip Glass music, which is a concerto of timpanists. All rhythmical and very fast-paced. I love Jackson Pollock paintings, and so I was inspired by that. The whole idea is the dancers becoming—kind of—paint. The energy…

The energy of the paint as it comes out of the bucket and hits the canvas? Cool!
Right. So there is a lot of running, even at the opening of the ballet: they run and jump. I wanted to be less rigid in the way I choreograph and be a little bit more intricate. So there’s a lot of running around and knowing where you go through. And, at the ending of it: there are all these groups, that [in turn form other] different groups, so there’s that high-energy movement.

Balanchine did a lot of those daisy chains and ins and outs…
Right, but this is really fast, as fast as you can, never dilly dally but really, really run. I wanted to play with that and see how intricate I could get with that. And the visual appeal of having that happening. I wanted to play with not being so rigid and not so structured.

Do you feel you were a little rigid or structured in earlier pieces?

So this is a little change?
I see that in a lot of the work that I enjoy from other people. It’s when you can’t even see the structure, even though it’s there. I’m trying not to have that rigid look but be a little bit looser.

Do you feel like you reached that goal?
I think I’ll always be searching for a better way of doing things. Maybe I made it to the next step.

Can you tell me a little about the process you used to create the first version of this piece on Cornish?
I don’t come in with steps. I’ve done that before, but I realized that’s kind of anti—the result was not what I was looking for. And it kind of creates an issue with collaborating with the dancer. It’s becoming forced on someone else rather than being more spontaneous and being open and free. I enjoy having an idea of what I want—an idea, an energy, a theme, or an atmosphere—to take it from there in the studio and seeing what happens.

Have you had choreographers who came in and worked with you in that way?
Yeah. Nicolo Fonte in Within/Without. And then there are other choreographers, like Kevin O’Day in [soundaroun(d)dance], who come in and know exactly what they want; they teache you the combination and there you are: you have to fit in.

Do you want to choreograph more?
Yeees. It inspires me. It makes me happy, the creative process. It gets frustrating too, because you hit some walls. And you have to remove yourself from what people think, sometimes, because sometimes the process is valid even if the result might not be what you expected. You have to find the process in the studio [something] that the people won’t even know about. You have to give value to that, even if the people don’t appreciate what the result is.

Because next time you might use that process to create something really spectacular.
Right. Right. And if you base what you do upon what the people are going to think, then you’re kind of compromising yourself…you’re not really following your own integrity and what you want to do.

That’s what kills the arts…when you try to please someone…because it takes away from what it should be.

Personal expression?
Personal expression…or…As long as it creates dialogues—as long as it creates emotion—then you’ve accomplished something. But when the response is “Yeah, that’s pretty” or “I didn’t really like it,” that’s when it fails. That’s what art is for: conversation, dialogue, exchange, communication.

Do you notice any similarities between your work and other choreographers that you honor in your own work?
Yeah. The other day I was watching a thing on YouTube. (I don’t remember the choreographer’s name.) I was watching with Lucien [Postlewaite], and he said “Wow! That’s totally something you would make me do. And I said, “Yeah.” It happens. But I like to be unique. I like to find my own way of making things work. I like to be quirky and whimsical. Sometimes I just go that way and hope that it’s unique.

You did the New York Choreographic Institute. Did that help?
Yeah. It’s amazing because there’s no pressure. You get dancers for three hours a day and you can do whatever you want. And it’s the same down in California [the National Choreographers Initiative he attends later this year]—it’s three weeks. They say: Here you go! Do what you want! And you get all these professional dancers.

So that’s what would be ideal here?
Yeah. To me, that’s a workshop. When it’s really about the work.

I guess PNB’s is called a “Showcase.”
Yeah. I think it would be great if it weren’t performed on the stage here. But if it were really about the work. For example, if it would have just three shows of a hundred people each time. Just a black curtain, barely any costumes, but really be about the work. To me that would be more valuable.

