Keith Johnson and Stephanie Nugent Share the Results of a Decade’s Collaboration
by Elizabeth Schwyzer
Throughout the course of the past 15 years, UCSB Associate Professor of Dance Stephanie Nugent has built an impressive career as a choreographer and teacher, traveling the country to offer dance improvisation workshops, performing in her own solo and group works, and setting her work on a changing company of professional dancers. At the same time, she has continued to perform in other artists’ work, maintaining an especially close relationship with choreographer Keith Johnson — once a fellow dancer with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in Utah, and later one of her graduate school instructors at Cal State University Long Beach, where Johnson still teaches. This weekend at Center Stage Theater, Nugent will perform in two group works and one solo choreographed by Johnson, as well as present her own quintet, “Frame/Reframe,” last shown in November at Dance New Amsterdam in New York.
In her philosophical yet instinctual approach to making dances, as well as her athletic and technically rigorous dance vocabulary, Nugent shares common ground with Johnson as an artist. She’s also one of the prime interpreters of his work, having cocreated and performed his dances for more than a decade.
Johnson is a dance artist with impressive credentials, including work with New York choreographers Bill T. Jones and Doug Varone. An Arizona native, he went to Brigham Young University on a gymnastics scholarship, only discovering dance in his senior year. “I took to it easily,” said Johnson, who has remained immersed in the world of dance ever since, though his journey has taken him far from the conservative religious environment of BYU. Reflecting on his college experience, Johnson said, “I was gay, I was Catholic; I was a minority. I felt like I had no voice there, and I felt a lot of parallels with women. I had a memory of wanting to say things and always biting the inside of my mouth — I always had that vague taste of blood.” In 2005, Johnson returned to BYU to create a solo about a young woman who was about to graduate and get married, and was feeling pressure to start a family. “‘The Last Sliver of Sunlight’ is about the frustration of not being able to find your voice,” Johnson said. This weekend, Nugent will perform a reconstruction of “The Last Sliver,” and Johnson claimed she brings a very different tone to the work. “Steph brings maturity to it — she’s a woman who’s not a victim. She comes out with fierceness, and then retreats into vulnerability.”
In addition to “The Last Sliver,” Johnson will also present “Outside Looking Up (Still)/Blueprint for a Goodbye,” a trio created in 2001 shortly after his mother died of cancer and in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center. “It was my way of going through the steps of letting go, after trying so hard to hold on,” Johnson said. “It’s about all the things you never know about the people who are closest to you.” Nugent will dance in “Outside Looking Up” and will also appear in the premiere of Johnson’s most recent work, “I Dream a Highway.” The duet is an exploration of the stoicism and longing of the Dustbowl generation, inspired by old photographs of migrant farmworkers.
As for Stephanie Nugent, she’ll always be at the heart of Johnson’s work. “She’s such an amazing dancer, it kind of floors me,” he said. “She’s my muse. She picks up my material quickly, and she can take it to the next level intuitively. It’s the kind of working relationship every choreographer wants.”
Iridian Arts presents Stephanie Nugent and Keith Johnson at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo), Saturday, February 10 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, February 11 at 2 and 8 p.m. For tickets, call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org. To learn more about Iridian Arts or to see this year’s lineup of events, visit iridianarts.com or call 569-2391.