Bill Evans: changing the body and the geography of modern dance.
The August 2002 reunion, for Bill Evans Dance Company members and Summer Institutes of Dance participants, drew dancers of all ages and abilities to trade stories and share reflections about work with this master of fluid, exuberant dance. Evans had been making noises about retiring, and dancers from as far away as New Zealand and throughout Ninth America convened for the event, hosted by, the Centrum Foundation, to acknowledge how Evans and his early company members helped to change the geography of modern dance, broadening it from its longtime base in New York.
Part of Evans's appeal has been his ability to spot dance potential. "So many of the dancers who joined his company caught his eye at a raw stage of development," says Kitty Daniels, a veteran Summer Institutes faculty member and former company dancer, who is now dance department chair at Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts. "I think he knew what sort of teacher I could become long before I did. I watch him gravitate to a particular student, and hear him talk later about why he thinks that individual is talented. It's usually a combination of physical facility, intelligence, creativity, and heart. He can see the diamond before it is polished."
Evans has as many projects now underway as he did two decades ago, and that's saying a lot. From 1976 through 1983 and in 1985-1986, he toured an average of 40 weeks and performed at least 100 times per year. Evans's school--the Bill Evans Dance Company (BEDCO) School/Dance Theatre Seattle--was the largest contemporary dance training center on the West Coast, attracting more than 300 students each summer. Since 1970, he also has conducted close to 100 intensive summer dance programs for teachers and dancers.
Although he is known for his modern dance and rhythm tap dance, Evans--distinctive for his intense expressivity, large frame, and boyish good looks--earned professional ballet credentials as well, at the Harkness, Joffrey, and Ruth Page Chicago Ballets, and choreographing for and partnering American Ballet Theatre's Cynthia Gregory. More recently, he briefly co-directed the New Mexico Ballet. But there is no doubt of his deep love for modern dance, which he views as allowing dancers to express themselves in movement, or, as he puts it, "to balance inner function, thought, and feeling with outer form."
Despite early obstacles--parents who were initially resistant to dancing, and harassment by peers in his home community of Lehi, Utah--Evans's love of dance led him to study with University of Utah's Willam Christensen, and he eventually became a soloist with the Utah Civic Ballet (later known as Ballet West). During this time he married dancer Sharon Lennberg. (They had a daughter, Thais, in 1963.) After completing a BA in English (he was two courses short of a degree in ballet) at the University of Utah in 1963, he entered the army and, during a tank maneuver, shattered his ankle. After seven months in a non-weight hearing cast and a month's recovery, in 1965 he was dancing in New York City, and, in 1966, with the Chicago Ballet. Anyone who needed a tall male ballet dancer took note of this newcomer from Utah.
The hectic touring schedule with the Chicago Ballet, coupled with his need to find an idiom in which he could express himself, led Evans to the Repertory Dance Theatre in Salt Lake City in 1967.
At RDT he was one of three artistic coordinators for six of his seven years there, creating many of his well-known works: Interim (1968), For Betty (1970), Tin-Tal (1971), The Legacy (1972), and Within Bounds and Hard Times (1973). During this period he also completed an MFA in dance at the University of Utah. The development and codification of his technique became a survival strategy, and also his "life's work," Evans says.
"Bill was always interested in how the body works and how best to present that information to students," says Gregg Lizenbery, whom Evans revered as a model for movement and a muse for Iris choreography, and who now is director of dance at the University of Hawaii. "We had intense discussions about technique and how to develop a kinesiologically sound approach to training the body."
Movement had come naturally to Evans, even as a child dancer; his tap dancing had, in the Laban lexicon, "shape flow," and emphasized dynamic phrasing, with technique as a vehicle for expression rather than an end in itself. To this day, he eschews dance that emphasizes rigid and unnatural lines and placement, and extreme positions. His technique is a blend of anatomical awareness, kinesiological principles, body therapies, and movement repatterning that borrows heavily from Irmgard Bartenieff's Fundamentals and Rudolf Laban's theories of Effort, Shape, and Space Harmony. Peggy Hackney, who had studied with Bartenieff in New York, joined Evans's company in 1976, and by 1977 Bartenieff Fundamentals was a required class in the Summer Institutes.
Says Evans, "My immersion in [Laban Movement Analysis] allowed me to make connections with the space harmony that naturally exists in the universe, and to begin to integrate [its] language and value system in my own technique, Now, LMA flows out and into my technique seamlessly."
