Fort Worth — For most people the word “crash” brings up images of cars, buses, planes and trains. But for British choreographer Jonathan Watkins the word has a broader subtext and is the focus of his new work Crash, part of Texas Ballet Theater’s Artistic Director’s Choice performance in Fort Worth this weekend. In this piece Watkins takes on various personal, technological and political crashes which are represented through solo, duet and large group numbers in this 25-minute circular tale that features original music by Dallas-based composer Ryan Cockerham and costumes by Austin-based Kari Perkins, who also did the costuming for Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated film Boyhood.
In addition to these elements, Watkins uses abstract and neo-classical movements to shape the different situations and mindsets that he has laid out for us. “What I did is set up these different scenarios throughout the work that follow a similar pattern,” Watkins says. “There is a buildup of energy, a crash, and then the dancers have to collect the pieces and hopefully build a better foundation.
“And after the crash we need space to analyze and build the strength to help us deal with the crash going forward,” he explains further. “For this part I wanted the dancers to have a more pensive quality of movement.”
Watkins is an up-and-coming British choreographer who won the Kenneth MacMillan Choreography Competition at the Royal Ballet School when he was just 16 years old. He danced with the Royal Ballet for 10 years before leaving the company in 2013 to pursue his career as a freelance choreographer and director. Watkins made his international debut at the New York Choreographic Institute in 2008 with his work Now, set on New York City Ballet. His other international commissions include Eventual Progress for Russia’s Ekaterinburg Ballet Theatre in 2013 and Present Process for Ballet Manila, Philippines in 2014. His other choreographic credits include Beyond Prejudice and Free Falling created for The Curve Foundation, Abstract Balance with East London Dance and Together Alone for Ballet Black. Watkins also created his first short dance film called Route 67 in 2011 (you can view that at the bottom of this article). After Fort Worth, he heads back to Britain to work on a premiere evening-length work based on George Orwell’s 1984.
The pensive section Watkins mentioned earlier is at minute 19 of the dance and is what the company was working on when I sat in rehearsal a few weeks ago. For the next hour and a half the group learned four counts of eight of slow moving, forward progressing arm gestures and leg extensions. A deliberate button push with the right finger initiates the sequence and is followed with a half attitude turn into a side stretch. This leads into another leg whip and arm reach all executed in the same unhurried fashion. He then has the dancers retrograde the phrase so they end up in the same horizontal line they started in. I found out later from Watkins that the only preconceived movement was the button push. Everything else grew organically.
“I don’t always work like this, but in this case I wanted to do it with them and experience the choreography together,” he says. “Going in I was confident in the concept of moving slowly. I also knew I wanted to layer and experiment with the movement and that sort of detailing is best to be done then and there.”
These experiments included having two groups of 12 dancers stand in a straight line and begin the phrase on different counts. In some cases it was every four counts and in others it was every two counts. He then had the dancers clump together and move out and around each other creating this illusion of a living organism. Even without knowing the outcome, the dancers quickly adapted to each situation and problem-solved any traffic pattern issues as they moved. As a viewer I got to see the movement morph from a linear kind of tame visual into a cascade of complex shapes and bright pops of movement.
Throughout rehearsal Watkins uses different words, sounds and sometimes melodies to help the dancers align themselves with the pensive quality of the movement. “Shift it, step it, breathe it,” he says during one run through. Another time he mixes together words and sounds such as “Hwa, hwa, melt up, shift down, step to it, emphasize bah.” When I asked Watkins about his use of sounds instead of counts he says he will use whatever means necessary to communicate his intention to the dancers.
“Trust and communication are very important. Energy and being positive is what works for me because I don’t want people to dance through fear,” he says. “And, if I have to shout and sing to get my point across then I have no hang ups about doing it.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Watkins was still performing professionally so he knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end. “You just have to respect the other person and embrace the dancers.” The same rule applies when working with composers, costumers and other members of production team.
When it came to putting together his team for this project Watkins decided to experiment locally with composer Ryan Cockerham and costume designer Kari Perkins, who has costumed seven Linklater films, including his breakout Dazed & Confused. He found Cockerham’s name on the Royal College of Music alumni list and it just so happened he was based in Dallas and had some previous ballet composition experience. “I like serendipity and so when it happens I just go with it. I then started looking for a costumer in the area and I came across Kari who did the costumes for the movie Boyhood.”
For the music Watkins wanted a lot of melodic and rhythmic themes with some soundscape elements mixed in. He describes the costumes as an everyday look, but with lots of fractured layers on top. “And underneath resembles bare bones which represents the clean slate after the crash and before the cycle starts again.”
Artistic Director's Choice opens with Jiří Kylián's Petite Mort, followed by Crash, and closes with Balanchine's Rubies.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com
» Special thanks to Gachman Metals in Fort Worth, which allowed us to shoot Watkins and Perkins in their junkyard. To see more photos of rehearsal, click on the slideshow icon in the floating menu at the bottom left of your screen. Look for a video of rehearsals coming soon.