From Sole to Soul: A Choreographer's Journey, Part 2

By Ryan P. Casey

As proud as I was to have created and performed my original tap choreography with my original poetry, I had not initially envisioned a solo piece. I had sacrificed my original vision to produce something that was, at the time, more feasible given time and budget constraints. The solo turned out to be more successful than I had imagined, but I was still itching to get to work with a group of dancers and incorporate other styles besides tap.
Earlier this year, my opportunity arrived. Boston’s own Urbanity Dance announced that they were seeking a ‘wildcard choreographer’ to set a piece for their spring show, “Mixtape” – someone whose background was not necessarily in dance. I was already familiar with the company, having been to some of their previous shows to support Lori LoTurco, a company member who had been my jazz teacher for many years, and having recommended them for a segment on The Steve Katsos Show, on which I had previously made an appearance. Eagerly, I submitted my proposal and was thrilled days later when director Betsi Graves Akerstein called and offered me the position.
My excitement was matched only by my anxiety. Urbanity, while featuring dancers with rich backgrounds, is primarily a contemporary dance company. And my dancers would not just be using my recording, but also reciting portions of the poem aloud. I not only had to craft an entirely new structure for the routine, playing with which lines and stanzas would be spoken and which would stay in the recording, but I had to develop a very clear vision of what I wanted to see so that the dancers could help me choreograph in a style that was not my own. And I had only seven hours in the studio over the course of a weekend to work with them.
I reverted again to the “first thought, best thought” strategy, going through the poem and writing down precisely what I had first envisioned when I had written it. As I now had six contemporary dancers to work with, rather than just myself tapping, I had the opportunity to take a more visual approach to my choreography. In some cases, it was much easier to adapt themes or ideas from my solo for an ensemble. For example, the walking motif that formed the backbone of the original piece was more effective when I had a group of dancers who could easily bring to life the image of a crowded Manhattan sidewalk. As I did not have to focus on the rhythms of their feet, I could experiment with the rhythms of their upper bodies and their legs and how those more visual rhythms told the story. I was also able to develop a cast of characters by costuming the dancers uniquely and giving them individual, pedestrian movements to repeat throughout the routine. The sensations of confusion, overstimulation, and isolation that pervade an urban setting were easier to depict with an ensemble of dancers. I maintained my tap roots with a body percussion section as a reminder that the crux of the piece was still rhythm, even though the dominant style of dance had changed.
Perhaps the most effective choreographic decision derived from Betsi herself, who found a brilliant way to utilize the Boston University Dance Theatre to adequately set the scene. During my piece, the shades were raised on the windows on the stage’s back wall, revealing the sidewalk and street behind it. The lights from cars and buildings outside, and the shadows and movements of pedestrians – including curious ones who peeked in to see what was happening – provided the perfect backdrop to a piece about assimilating into city life.
I was fortunate to work with a cast who were willing to explore with me, offer their own ideas, implement my cues quickly and creatively, and learn their parts as both dancers and slam poets.
Company member Kate Patten Cook reflected on the experience:

It was unlike any choreographic experience I've been involved in. I'm used to being told what moves to do to which parts of the music, and how those moves should work alongside of the tempo and melody. With Push, we had no specific moves, no music, no tempo, and no melody. I was scared at first to dance through the silence. I was scared to have to improvise and invent more than I'd ever had to working on a piece in the past. I was scared that we might not be able to work through the whole piece in a way that was outside of all of our comfort zones in a short period of time.
But almost instantly, things started coming together. We learned to hear the rhythm and the beat and even the melody of the words that were being spoken. The more time we spent with Ryan, the clearer his vision became. Some of the phrases we tried didn't work, so we threw them aside. Ultimately, each one of the dancers had some creative input in what we did with our bodies. And Ryan wove it all together.
The experience of speaking onstage while dancing might have been the scariest bit of all. I hadn't been in a play since the third grade, and had never had to talk while dancing in the past. At first, I felt discombobulated - and exhausted - to force words out of my lungs while turning, swooping and kicking. But bit by bit, we all go the hang of it. It was an experience of discovering a new layer of strength as a dancer and performer. And I loved it.”
In retrospect, I think both the solo and the ensemble piece have their respective strengths. They both approach the poem in different ways, emphasizing different themes while staying true to my original purpose. And there is still so much to explore that neither piece covers. I would love to set this piece on an ensemble group of tap dancers; or to create a duet with a contemporary dancer in which I represent the Pedestrian and s/he represents the City; or to do the same with a group of tap dancers and a group of modern dancers; or to revamp my solo so that I can say some of the poem aloud. The poem itself offers so many creative avenues to follow that I have not yet begun to investigate. For now, though, I am pleased with both pieces.
What do you think about each piece? Is one more powerful or engaging than the other? Does one stand out to you? What else could I do to interpret the poem and my ideas onstage?

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