I had the great privilege of sneaking in on The Big Muddy Dance Company during choreographer Kate Skarpetowska’s residency as they prepare for the third presentation of Dance St. Louis’, ‘New Dance Horizons’. After spending a mere half hour watching her work in progress, she took the time to answer ten questions on her process, background, and what she enjoyed about the Big Muddy dancers and St. Louis in general.
On Friday, September 19th I found myself in the back of the Downtown Dance Center studios; the group of talented female dancers stretching, observing, quietly talking on the floor while Ms. Skarpetwoska was working with dancer Thom Dancy, the three other males learning behind him. After a friendly greeting from a few dancers, Executive Director Erin Warner set me up with a chair to observe the group of black leotard, sweats and socks-clad dancers. For the first ten minutes, Ms. Skarpetowska worked individually with Dancy, without music, going over a long solo. She seemed to demonstrate everything, as if to feel the phrasing, breath, and detail in her own body before communicating what she wanted from the dancers. Her voice seemed thoughtful yet sure and she could be heard saying things like, ‘It should feel more like falling’ or ‘yes, exactly!’. She was detailed, fixing small things like a foot position here and there but seemed to be working more towards tone than exact step in every instance, encouraging intention behind movement- things like momentum and softness. Her interaction with the dancers seemed more like that of a coach than a dictator.
Then she gave the dancers a few minutes to review while she continued to mark choreography in a small area near the mirrors. I chatted with a few dancers about the piece, what the music was like and what they had been working on. Apprentice Meredith Wallace informed me that what i had just witnessed was to be a solo for one of the guys, but a soloist hadn’t been selected. “I don’t think they’re making it easy for her to decide,” she said with a smile.
At this point, Dancy took the floor for a run-through of the movement as the other three men- Geoff Alexander, Dustin Crumbaugh, and Robert Poe– marked behind. Baroque, operatic music filled the room- a nice complement to Dancy’s incredible lines and surprising extension and wonderful contrast to the more contemporary moments. There were moments of technical brilliance heightened by a sweeping yet strong quality, a grand ronde jambe to arabesque, a stunning penchee with a flexed foot. Dancy finished his run with a full round of appreciative snaps from the company and then it was Alexander’s turn.
It was like watching an entirely different piece of choreography. Some moments that took my breath away in Alexander’s rendition I had somehow missed with Dancy, and vice-versa. I can only imagine the same would be true with Poe or Crumbaugh. Each of these dancers present such strong talent but a different experience of the music and choreography.However, I don’t think anyone could master such fluid transitions from a fully extended position held aloft on leg to suddenly sinking to the floor in a contraction as Alexander. There is something almost inhuman in this effortless execution but his manipulation of music and presence even in moments of stillness lend a quality that moves as much as it mesmerizes.
Who will be chosen? When they ditch the sweats and socks, what will they wear? There were so many questions I had. I guess we will have to wait for the show to find out. Here are a few questions that did get immediate answers.
Ten Questions with Katarzyna ‘Kate’ Skarpetowska
Please tell me a bit about the piece that you are choreographing for The Big Muddy Dance Company; what was the inspiration, how did you find the right music? Was it a piece that you’ve been thinking of for a while or was it a brand new idea?
This work is inspired by Oliver Sack’ book, “Awakenings”. Michael Uthoff proposed this task shortly after he got in touch with me to see if I was available for the NdH3 project.It is a work that is being studied by one of the sponsors of NdH3, the St. Louis college of Pharmacy. My intention was to take this written account of post encephalic patients and their amazing transformation after the administration of drug called L-DOPA, merely as a departure point for exploring the vividness, euphoria, and rapture of a life previously inaccessible; a life in which the stream of being flows uninterrupted, and also to examine a sense of loss and mourning for that which was only temporary and will never return again. I never intended to treat it literally, chronologically, or linearly so the viewer should not expect to see a hospital scene. “Awakenings” is full of kinetic imagery which I wanted to explore, especially those of pr L-dopa state, the state of isolation, the feeling of constriction and charged immobilization. the statue-like state was fascinating. The awakening itself in this dance I imagined as a ferocious, extremely dense, and expressive baroque ball. I have had this beautiful piece by a baroque composer, Marin Marais, in mind for an eventual piece and I’ve finally a project where to use it. The work ends with an aria from Handel’s Rodelina called Ritorna o caro E Dolce mil Tesoro which is a simple plea for the return of that which has been lost.
What does your typical process as a choreographer look like? Does it differ from job to job?
The process for me, more often that not, starts with the music.In this case, it started with the book.I also think about what type of dancers the work will be made for and with. I tend to custom tailor the dance to the abilities and sensibilities of the artists in front of me. I choreograph in the abstract, however the work is always subtly influenced by what is happening to me at the time of creation, the way life is affecting me at that moment. In short, you start out with a clear intention and yet the work takes you in another direction. In may ways, I think it’s already there, it’s just waiting to get out; waiting for you to catch up and make it!
What mental state do you have to be in to choreograph something that you feel proud of and represents you?
I think you have to be open and listening to what your intuition tells you.the work comes from you, your imagination, you have to listen very deeply to the work that already exists somewhere within you and follow it. the greatest gift is to find dancers who can recognize that and come on the journey with you.
You’ve had a diverse career as a performer, ranging from musical theater to modern companies such as Parsons Dance Company and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. How have these different experiences shaped your movement vocabulary and what you love about dance?
I believe I am a product of everything I’ve experienced plus my own sensibilities as an artist. I am forever influenced by all those whom I have worked as they, and their work have been influenced by what I have brought to it. I think that is also what I absolutely love about the art of dance. It is that constant intuitive sharing and exchanging of ideas on a very much so elevated plane graced with mutual inspiration.All artists exist on a higher frequency when creating and when you have a roomful of people who are able to access that frequency together, magic happens.
