Stepping to a new level
In his dances, a Boston native reaches to embrace virtuosity, maturity
By Valerie Gladstone, Globe Correspondent | October 26, 2007
NEW YORK - On a muggy evening, choreographer Seán Curran climbs the stairs of an old building in Manhattan's Chinatown to rehearse his troupe for a three-day engagement at the Tsai Performance Center. A Boston native, Curran feels extra pressure when his company performs in his hometown.
"It's nerve-racking," Curran says of the visit, which will take place this weekend, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. "My entire family comes. They're not really into contemporary dance. So the stakes are high."
His dancers, already sweaty from warming up, smile as they greet the choreographer, who sports a spiky haircut and is wearing a black T-shirt, brown corduroys, and striped socks. They launch into "The Nothing That Is Not There and the Nothing That Is," a name drawn from a Wallace Stevens poem.
To a poignant Leos Janacek piano score, Kevin Scarpin and Evan Copeland walk slowly across the studio, as if in another world. Nora Brickman and Francisca Romo glance at them and then jump center stage, swiftly raising their hands in gestures of refusal. "I want the shapes of your arms to be more angular, more graphic," Curran says, showing them what he means. "The music reflects the composer's feelings of loss and of a life overgrown with memories. The piece is harsh. It's about people unable to connect."
Connecting with people is, in fact, the 46-year-old Curran's greatest strength. Articulate, gregarious, and a natural teacher, he has attracted wide audiences for his witty, highly athletic, visually pleasing, and philosophical dances. They grow out of his eclectic background, which began with a childhood devoted to Irish step dancing, continued with modern-dance training at New York University, and was followed by 10 years performing with the celebrated Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and four years starring in the original cast of the off-Broadway hit show "Stomp."
"I learned about speed, musicality, and counterpoint from step dancing," says Curran. "It gave me an appreciation for virtuosity and showmanship. They underlie everything I do. I choreograph to please the eye. Bill T. schooled me in improvisation. Dancing with his company was like being in a laboratory. I've learned about scale, sets, lighting, and theatricality from [choreographing for] opera, and the importance of research because I have to know the scores. It all adds up to a pretty interesting education."
Indeed, with that wide-ranging education, Curran seems to have graduated to a new level of maturity as a choreographer. Now celebrating its 10th season, the Seán Curran Company performs regularly in New York and tours extensively in the United States and abroad. Curran increasingly choreographs for opera and theater, including the Metropolitan Opera and New York's Shakespeare Festival. A passionate modern-dance advocate, he teaches at the Boston Conservatory, among other schools.
Meanwhile he has evolved artistically, along with his company. Most of his dancers are now at least 20 years younger than he is, and some have backgrounds in yoga and Pilates and are heavily influenced by street and club dancing. (Success hasn't precluded challenges: Curran recently had to trim his company from nine members to six, squeezed like many arts organizations by decreases in funding; two guests will dance with the company in Boston.)
"I'm moving into a new period," Curran says. "I'm no longer a colleague of my dancers; I'm the boss. I look kind of funny when I dance with them, so now I only do solos. My new pieces are also very different than the older ones. They're more contemplative, without being any less vigorous and athletic. I jokingly call my new style postmodern Baroque."
Boston audiences will see two superb examples of Curran's new style: "Social Discourse," a world premiere to a soundtrack by Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, and the acclaimed "Aria/Apology" (tonight and tomorrow only), set to Handel arias and recordings from the confessional Apology Project. The late artist Allan Bridge began the project in the '80s by giving people the freedom to call his voice mail anonymously and leave apologies for things they were sorry they had done. He was inundated with calls. After compiling them, he set up a website and published them in a magazine. Listening to the recordings is rough going. They concern murder, rape, and incest, often by people who do not seem remorseful.
"The apologies are about being wrong," Curran reminds the dancers before rehearsing "Aria/Apology," "and the arias are about grace." They take positions lying on the floor as an apology for a rape begins, the man's voice gruff and defensive. The simple juxtaposition of the passive figures with the description of the heinous act creates a feeling of horror and sadness in the studio. As the ugly words fade away and a glorious aria takes their place, dancers move into a series of lushly tender duets and solos, only to come to a standstill as another anonymous caller talks of killing a gay man. Scarpin then takes center stage, going from one angular position to another in shapes that Curran discovered in paintings of St. Sebastian - an icon for many in the gay community, Curran notes.
The Apology Project struck a chord with Curran in part, he says, "because of my history. I only got sober 13 years ago and I had to make a lot of amends to people for the disappointment and hurt that I had caused. I know a lot about shame and guilt and the need to apologize and get it out."
After the intensity of "Aria/Apology," the dancers move on to the more lyrical "Social Discourse." The piece "is about this new stage I've entered," Curran explains. "It concerns discussions the dancers have among themselves and discussions between me and them, about ideas and new ways of moving. It's fast and frenetic, as if everyone is talking at the same time, sort of like what happens when I give them a problem to solve."
All of his work is collaborative, Curran says: "This time I asked each of them to make a letter S with their bodies. . . . We ended up with six phrases, each a distinctive portrait. And that became the basis of this piece."
As Copeland demonstrates his S, curving and winding his body into all kinds of intriguing shapes, it is easy to see why Curran's dancers thrive in his company.
"Seán really allows us to put our own personality into his work," says Brickman. "Of course, it's still very much his choreography. Some dancers may find it wonderful to belong to big companies and do the dances of choreographers with great legacies, often learning them off videotape, and being told to do them exactly as dancers of the past. But I love Seán's gift to us of collaboration. He gives us the nugget and then lets us develop it. We become part of the creative process. That's why most of us first decided to be dancers."