A Dance With Dan Wagoner
With our current Dream 2 Dance At Any Age project, Monkeyhouse has been interested in looking at elderly people and how they think about how they move. For this project, our summer intern, Gaby Mervis, interviewed Dan Wagoner, a very notable "older" choreographer who studied with the greatest.
GM: Why did you start choreographing?
DW: Well I started dancing first. And I danced out of an intuitive impulse to perform and to dance. And music, I love music. So I started dancing, went to New York and I danced with Martha Graham and Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham and after I had been with Paul for about eight years, I realized I really wanted to think about aesthetics, the way to dance. I wanted to do dance differently than the way I was dancing. So I left the company and started very modestly making dances and working with a group of dancers and from there on just built into my company. I had the company for 25 years.
GM: Was it difficult for you moving to New York from rural West Virginia?
DW: It was more difficult in a way that was for me like going to the moon. Back at that time, there wasn't that much good training out of New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles. So you picked it up wherever you could. I had a degree in pharmacy and when I doing that I started dancing with the modern dance group at West Virginia University. I had no real training or whatever. I guess I just followed my instincts. Maybe I copied Gene Kelly movies or something. Then I started choreographing. I enjoyed it and when I went to New York, I felt like I needed to work on a lot of my technical skills. And learn a lot more and did. And New York was very exciting at that time. Late 50s, early 60s. It was a very exciting place. Music, dance, everything was going on. And the more I danced, the more I fell in love with it.
GM: Who are some of your favorite choreographers?
DW: Well, different ones for different reasons. But I like Merce Cunningham's work very much and I go to see Paul quite regularly. And I used to like Twyla's work. I haven't seen it recently and I think it's changed. I guess those are the ones that I would mention.
GM: What was it like studying with people like Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Taylor?
DW: Well of course I was very excited because I had read about them in books. I read anything I could get my hands on. I was passionately in love with dance and I don't know why. So of course when I first saw those people was at Connecticut College at the American Dance Festival in the Summer and of course I couldn't believe I was in the same room as Doris Humphrey and Jose Limon, Louis Horst, and Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. I was just trembling with excitement. And I was very fortunate that I seemed to dance in a way that interested most of these people. I never auditioned. I was asked to perform with all these companies. And I just assumed that's what happened with everybody.
GM: Why did you end your company, "Dan Wagoner and Dancers," after 25 years of successful work?
DW: At the time I had a close companion, George Montgomery, who had Huntington's Disease. Well I was trying to take care of him and then the press came out with homoerotic photographs. And many things happened that made the government: senators and house of representatives, very angry because they thought it was pornographic and they tried to do away with me. My funding stopped completely. George was ill, I was trying to take care of him and I just couldn't. I was overwhelmed with taking care of George and trying to raise money and all that so I just decided I had to give up the company.
GM: In general, do you show your work to people while you are developing it?
DW: Well of course I'm not making that many new works anymore. I don't have commission. There would be certain times I wouldn't want people there but at other times, it would be perfectly alright for people to watch. It changes the situation, of course. The minute you have people sitting and watching but no, that would be alright.
GM: What was the first piece you ever choreographed?
DW: Let me think. The first piece I really made was called Dan's Run Penny Supper and I left Paul Taylor, and Harry Bernstein hired me at Adelphi University to teach and he gave me a commission to make a dance for the senior dancers and that was Dan's Run Penny Supper. And then later on, the next year, I did a concert, my first concert at a church, and I did that piece and two other duets. I guess Dan's Run Penny Supper was really my first piece. And I used traditional music; old-timey music with banjos and fiddles.
GM: What do you remember about the first public performance of your work?
DW: Jennifer Tipton did my lights. I guess I just remember an incredible mixture of fear and tremendous excitement. And pleasure. The space was good. The audience that came was very receptive. And it just seemed like I was doing what I was meant to do.
GM: How do you record your choreography?
DW: It's frustrating, but sometimes, I'll write out musical scores, but mostly it's video. I have had two or three pieces that have been notated at the laban center in New York.
GM: Have you seen any significant shifts in your work or the creation of your work?
DW: I guess. I'm sure it has shifted and changed. I've been doing it for so long that I've changed. I haven't been making that much work more recently because I've been teaching at universities. And usually the dancers are so busy that you can't get a good chunk of rehearsal time. And my dances are intricate and difficult usually so it takes a lot of time and I haven't had that.
GM: How old are you?
DW: Sunday was my birthday. 76.
GM: Do you tend to create pieces for a large group of dancers or a smaller amount?
DW: I like the idea of using a larger group. As much as fifteen dancers, but I usually don't have that luxury. So I usually do seven or eight.
GM: What is your favorite piece that you have choreographed?
DW: I think it was the last piece I made to the music of a string quartet. It was the last piece I made for the London Contemporary Dance Theater. The music is very complex.
GM: You teach at Connecticut College now?
DW: No, I am at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
GM: And you teach a technique class?
DW: I teach technique and choreography. And I do some other mentoring and stuff. It's a big department. It has a master of fine arts program. So I do a lot of counseling and mentoring.
GM: How long have you been down there?
DW: Three years.
GM: When you were a guest artist at a school, would you have the piece choreographed already or do you develop it as you get to know the dancers?
DW: It worked out both ways. Usually I would try to use material that I had used in some way, if not the same exact dance. Again, because the time was usually limited. And you had to get right into movement vocabulary and teaching how to do the steps. And then trying to add an artistic over-line to try to really approach a serious dance. But it worked out both ways.
GM: Can you tell me about the project that you're doing now at Summer Stages?
DW: Well I taught technique for the first week and what I'm doing now is every dancer is enrolled to take this repertory class. The technical levels are all really different. So I am trying to reconstruct two sections from two dances that already exist. And to try to keep it exact and yet work with it so it is at a level that they can actually dance it and not just make steps. So that's a really tough one.
GM: How old are these dances?
DW: One dance is from '84 and the other is from '91.
GM: What is the difference in using dancers that are so much younger than the ones in these pieces originally?
DW: Well they are very different. The culture has changed tremendously. I think of dance as behavior. We behave very differently because in your culture you were raised with all these machines and sound and images and visuals. The dancers now-a-days, I feel I have to push. It's almost as if they believe the machines are going to do it. Like if you want to lose weight, it's like they want to get on a machine and just stand there. As when I do it, I use movement with the body. But I enjoy a lot of younger dancers. Their technical skills are often very high. I find that they often don't energized the movement. They don't push themselves or extend themselves. They pull back. I like to really push the boundaries of the movement. A Big, strong, elongated body. And strong use of the pelvic area. So I do enjoy a lot of younger dancers but I find that I really have to push for the kind of dancers I really want.
GM: What is the process of rebuilding a piece like?
DW: It is very fun and frustrating. Because you have to learn it from recorded video. So I'm not good at taking it off the video myself, but I try to start with the dancers taking it and then I have to go back. Because you can't always see the exact intent, the weight, and the quality. So I have to go back and try to really remember what I did when I first made it.