You began dancing at 13, which would be considered a late start in the United States. What was your life like before dance? What role does dance- as a teacher, performer, and choreographer- fill in your life today?
I grew up behind the iron curtain in Poland so unless you were chosen early in life to be educated by the National Ballet Academy, there were very little options. I discovered dance purely by chance. In the late 80’s, things were changing politically and economically and private businesses were sprouting up all over. Some of my friends were going to a new dance studio after school and just to hang out with them, I tagged along. The rest is history. I discovered I had talent and nothing else mattered after that I suppose. I found the thing that was to define me for the rest of my life. As Lar Lubovitch said to me once, ‘Kate, you and I are lifers”.
You attended Juilliard for a BFA in dance; what are the benefits that have come from pursuing dance in college?
For me it was very essential because I started late. I always had a lot of catching up to do. I think conservatory programs and the missions of second companies like Ailey 2, Hubbard Street 2, ABT 2, and DanceWorks Chicago are really great in formation of future professionals. I think college level dance programs can vary in their level of usefulness and I think this depends on many factors. I have seen amazing dancers come through these programs, many of them starting dancing in college and would never have discovered dance if it wasn’t for their college’s dance program and now they have amazing careers. On the other side of the coin, I have seen dance majors who, I feel, are some part of a college quota bringing in tuition money and having all the expectation of working in the field for which they are preparing but having,in all likelihood, very little chance at it.then again, those are the people who become the future patrons of dance, future donors and sponsors, future arts administrators, or they pursue the production aspect of the dance profession: stage managers, company managers, lighting or costume designers, etc., or maybe they become dance therapists, physical therapists, or doctors specializing in dance injuries. Or, if they choose not to follow any career connected to dance, I am sure they have benefitted somehow in connecting to their bodies and this ancient art form. the point is I guess, study what you want if it makes you happy! The dance form can be very elitist or very subjective where there is room for all sorts of expression.It all depends on who you talk to and with what angle.
While dancing with so many high-profile dance companies, you must have come across diverse personalities. How have the directors and choreographers that you have worked with shaped your work ethic and relationship with dancers when you are the choreographer?
I think you take out the worst of what you have experience and seen and try to implement the best. I think we all have our ‘days’.it is arduous work to create something and at times frustrating, every process has its’ arc. I try to be as fair and articulate as possible, try to keep it light and defuse any tension I find within or in front of me, but of course it happens. It’s inevitable. I try to develop relationships with the artists in front of me during the process, try to understand their thresholds, their personalities; some you can leave to their own devices from the beginning, others you have to cater to a bit more to get out of them what you need. We are al so highly tuned in a delicate process. everybody’s experience of the same situation will be different. However, you want that intensity in the room because it creates a dense, highly concentrated energy pool and that in turn, creates everything you are there to do. However, in many ways, for the choreographer, it is a very lonely place of existence.
You are no stranger to walking into the unknown to begin a new work; does it make you at all nervous? What are the challenges and the best parts of working in a short-term residency rather than staying as a resident choreographer with one company?
I like the challenge and the newness of working with an unknown group of dancers. Because of the lack af familiarity, there is a possibility of creating something unpredictable and unexpected, surprising. On the other hand, there is a risk of working with someone you do not develop a creative relationship with, there is no dialog, or you feel limited creative, physical or movement imagination abilities and that is scary because all of a sudden you feel trapped and you have to dig really deep to get out and find some form of connection to accomplish and create something you can sign your name to. working with people you have worked with before gives you a sense of security and trust but the process can sometimes lack in spontaneity because everybody knows each other and each other’s creative tendencies and response to well. On the other hand, with a group you know intimately, there is agreat possibility of creating something more profound, perhaps on he level where the highest art exists altogether; you can create something more layered, complex.
Have you enjoyed your time in St. Louis? Did you see or do something, eat at or visit any place that you particularly enjoyed? What did you enjoy the most about working specifically with The Big Muddy Dance Company?
I loved working with Big Muddy, they are an incredibly dedicated and creative group of people, absolutely tireless and giving. We have had a really seamless process. The dance seemed to have been making itself in front of us, despite of us. It was like coloring in the lines. I wanted to visit the city museum (every time I’m in st. Louis I want to do it and never get a chance to) and go exploring the music scene, but whenever I’m creating, I seem to live and breathe the process until it is completed and have a hard time distracting myself from it, and then there is always catching up on whatever comes next and unearthing yourself from what you’re doing now to respond to old emails and keeping up with deadlines. Everything seems to happen too fast!
Eating, unfortunately, I cannot do without, so I was exploring all that downtown had to offer. Culinaria was a wine stop, loved Mango (delicious!) and Mr. Curry’s on Olive Street that had funky hours but was to die for! Also Rooster and The Bridge had yummy treats. Pickles deli was my daily stop for breakfast/lunch before rehearsal. It reminded me of New York City delis. I felt at home starting my day. Amazing egg sandwiches made by cute guys. They got me going every morning!
The hotel I stayed at was next to a ballpark and even though I know nothing about baseball, the energy of the almost nightly game was infectious. Now I kind of want to go see the Cardinals play when I return in October.
If you could set your choreography on any one male and one female dancer past or present, who would you choose?
Wendy Whelan and Shen Wei.
Thank you to The Big Muddy Dance Company for sharing your rehearsal with me and to Kate for taking the time to share such beautiful answers and thoughts on dance.
This incredible work, who will do the solo, and offerings from MADCO and St. Louis Ballet in New Dance Horzions3 wll be shown at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on October 10th and 11th. Get your tickets and don’t miss it!