Story time in Vail
Larry Keigwin must have listened to Aretha Franklin’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” 200,000 times. But that doesn’t stop him from bursting out in the chorus as he listens to it again, searching for the place he wants his dancers to slide into when they return from break. He laughs at his “karaoke” self and keeps singing.
The Vail International Dance Festival artist in residence has spent almost two weeks in Vail, creating a new work, “Rock Steady,” set on Tiler Peck, Robbie Fairchild, Joaquin De Luz and Sokvannara Sar. It will be world premiered at tonight’s “International Evenings of Dance.” And it will likely bring down the house.
“Rock Steady” is a story and a feeling. It’s a piece of fiction that tells the truth. It’s fun.
“So we’re back with these three guys in the bar,” Keigwin says after everyone reassembles on the Vilar Center stage. “OK, a little strutting.”
The dancers, classical ballet dancers all, move through the moments. They work their way toward the end, which isn’t finished yet. Keigwin stands up and looks both at and beyond the dancers.
“Are we onstage for this?” Sar asks, head tilted at the music.
“She is, you aren’t,” Keigwin replies. He pauses. “Well, we don’t know. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
They decide to go back to the beginning. Again they reach the spot and Aaron Carr, one of Keigwin’s two assistants, jumps up to mirror what Keigwin is doing, changing the steps a hair. They try it a couple more times.
“She could do this,” says Ashley Browne, his other assistant and sometimes dance partner, slowly waving her arms around her body.
“Can we just riff on that step some more?” Keigwin asks. “Press play, we’re going to figure it out.” She presses play. He figures it out. “I just nailed it,” he crows.
And then it’s Peck’s turn, who has been moving all along, searching for her own way into the sequence.
She nails it, too.
A working man
Keigwin is a busy man. His dance company, Keigwin + Company, has just hosted its own multi-day program at New York City’s Joyce Theater. They’ve created 16 dances, including “Natural Selection,” described as a theatrical microcosm of Darwinian theory, and “Love Songs,” a series of romantic duets which has been performed in Vail, both as an entire program and as excerpts. His “Bolero” projects take him and his company into different towns to create a dance tableau based on community members. He’s currently working on a musical with the Scissor Sisters. Vogue commissioned him to make a piece for Fashion’s Night Out, which he’s choreographed on 70 volunteers though it’s intended for 100 runway models who he won’t meet until hours before the performance – about the same time he hears the music in its entirety for the first time.
In addition to creating “Rock Steady” during his Vail tenure, he also made a dance on the roughly 150 people who showed up for the “Dancing in the Streets” community event early on in the festival. And he’s had a little time to play, be it on the bungee trampoline at the top of the gondola or during a leisurely dinner at Sweet Basil.
But for the most part Keigwin has been working. His days begin with a walk to Starbucks for a coffee, and then a space of time for writing about the dance he’s making. Though he writes in stream of consciousness, it helps reveal to him what the piece is about, what he calls the spine of the work. And then it’s all rehearsal, rest, tweak, rehearsal, rest, tweak. He films constantly, and watches the films again and again after the dancers have left rehearsal.
“The Flip is so great,” he says about his camera. “It gives me extra hours to work.”
Keigwin clearly can’t be pigeonholed, but his style incorporates more modern dance than anything. Working with a quartet of classically trained ballet dancers isn’t the most obvious of combinations, which is likely just what festival director Damian Woetzel was thinking when he approached Keigwin with the idea.
“He really is a choreographer of the 21st century, yet he taps into the different zeitgeists of the past,” Woetzel says. “The way he can imagine the humor of things is particularly acute.”
“They’re technically super proficient,” Keigwin says about the principals Woetzel chose for him. “And there is a different aesthetic. I haven’t done a lot of work en pointe, but it’s meant to look like you’re floating. And modern dance is about being grounded on the earth.”
The two styles cohabitate seamlessly in the work, the one maintaining a present-tense punch while the other lifts up and up and up. One of the most beautiful parts of the dance is simply called a walking sequence, which they rehearsed to a variety of music before returning to the Aretha Franklin song.
“It gave it more texture, I thought,” Woetzel says about the process.
Keigwin had Peck take the lead on when she was going to be en pointe and when she wasn’t. In fact, all of the dancers were involved in the creation process, which is how Keigwin likes to work.
“I was surprised at how fearless they all were,” he says.
Browne echoes his sentiments.
“These dancers are really shining and growing,” she says. “The quality – the qualitative element – I’m lucky to watch. They’re people who are not afraid to ‘go there.'”
It’s part of why the dance “just flew out,” Keigwin says. It had to get done within two weeks because that’s all the time they had. But it didn’t have to flow so easily.
“I felt like there was no pressure,” Keigwin says.
Making a playlist
Keigwin, Browne and Carr seem to have their own language when they’re working together. Questions are asked without words, answers are given in kind.
“Larry’s not a stressful person to work with,” Browne says. “It’s not quantity but quality. He trusts his instincts. Choreographers sometimes try to fit so much in – too much. Larry doesn’t.”
It could be because of his innate love and respect for the music. For as much as choreography is about dance, it’s also about music.
“How lucky are we that we get to make playlists for the audience?” he asks.
Choosing Aretha Franklin was only half of the battle. From there, he had to narrow down her vast body of work to just three songs. The piece flows from “Rock Steady” into “Ain’t No Way” then “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
“It starts with a good attention grabber, then quiets down, and then there’s the end,” Keigwin says. “That’s what I like – songs we know, but not Top 40. Maybe Top 80?”
And by presenting them on stage, the audience gets to rediscover them, too.
“Rock Steady” is an important part of International Evenings of Dance, but it’s in good company. There will be a second world premiere, a work made by Alexei Ratmansky for Wendy Whelan. Dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Tangueros del Sur, The Royal Ballet and more will be performing. There will also be some live music – though unfortunately not Aretha Franklin.
For more information on the Vail International Dance Festival visit http://www.vaildance.org.