The Seattle choreography ingenue talks with Crosscut about insecurity, sex appeal and the power of brevity.
Since founding the contemporary dance company Whim W’Him in 2009, Artistic Director Olivier Wevers has delighted audiences and critics alike with his mixture of humor, drama and inventive dance movement. Wevers, a former principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, founded Whim W’Him in 2009 as a showcase for his own choreography and that of other choreographers.
Since 2002, Wevers has created more than 20 dance works for Whim W’Him and Pacific Northwest Ballet, Spectrum Dance Theater and Royal Winnipeg Ballet, among other companies. He is a winner of the prestigious Princess Grace Fellowship and a Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award.
Alice Kaderlan: Are you still an “emerging choreographer"? If not, how would you characterize yourself in terms of where you are artistically?
Olivier Wevers: It’s an interesting question because I definitely feel a different kind of pressure, other people have different expectations and I have different expectations. Now, at the beginning of 2013, it’s been my first full year that I’ve been employed as a choreographer, so it’s the first time that I can say that I am living as a full time choreographer. I love it but the pressure and stress don’t get easier. It’s possible I may be more aware of the pressure because I’m not so naïve anymore about the way to do things. I’m more realistic about the reality of creating dances and the business of being a choreographer and of the limits I have to live with.
When you start out, you dream of the things you want to do and the production values you want that turn out to be unreachable. At the beginning, I always figured there was a way to do what I wanted and my ideas were on a completely different scale with different expectations.
But limitations are a good thing because you have to figure out how to overcome obstacles. Now, my brain has more practice in finding solutions and making my ideas work. I have a company, fundraise and work with the Board besides hiring dancers, crew and designers. Before, I thought “Oh, it will just happen,” but I’m much more aware now of how this [running a company] all works.
How about the pure craft of dance making? Where do you feel you are with respect to that?
I have finally accepted that I have a voice, a way that I research things and a way of making dances. There was a time when I had ideas but I didn’t’ know if they were really working. Now I now that I love certain things and can go further with them.
Is that the result of greater self-confidence?
I don’t know, because I feel like I’m more insecure than ever because of the pressure. Any little mistake I make now, people will notice and I’m not an emerging choreographer anymore. When you create a work, you keep seeing the same things over and over. I’ve learned that I have to remove myself and look at my work from the outside.
Looking back at my earlier work, I can now say, “No this isn’t right, I need to highlight that, or tone that down.” It’s really hard to look at your own work objectively, but if you don’t the work can get so personal that you don’t consider the audience. And I always want to communicate with the audience. What’s the point if the audience is watching something so personal to me that they can’t relate to it? I want to create something that moves people, touches people and I’m learning not to take myself so seriously so I can do that..
It seems to me that one of the most difficult things about dance making is knowing how long to make a piece, especially today when so many contemporary works seem to go on and on. How do you know when a dance is the right length?
I don’t know, except that I always want the audience to leave wanting to see more. Personally, I hate leaving the theater with the feeling that I could have skipped those extra 20 minutes, so that’s why I usually make shorter pieces.
What do you feel you still have to learn as a choreographer?
Everything. I’m learning all the time — when I create a piece, when I restage a work, when I see the audience react, when I see other people’s work, which is really important because it gives you perspective. And you can always make your work better, which is why whenever I restage a work there is always something that I change.
It could be anything, the spacing, the use of one particular production element. I love trying new things, switching patterns and seeing how that works. I love contrast because you have to keep the audience surprised and that means constantly changing things.
Why are you so interested in contrast?
As human beings, we live in contrast. We — or at least I — get emotional really quickly. I can get upset very fast and then it’s over, or I eat something sweet and then I want something salty. This happens in so much of life, so I love rapid transitions that break a particular mood. Maybe someday I’ll do a piece that doesn’t have contrast [laughs] and then that will be a contrast to my other work.
The hardest thing is to justify what I do — to the dancers, to the audience. I often don’t know. I’m just emotionally attached to making something particular happen and so I do it.
How would you describe your own aesthetic in dance? What do you aim to achieve with your works?
I love rounded movement and even ugly shapes, like turned in legs with sickle feet, which are so not ballet. I also love articulation of the feet. A foot should have a million ways of using the floor and move just like a hand.
I also like sex appeal and an animalistic quality in my dancers. I refuse to see dancers as instruments and want to find what works for them, the way they partner, the way they use the floor. I want them to be emotional and do their steps with intention, so I work with dancers who can find emotion within themselves.
I also love partnering. Give me two dancers and I’ll try anything with them. And I regard a male-female pas de deux as 50-50.
What do you mean?
The interaction between them should be equal, which is why I call my women “Ninja bitches.” I want them to be able to lift the men as well as have the men lift them and not just wait to be presented. The interactions between dancers are very important to me and I want the movement to be connected to that.
Your work is highly theatrical and always has a strong dramatic quality. Do you think that comes from growing up in Europe where there is such a focus on drama in dance?
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.