Sunday, November 7, 2010

Longer Pieces: Wellspring modern dance

For Kalamazoo Gazette 11-07-10
Forward Motion
Wellspring to celebrate 30th anniversary

The half-dozen dancers roll, turn, twist and gyrate in undulating waves, raising their arms heavenward, then allowing gravity to tug their bodies to the floor, then arching up again. Sometimes one or two dancers will break off, only later to flow back into the main group, either on their own or by being pulled in.
Then Cori Terry, choreographer of the piece and obvious authority figure, enters from the wings, stage right. Almost immediately she is drawn into the flow and is engulfed in the group’s sometimes smooth and uniform, sometimes fractious movements.

Set to the music of Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck, the piece being rehearsed during this afternoon session is “Family Altar,” created by Terry in 2001 and considered by the choreographer as her signature piece. It will be one of the dances to be performed for Wellspring/Cori Terry and Dancers’s 30th anniversary program Nov. 12-14 and18-20.
Three of the same pieces will be danced at every show, Terry says, with other pieces alternating over the six performance dates. The chosen dances were voted on by audience members and regular patrons from among Wellspring’s greatest hits over the past three decades.
Nine of the pieces were created by Terry. One of the others will be “Java Jive,” by Michael Miller, the company’s artistic associate.
“I’ve been with the company for 20 years,” Miller says, when today’s rehearsal ends. “It’s been really fun to go back to parts you’ve created and see how you’ve grown.”
Alexis Harris, a member since 1997, adds, “Having new people come into the company and seeing the pieces evolve into something different keeps (the dances) alive.”
To bring those pieces back to life for this anniversary program, Terry and her troupe study videos of the chosen works’ earlier stagings. But more than mimicking the motions is required.
“The outside form is obvious in the video, but not the intent,” Terry explains. “It’s not paint by numbers.”
The magic happens when dancers also can convey the emotion, the feelings behind the movement, she says.
Terry has created more than 65 pieces since 1981. Some came about as epiphany — as in a Gene Kelly movie — and others through the hard work of sitting down and composing a dance.
“It can happen in any way,” Terry says. “Once I was at Jacob’s Pillow (Dance Festival in Becket, Mass.) coming out of the ladies room, and I had this image of people moving inside a translucent tube. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be interesting to see them dancing inside that tube? … That became ‘Fugue State,’” first performed in 2003.
“A lot of times a dance (can be inspired by) a piece of music I really like. One started from old costumes I found — I thought, ‘Hey, we should use these.’ Sometimes it comes from a concept.”
Take “Family Altar,” for example.
“That piece is about my family (growing up), … the dynamic of function and dysfunction, of communication and miscommunication,” she says.
“I usually start with a skeletal idea. It could just be a spatial movement.”
Terry has worked out the choreography of a dance in progress on her living room floor, in her backyard and in the woods while walking her dog.
But no matter how well prepared she might be with a new work, she says, “When you walk into an empty room and the dancers are waiting, it’s like a painter in front of a blank canvas.”
She and the dancers then “play with what they’re doing. I like it when it changes.”
How does she know when she has a successful piece?
“You can get all the elements right and it still doesn’t come out to be a good dance,” Terry admits. “Sometimes a dance works and sometimes it doesn’t.
“How it unfolds is mysterious,” she adds with a smile.
Terry’s vision derives from her mentor, the late Erick Hawkins, the first male dancer in the legendary Martha Graham Dance Company. His own company, begun in 1951, emphasized less plot and more Zen — unforced, natural movement for its own sake.
Terry was a member of Hawkins’s modern dance company from 1974-1980, touring Europe, the United States … and Kalamazoo. The Hawkins troupe arrived in town for a scheduled performance at Miller Auditorium during the Great Blizzard of January 1978, when the city reported 28 inches of snowfall.
“I was done with New York,” she recalls. “After eight years with Erick Hawkins, I had the chutzpah to believe I was ready to start a dance company.”
Terry met Western Michigan University dancers while here and parlayed that connection into an artist-in-residence position. The name Wellspring — as in, “the wellspring of life” — debuted in 1981 for Terry’s concert with saxophonist Ken Morgan at Kalamazoo College.
How has Wellspring navigated three decades of performances and classes, from its early days in its Park Trades Center space, where work had to be choreographed around support posts, to today’s up-to-date Epic Center location?
“For me, number one, was being willing to be poor for a long time. You can’t be a choreographer of modern dance and drive a BMW,” Terry laughs.
“Number two, I’m a very driven person. I think I had something to prove.”
On top of that, the community was ready to support good modern dance.
“There’s been an enormous number of fantastic people and an incredible board (of directors), people who’ve been willing to work their butts off,” Terry says.
“Cori is a very dedicated, inspired, talented dancer,” says Barbara Harkins, Wellspring board secretary and owner of Great Lakes Creative Consulting, which facilitates arts administration programs.
“She’s stayed true to that (Hawkins) training and legacy. It’s a very important branch of modern dance that she’s able to convey to her dancers and her audiences.”
“Kalamazoo has itself become a magnet for attracting some world-class artistic talent, artists who’ve worked at the top level in their fields. Cori is one of those,” adds Bryan Zocher, Irving S. Gilmore Foundation program officer and a longtime member of the local arts scene.
“She has worked with world-class talent and brought that kind of commitment and environment.”
One of the first grants provided by the Gilmore Foundation in 1986 was to Wellspring, Zocher notes.
These days, Terry, who was 27 when she moved to Kalamazoo, views herself “much more as a choreographer than a dancer.
“I used to do dance for myself. It was all about me. Now I choreograph for them,” she says of her company and the community that “gives me so much support.”
On the occasions when she does dance — as she will in some of the pieces for the anniversary program — “it’s hard, it hurts. But it’s good for my body.”
After the fall concert, Terry will develop more new work. Dance, she confirms, “still delights me.”

Fall Concert of Dance retrospective
Wellspring/Cori Terry and Dancers
Nov. 12-14, 18-20
Epic Center
359 Kalamazoo Mall

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