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Fieldwork
by Karen Webb


I'm your worst nightmare – a dance critic who thinks she can choreograph.

This was what ran through my mind when my buddy, performance artist Eugenie Hero, first told me about the Field. I have never thought of myself as a born choreographer, but I had been kicking around some ideas in my head for – oh, ten years. Most were motivated by pieces of music that painted pictures in my mind. And my mind was right where I thought they would stay forever, no matter how much they strained to get out. The Field would offer me a venue in which I could get some of these ideas up and running. But did I dare jump into the ring with the likes of independent producers like RDT's Jim Moreno and Andy Noble?

In the end, it was the music that made up my mind for me. It would not leave me alone. Come play with me, it said. Give me visual fulfillment. Choreograph me. And in a year during which at least half the choreographers I had interviewed said music had little or nothing to do with the way they made their dances, the music won.

*

The Field is a program that began in (where else?) New York in the early 90's. Its purpose was to allow emerging artists who might not otherwise have easy access to rehearsal space and performers a place where they could show their work. Performance pressures in the Field setting are minimal: although the sessions culminate in an informal showing, the program's only expectation is that each week the participants will show a minute or two of a work in progress.

The Field sessions are conducted in groups of eight. In New York, where there are millions of poor, starving artists each aglow with the spark of creativity, the Fieldwork sessions may include eight ballet choreographers; eight modern dancers; eight writers of novel, poem, or play. Here in Zion, where the Field remains one of the arts community's best-kept secrets, these artistic octets become a blend in which all of the performing arts find representation.

“It's a great program,” enthuses Tay Haines, Artist Services Coordinator for UAC. “It's very individual-based. There's no jury. The emphasis is less on product than on process.

“I first got involved when Melissa Heston, who was completing her Master's degree in modern dance a few years ago, developed an interest in activating the local dance community's efforts to generate independent production. If you were a dance major who wanted to continue to create once you graduated, there was no forum for you.

“A number of us started meeting to address the problem. The result of these meetings was not only discovering the Field but sending two local people, RDT's Jim Moreno and the University's Mary Johnston-Coursey, to New York to become trained as facilitators. At that time, there were nine other sites in the country besides ours; now there are 15 internationally.”

*

Unlike most of the dancer/choreographers who participate in the Field, I am no longer capable of executing most of the movement I conceive. I know participation will mean conscripting dancers. When I learn the term for this particular session, facilitated by Johnston-Coursey, runs April through June, I shout “YIPPEE!!!” It will be easy to find dancers then – the University programs all let out during that period, and the pros should all be on relief. Right?

Wrong.

Brent Schneider, artistic director of Performing Dance Company, breaks the news about the students to me gently. A number of students in both the modern dance and ballet departments still have concerts to get through; most will leave to attend summer programs the day after finals. Ditto the pros – those not busy with the Spring Sweeps concerts have independent projects going.

Still, I grit my teeth and head into town for my first session. I am 90% sure I will just blurt out that this was a big mistake, that I will spare my compatriots needless suffering by hurling myself off the unfinished overpass at 6th South.

But as I drive in, the music – my music – swells to life on the airwaves of KBYU. Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is reaching out to me from beyond the grave. I decide that, if he can make the effort, so can I.

*

“I think part of the reason Tay asked me to become a facilitator,” reflects Moreno, “is the involvement I have with Dance Theatre Coalition. If participants in the program needed rehearsal space, it could be booked through DTC with DTC's rates. I wasn't truly instrumental in getting the program going, but it was flattering to be asked.

“I facilitated -- note we say 'facilitate' rather than 'moderate' -- the first session around two years ago. Since then, Mary and I have alternated the job of facilitating while at the same time creating new work ourselves. The facilitators get very specific guidelines on how to handle the sessions. The Field is about being able to get feedback on your work in a caring environment, and our 'rules' help us to keep the criticisms constructive. The rules are really a study in courtesy.”

