Dallas — Seventeen years ago, the Bruce Wood Dance Company seemed to have dropped from the heavens straight onto the stage of Fort Worth Convention Center. In less than three minutes I was hooked. The polish and sophistication of The Intercession of Grace was on a level with Paul Taylor or Twyla Tharp, and I wondered, “could this be a one-shot deal?”
I need not have feared, for from that point on I continued to feel the same awe of Bruce Wood’s work, as well as a tinge of pride. Why pride? Because Bruce was a Texan, his company was based here, and I was part of it—if only as an onlooker.
Bruce’s Texas roots say everything about his aesthetic. The vast sky, the dust and dirt, the wind and the heat and the emptiness made a profound impression on him. He once said, “I love being on a field where you can see 20 miles in all directors on a hot, hot day. It effects how you think. My aesthetic is different. I don’t mind simple.”
Simple yes, but spare, understated and oh-so-very sophisticated. It was fortunate for someone like me, who reviews a lot of drivel, that Bruce never considered basing his dance company elsewhere. “What’s the payoff?” he once declared. Well, if you are not based in New York—or maybe San Francisco—then who the heck are you? He deserved far more recognition than he ever got, even for the few years the company toured.
Empty space and a vast sky apart, other elements of course had an influence. He danced briefly with New York City Ballet before decamping first for San Francisco Ballet, then Twyla Tharp, Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal Canada and finally, Lar Lubovitch. Balanchine gave him formal rigor and those long, looping, flowing movements suggested Lubovitch—or it could have been tumbleweeds and the wind.
That he began creating dance was something of a fluke. Burnt out from years of touring and friends dying of AIDS, he found a job at Macy’s on 34th Street. Dance was out of his life.
Six months later he moved back to Texas. He raised horses, played polo and rode in rodeos. (Did he not once tell me that training horses is a lot like working with dancers?) He got a job in Fort Worth, moved to Austin, and out of nowhere, was asked to create a 30-minute dance. Rumors of a Big Wave was such a success, it spurred him on, and the rest is history.
Once launched into his new career, Bruce gave it his all. He was a demanding taskmaster and it showed. Not all his dancers were top-grade, but you would never guess it once they set foot on stage. They moved as one: fluidly, effortlessly, riding with the music. Bruce knew how to bring out the best in each dancer, and made stars out of just about everyone who stayed in his company: Kimi Nikaidoh, Erin Printy, Christie Sullivan, Michael Lively, Doug Hopkins, Joseph Conger, Joy Atkins and Karen Camelet in the early days, and more recently Albert Drake, Harry Feril, Christopher Vo and Jennifer Mabus. The original Bruce Wood Dance Company shuttered in 2007; and was revived as Bruce Wood Dance Company in Dallas in 2011.
Bruce’s output was prodigious and his range vast. There was the witty Lovett!, his decadent Bolero, his giddy Spontaneous Combustion, his sublime Requiem, his haunting Surrender, his pulsating The Only Way Through is Through, and the list goes on and on. All his performances were polished, and some of the credit must go to his lighting director Tony Tucci and designer John Ahrens, among others.
The short list above gives an inkling of his musical taste, which ranged from Bach to Ray Charles, Beethoven, Gershwin and Philip Glass. Bruce knew exactly how to make the most of the music, letting Beethoven do the heavy lifting, or honing down to simplicity for Lovett’s “If I Had a Boat,” where the dancers simply bob and sway from one side of the stage to the other.
If so many of his ballets dealt with death, loss, acceptance and reconciliation, it was because of his own mortality. For years he battled with HIV and ended up a number of times in the hospital. Sometimes it seemed touch and go. In the last 14 years that gave us a certain bond since I had first to deal with a stroke and then Stage 4 Cancer. In fact, it looked like I was on my last legs three years ago, and in a hurry, the Dance Council honored me for my contributions as a dance critic. Bruce was one of the people to speak, but he had also created the solo Surrender—first performed in Fort Worth—for me. That the work has a special poignancy for me goes without saying.
Since I made a miraculous recovery and both of us seemed fit as a fiddle not long after, we smugly agreed that we were indomitable. We even had that conversation five weeks ago at the TITAS gala. To my great sorrow, our pact didn’t hold.
Another pact did hold. I had a big birthday party 14 years ago and had hired the same Emerald City Band that he had had at one of his parties. He was one of the guests. Although I had broken out in hives, I would not stop dancing and I fainted into Bruce’s arms. (I had gone into anaphylactic shock and spent the rest of the night at Baylor Hospital.) His comment later: I am never going to dance with you again.
Alas, he kept his promise.
Bruce Wood died unexpectedly on May 28, of complications of pneumonia. He was readying for the upcoming Bruce Wood Dance Project performance, June 12-13. The performance will go on as scheduled, and features his unfinished Touch, plus two of his major works, Home and The Only Way Through is Through, as well as Love, B, which he recently choreographed for Ann Williams at her retirement from Dallas Black Dance Theatre. At the wishes of the family, the performance will be his public memorial, letting his work speak for itself. After each performance, there will be a Q&A with the dancers.
Gayle Halperin, who brought Bruce’s work back when she helped revive Bruce Wood Dance Project, says that the plan is to keep the company and his legacy alive for the foreseeable future.
» Read our obituary of Bruce Wood
» See our listing for this week’s performance at Dallas City Performance Hall, which has ticket info, times, pricing, map and more.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.