Ultimately the idea is to put things on the stage. But your work should be able to be recognized without all the fancy props and costumes and lights. You can make people do almost nothing, with great costumes and great lighting and great music and it’s beautiful.

It’s art, even without the choreography.
You get the visual appeal.

But the choreography…
To me, you can always fix something. So, having more time with that choreographic process…really thinking about that process and not having to spend time thinking about the costumes and the lighting. Of course those are part of the creative process, but it doesn’t exist [with the Choreographers’ Showcase format] because you get a half-hour with lighting and “here are the costumes, what do you want?”

So, why even bother with them if there isn’t really time to think about them and you could use that precious hour on your choreography—at least, at this stage in your game?

Can you tell us about your other projects you have going on? I heard you’re starting a company?
Yes. It’s crazy. I started in September.

When will your first performance be?
At On the Boards, in January. They’re presenting me for three performances. Four dancers from PNB, four dancers from Spectrum, and one independent artist. From PNB it’s Jonathan and Lucien, Chalnessa and Kaori. From Spectrum it’s Hannah, Kylie, Ty, and Vincent. And Jim Kent, who is an independent dancer, you might have seen him in Goldberg Variations.
[PNB bios. Spectrum bios. Jim Kent’s blogger profile]

Is the idea that you’d like to continue your company long-term?
Oh yeah, definitely. I’m starting with this, but I want to build it. The idea is to have a platform so that I can create.

It’s a good that you came back to choreography after that first review. Look how much we would have missed if you hadn’t!


Excerpt from my European Weekly interview with Wevers, 2007, talking about the piece he set on Liora Reshef and Andrew Bartee:
On September 3, [2007] Wevers’ most recent work was performed at Bumbershoot. It’s a pretty piece that stays with you. Vivid blue-green and bronze…it begins and ends with two dancers in silhouette. It takes as its starting point Degas’ statue La petite Danseuse de quatorze ans and gets going with a personality-laden call-and-response. This short piece was choreographed on two PNB students, who danced it charmingly—with nice form and with personality—in June at PNB’s Choreographers Showcase. At Bumbershoot it was danced by Kaori Nakamura and Lucien Postlewaite. The piece took on a new name with its new dancers: Liora and Andrew became Kaori and Lucien. Its shape is a little clearer with these strong, witty professional dancers who both have excellent phrasing and who know Wevers’ own dancing so well. What was nice in June, was surprising in September. The slow, unraveling turns became suspenseful. The outbreak of jumps suddenly made sense and was thrilling. And the music was more exciting. Dominic Frasca’s “Forced Entry” is relentlessly repetitive, a sort of tangled tango. To keep us from getting lost in it, the dancers needed exquisite precision—very French—and they delivered. Just when you think the piece is going to get mired in the music, it doesn’t. At times, Wevers allows the dancers to transcend the rush, creating little kensho moments for us all. At other times, the dancers just power on through the music, squaring the corners of the stage at their own pace, momentarily wonderfully out of phase in such a way that the music needs to catch up with them.

This duet, whichever name you give it, is definitely ballet. The Degas statue Wevers saw at the Met inspired it. “It’s such a wonderful image,” said Wevers, “and I thought, why not? But I wanted to twist it… A lot of people get stuck with what ballet is supposed to be; you get stuck with that rule book of what you’re supposed to have, even in the structure of the ballet.” Wevers’ structure for this duet contains a few fun surprises. My favorite is when one dancer goes off stage and you expect the other dancer to start the bravura solo demanded by formula. She leaves too, and for a moment the stage is empty.

This new piece has actually had three performances already: Nakamura and Postlewaite also danced it in Japan earlier this summer, at the 2007 Lausanne Gala (Nakamura won the Lausanne prize in 1986 and was invited to Japan for the gala). “I was going to choreograph a brand new piece for the two of them in Tokyo,” said Wevers, “but when I finished this, Kaori said, ‘I love it. I want to do it in Japan!’”