Both he and Johnston-Coursey found that the mix of artists in any one given session assists the creative process rather than hinders it.

“I found,” observes Hero, a three-time participant who works with spoken word and movement, “that the comments I got were good, much more specific than the ones I'd gotten in the writers' workshop I'd just come from, where all they did was pick, pick, pick.”

Moreno agrees. “When you're commenting on an artist working in a different art than yours, you get to the essence of the piece. You get fewer comments about technique, but comments that get to the heart of your piece tell you whether what you wanted to communicate got across – and what can you get that's better than that?”

*

I will now confess my one fear, which proved unfounded in the long run. When you're a working dance critic, it's a little difficult not to fear your overtures to the pros won't be interpreted as blackmail: “Hey, Jim, you wanna get really good (or avoid really bad) reviews next year? I have this piece...”

My first “hit” is serendipitous. On an evening I'm reviewing a RWDC performance, I run into Ballet West's Katrina Wemstrom (Wemstrom has since become the company's poster girl, her face, feet, and hair gracing billboards all over town). Oh, my, summer and three long months with nothing to do, she laments. Gee, say I, have you ever heard of the Field? For reasons I will never understand, this willowy blonde goddess agrees to help me. I reel in my jaw and thank her effusively.

Still searching for a danseur for the Vaughan Williams piece, Wemstrom and I begin to work on a second idea, a setting of the poem The Creation by James Weldon Johnson. We get so far so fast that by the time the next Field session rolls around, we're ready to present The Creation, Mach 1. We present; my compatriots provide feedback that is gentle, literate, and extremely useful.

*

It was during my search for rehearsal space that I begin to understand why some pundit somewhere decided to refer to people like me as “emerging artists.” Artists who “emerge” do so in the sense that an infant emerges from its mother's womb. There's a lot of screaming and suffering, working and sweating involved with both; once you enter the world, you see you know nothing and must labor strenuously just to survive. I thought I might have a T-shirt done up for survivors of the Field. It would read, “I don't know nothin' 'bout emergin' no artists, Miz Mary.”

Spoken word artists typically need little space to rehearse in. The modern dancers in this group typically use little. Then there's the rest of us.

“Space was not a problem for me,” says Moreno, “but I know I'm the exception to the rule. The West Studio in the Rose is RDT's, so anytime the company wasn't using it and it didn't conflict with community classes, I was free to use it.”

Studio space can go for a bundle in this area. Lower end prices come in at $10 an hour to $100 a day. The studio in the KUED building goes for more like $750.

Dance Theatre Coalition has made some strides in this direction. If your group qualifies as being under DTC's umbrella, you can, in theory, rent the East Studio in the Rose for $15. That's the up side. The down side is there's a lot of competition for that one space, and since one hour will cost the renter the same as 12 hours, a lot of groups block out the maximum time knowing they will not use all of it (although some do “sub-let”).

*

I try to book my studio time playing by the rules in the second week of the Field's ten-week session. I call a person named Brad Nelson “over at the County.” I call many times. By the fifth week of the session, I have not heard from him. Waiting five weeks to hear whether or not space is available becomes frightening in a program like this where you've already paid and are expected to generate a certain amount of material. Patience and forbearance should not cost you like this.

However, when I try a more intuitive approach, I find that individuals and companies who have no reason to favor emerging artists can be generous indeed with their rehearsal studios.

*

I at last find a willing danseur in Ballet West's Seth Olson. Murphy's Law being what it is, his free weeks coincide with a time during which Wemstrom is expecting a large influx of relatives. While I'm still wondering if this is the dance equivalent of the “Dear John” letter, I hear from Odyssey's Melanie Doskocil, who had earlier agreed to help me out, with the usual caveat about scheduling conflicts. Virtue triumphing as it still sometimes does, for nearly two weeks, the studio is free and Doskocil and Olson have the same hours off.

