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I don’t know. I grew up with Béjart’s work [Belgium’s Maurice Béjart] and I love his imagery. I’m very visual, so when I structure a piece I pinpoint where I want the audience to look. I try to create a richness so that there are many things going on, but there’s always a particular focus for the audience’s eye.
I’m also very oriented to how the dancers trace their bodies in space, so that you can almost see the patterns of their bodies, as if they are sculpting the space around them.
I know that music is very important in your work. Is that where you start when you create a new ballet?
Yes. My musical tastes are very broad and I have a large music library, but I do like classical music especially. Right now, I’m thinking of using music I love from some well known classical ballets — La Bayadere, Prokofiev’s Cinderella, Coppélia — reinventing them and seeing what interesting twists could happen. If I can recreate people’s idea of what classical music in dance is, that would be great, to show them that it doesn’t have to be about pointe shoes and tutus.
A lot of people are intimidated by dance — or at least non-story ballet — and think they don’t understand it or don’t know how to watch it. What can you say to help them?
It’s a tough question because it’s so personal. Dance is very voyeuristic and a lot of people are uncomfortable with men in tights and dancers moving in front of them. But you have to challenge yourself to let go, to allow yourself to be transported, to put your expectations aside and just enjoy what you see when the lights go down. It’s important to accept that you’re going to be taken somewhere — you might like it, you might hate it — but you’re going to see the world through someone else’s eyes and it’s important to let whatever happens, happen.
You have very high standards for your performances — you use live music, you commission sets and costumes and you pay as much attention to high production values as you do to the movement aspects of your works. Does this come from having danced in well-known, large ballet companies with lavish productions?
It’s true that I hate low production values — it’s one of my pet peeves. Performance is about the audience experience — it’s their time at a show. That’s why I never speak before a performance and will never ask for money at a show. It’s not about me — it’s all for the audience.
You like to work with collaborators, but I know you also have very strong feelings about what works and what doesn’t. How do you manage that but still allow your collaborators creative freedom?
It’s an interesting process and you have to find the right collaborators. That’s hard because there are always egos and different tastes and you never know how things will go until you start working with someone. But I’m inspired by the people I work with and there are some I will always run to, like [lighting designer] Michael Mazzola, who always brings in new ideas.
To what extent does the movement in your dances come from a collaboration with the dancers or do you go into the studio with your ideas pretty fully formed?
At first I came into the studio with specific steps but I realized that was holding me back. Now I come in with a concept and we start working with that. With “Flower Festival” I had decided on the music and chatted with Andrew [Bartee] and Lucien [Postlewaite] about my idea of having them in suits at something like a boxing match, and then gradually take off their clothes. I knew I wanted to twist the steps from the original pas de deux, but I developed the piece with them.
But it’s very lonely work as a choreographer, especially when dancers look like at me like, “What?” Lucien [Wevers’ husband, now a dancer with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo as well as Whim W’Him] would often say, “No, you can’t do that.” It’s so hard to explain to others what you want — and it’s hard for them to understand. A lot of times they’ll make a mistake, but I may like the mistake and then keep it.
Or when a dancer suggests something good I have to take a step back, let go of my ego and let the dancers be artists. So often they’re looked at as students — they get hired, they take class, they do what they’re told. But I don’t want to work with students. I want to work with artists.
Do you miss dancing?
[Laughs] I don’t. Sometimes I feel bad saying that and a lot of people have a hard time understanding it, but dancing was a great challenge for me. I loved the challenge but it was hard, stressful and physically painful when I got older. I was always jealous of dancers who had an easier facility, and a lot of what I did was making up for how hard it was for me. When I was dancing, I couldn’t admit that I wasn’t a natural, but I can say it now.
In that the past, you’ve said that you wanted to keep Whim W’Him in Seattle. Is that still true now that you’ve become so successful?
Yes. I have my support system here, people who believe in me. My past, my family, as I call them, are all here although my husband is away at the moment. I’m able to make a lot of things happen here, although I continue to look for work outside Seattle. I’m going to Philly in March, several European companies and choreographers are looking at my work and Whim W’Him is going to the Joyce [Theater in New York] in August. But this is home.
Where is Whim W’Him in its development as a company?
The big question has been do we keep doing what we’re doing or grow. The board has decided we’ll grow, so in February we’ll be hiring an administrative assistant and later in the year an Executive Director. We have a plan to hire full-time dancers for 28 weeks by the end of 2013. We want to add a third rep in 2014 [Whim W’Him currently does two productions a year] and I want more out-of-town choreographers to do work for us.
You don’t seem at all intimidated by having other choreographers create work for Whim W’Him, especially Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.
Not at all. I’m inspired. I love Annabelle’s work because there’s something so beautiful and human about it, and she has a wonderful way of working with the dancers. I always want to be in a place where people are inspired to work together.
If you go: Whim W'him will be performing "Crave More" at the Playhouse at Seattle Center (Formerly, the Intiman Theater), January 18-20. Learn more.
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