Don Halquist, Evans's life and work partner and a core BEDCO member since 1985, talked at the reunion about using the Laban lexicon in organizing movement. The elementary school teacher, who is finishing his Ph.D. in education, has, amazingly, never sustained a dance injury. "It gave me a firm grounding in dancing that feels effortless and organic. Bill's dancers now are similarly trained in LMA."
Critics have referred to Evans's work as "breath dancing," perhaps referring to its almost buoyant quality, or as a "loping, rangy reverie," a "crazy-legged shuffle to syncopated strutting." Others have noted his "catlike sinuosity" and long, rippling limbs.
For Evans, anybody can dance--and perform--if they dance intuitively and dynamically, and develop efficient and aesthetically pleasing ways of moving. "Bill forged new territory as he ... developed his own style," says Pam Paulson, outgoing president of the National Dance Education Organization. "His approach to technique--with its sense of honesty and wonderment--resonates with audiences and students alike. He has found the confidence to do what he knows is right for his body, his spirit, and what fits him emotionally."
More than sixty ballet and modern dance companies throughout the world have performed Evans's dances; his work has been supported by numerous grants, including a Guggenheim. Some pieces are mesmerizing (Dreamweaver, 2001), or gut-wrenching (Barefoot Boy With Marbles in his Toes, 1977). Evans continues to produce substantive programs such as "Remembering"--a tribute to the events of 9/11, selected for the gala concert at the 2002 Southwest American College Dance Festival. Evans's "rhythm tap" is movement at its most innovative, and can be melancholy or poignant. It's not about flashy tricks hut complex rhythms that themselves tell a story. The diversity of the work, now numbering more than 200 pieces, with more than half commissioned, is enormous.
"I loved doing the incredible variety in the repertoire," says Hackney. "It was delicious to be sensual in Tin-Tal, then crazed in the humorous Ashtabula Rag , and then a Mormon wife in The Legacy. I had danced for ten years in New York City with many groups, but not one had the expressive dynamic range that Bill's choreography had."
"There was something so expansive and lush about the dances," says one of Evans's early dancers, Debbie Poulsen. "Very sensual movement, but nothing was left to chance. With Bill, everything had to come from internal organs, and later, be part of a process."
Evans acknowledges that the schedule he maintained at RDT, and then with his Seattle based company beginning in 1976, was grueling and took a toll on the dancers. Funding worries remained, as well as pressures for rehearsal time, and tensions would get high. He was known as a perfectionist, demanding in every detail, in part due to his unwavering willingness to invest in the dancers' development as artists.
But though grueling, the work was fulfilling. The early BEDCO dancers who joined Evans for the reunion talked about both. Says Regina DeCosse, "We were so pushed to the edge, emotionally as well as physically. Each person in the company gave everything they had ... so the accompanying emotions were just as intense. We were a family in every sense of the word."
The impact of the company was far-reaching. "I took one class, went home, put my kids in the car, said goodbye to my husband, and moved to Seattle," admitted one dancer. Two college students told of dropping their finals through a mail slot and driving cross-country to join Evans.
Dance kinesiologist Karen Clippinger notes, "This era brought together superb people from many avenues. Many of [them] have moved onward to chair dance departments and help shape dance education, dance therapies, and dance science." Yet by 1983, lack of funds signaled the end of the Seattle-based BEDCO. "Today there is still a BEDCO, just in a different form, with a different pace, and a work schedule that is project- and process-based and much more balanced, satisfying, and sustainable," says Evans.
Since 1988, the University of New Mexico has been the choreographer's base. There, he has maintained BEDCO with core modern and tap dancers Halquist, Linda Johnson-Gallegos, Debra Knapp, Sara Hutchinson, Skip Randall, and others. The academic world also supports Evans's research and writing and allows him to connect to the same students for four consecutive years. Nevertheless, he remains devoted to the short summer intensives, and to performing.
"Part of me has a fascination with how many things I can pack in," says Evans. "[It] keeps me from growing old. But mostly, dancing is a heartfelt need, which is not met in any other way. I derive outrageous happiness from teaching and choreographing with few distractions. And so I organize my life around a series of performances and choreographic residencies, and then there's a serenity in my heart."
Gigi Berardi writes on dance for DANCE MAGAZINE, Dance International, and The Olympian, and is writing the second edition of Finding Balance: Fitness and Training for a Lifetime in Dance (Routledge Press).
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|Date:||Oct 1, 2003|
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