We set to work. For no logical reason, Olson and Doskocil look like they've been dancing together for 10 years – they have that sort of comfort with each other's bodies. ÜjÜŒ What takes shape is a miracle. Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia is one of the most beautiful pieces extant, but it defies conventional efforts to count it: a dancer must feel the way the movement fits the score. I begin with the basic sequence, a folk-dance inspired theme, then move on to what I think of as touchpoints – the places where the music actually “told” me what it wanted. The upshot is that, with a little revision, my touchpoints all work. Now I just have to go home and fill in the blank spaces.

“When shall we do this again?” my dancers ask when we are finished for the day. Oh, my. They want to do this? I was expecting more of a, “Well that was fun, let's do lunch sometime.” We continue, and, by the end of their available time, we have a showable six-minute pas de deux, which I commit to videotape and show in session.

Johnston-Coursey beams when the tape concludes. “I know you've worked so hard to get this going, and it was beautiful!” she effuses. Likewise comments from the others. A few suggestions about steps not fitting the music. For me, a deep sense of satisfaction.

The luck continues. Just when the Dynamic Duo's time runs out, Wemstrom is again able to rehearse. This time, I convert some simple, expressive passages into sequences based on balletic vocabulary. Wemstrom has unusually high extensions and the strength to hold them, beautiful expressive arms, beautiful feet, beautiful everything. My husband the musician is willing to crank out a score for us. In the Vaughan Williams piece, the music told me what it wanted. With The Creation, the text is the impetus, but text, music and dance grow together as an organic whole. The Creation takes shape, as does a third, humorous piece to Rossini's Thieving Magpie overture.

*

The night of the showing arrives. Murphy's law has struck full force. My martial artist, whose presence was important to the Rossini piece, contracts stomach flu; John Veranth, around whom I choreographed it, is now on his third partner since we began. Participant Deja Mitchell, Mitchell herself, who would have danced Johnston-Coursey's choreography while Johnston-Coursey read the accompanying text by participant Dave Iltis, has developed carpal tunnel syndrome. She can dance her own piece, whose steps never put pressure on the wrist, but Johnston-Coursey's movement involved a lot of push-up positions. And Mitchell's gentlemen friend and percussionist has broken or sprained a finger.

Despite all this, the show goes smoothly.

Until it's time for my magnum opus, the Vaughan Williams piece. At that point, gremlins take over the CD player. Phrases playing at normal speed are now punctuated by fits of acceleration; if this had been a vocal score, it would have sounded like the singers were intermittently replaced by Munchkins. Although both Doskocil and Olson cope like the professionals they are, there will not be a chance either to show it again or have the videographers reshoot it. Though Wemstrom looked stunning and the Rossini piece actually worked, though friends in the dance community tell me it was beautiful, I can't get past a profound sense of failure and loss.

*

A week later, I watch the video of the showing. The good stuff is as good as I remember it: a radiant Johnston-Coursey solos integrating text with dance, Catherine Larsen playing a maiden at her toilet evokes the mystery of the Far East as Mitchell and friends evoke tribal ritual, spoken word artists Iltis and DeNorris Bradley make incisive, poetic comments on the human condition.

As the Vaughan Williams piece comes up, I grit my teeth and try to forget what steps I put where. And an amazing thing happens – I see it still worked. Thrown off in time, the lush movement quality, the emotive content – all of it fell as eerily into place as if a Webb from a parallel dimension had choreographed the piece just a hair differently for her alternate Doskocil and Olson. From the ashes of defeat, a phoenix had risen: a week earlier, I had simply been too close to the situation and too self-involved to see it.

When I was studying physics, we had a satirical way of looking the Laws of Thermodynamics. They were (we said):
1) You can never win, you can only break even
2) You can only break even at absolute zero
3) You can never reach absolute zero.

But looking over this tape with its beautiful music and even more beautiful dancers, I thank that, some days, you can.

 

Please join a discussion on this topic in our forum.

Edited by Malcolm Tay.

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