Last Friday, pedestrians on Anacapa Street stopped to peer through the giant doors that open directly onto the stage of the Lobero Theatre. They appeared in silhouette, bright afternoon light spilling past them to illuminate a crowd of 50 or so people. One man stood center stage, wearing a wetsuit and propping a surfboard on end. Around him, a woman in a gauzy blouse rode a beach cruiser bicycle in lazy circles, while nearby a six-year-old boy whizzed back and forth on his skateboard. The rest of the crowd milled about in small groups at the edges of the space. Then, as if propelled by an ocean current, they began to wash onto the stage. Three women moved in unison, bending their knees and raising their hands in a fluid prayer. A line of dancers surged across the back of the stage, circling their arms over their heads like swimmers in a watery corps de ballet. The passersby watched from the street as one scene after the next unfolded: A group performed a fiery flamenco number with beach towels; a gaggle of women chased a single man across the stage; a dozen yogis performed sun salutations.
This weekend at the Lobero Theatre, a group of amateur dancers drawn from across the community will perform “Bolero Santa Barbara,” a 10-minute dance created over the course of the past month and intended as a celebration of the spirit of this community. Most of the performers have little or no prior dance experience, yet they’ve invested five to 10 hours each week in rehearsals with New York choreographer Larry Keigwin and members of his company.
Keigwin’s month-long artistic residency at the Lobero is the second such project sponsored by DANCEworks, the successor of SUMMERDANCE Santa Barbara, which suspended its programs in 2006. For 10 years, SUMMERDANCE was a beloved annual festival that brought up-and-coming companies to town to teach community classes, hold open rehearsals, and give numerous performances around town. When SUMMERDANCE executive director Dianne Vapnek launched DANCEworks last year, her vision was to streamline the SUMMERDANCE concept, focusing on providing an unprecedented opportunity for one emerging choreographer and company of dancers to work intensively for a full month on the very stage where they would then perform.
Last year, in its inaugural season, DANCEworks brought New York’s Aszure Barton and her company to the Lobero for a month of rehearsals and master classes, culminating in one of the most exciting contemporary dance performances the city has seen yet. Like Barton’s residency, Keigwin’s visit gives the choreographer time and space to rehearse existing repertory and generate new work for his six-member professional company. But with the addition of “Bolero,” Keigwin is invoking the inclusive spirit of SUMMERDANCE, and tapping into an even older Santa Barbara tradition of community arts and celebration that goes back to the early years of the Summer Solstice Parade.
This won’t be the first time Keigwin has created a piece for a large group of non-dancers. He choreographed “Bolero New York” in 2007, and followed it up with “Bolero Colorado” in 2009. In each case, he used the same musical score: Maurice Ravel’s rousing and instantly recognizable orchestral work Boléro. As with all his choreography, Keigwin’s “Boleros” are high in entertainment value, delivering arresting, original images with a witty sense of humor. “Bolero New York” sought to capture the spirit of that city by focusing on themes of density and diversity; the Denver version focused on ecology and sustainability and included scenes of downhill skiing, litter pickups, and replacing incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient ones.
Since his first visit to Santa Barbara in the late ’90s as a dancer with Mark Dendy, Keigwin has returned to town four times, building on his relationship with Vapnek and SUMMERDANCE. Over the course of those years, he has emerged as a major player in modern dance’s younger generation. Since founding Keigwin + Company in 2003, he has been presented at the American Dance Festival and at Jacob’s Pillow. The company recently enjoyed a solo week at the Joyce Theater, New York’s top venue for modern dance. Keigwin’s work is athletic, exhilarating, sophisticated, and technically refined. It’s also sassy, sexy, and fabulously fun to watch. Why would a choreographer with so many professional opportunities choose to spend an entire month working with non-dancers to create a work that will be seen only by Santa Barbara audiences?
“Yeah, it’s a lot of work,” he admitted over coffee at The French Press last week, “but it makes our experience here so much richer to be mixing and mingling. This is what we’ll take home with us—the people we’ve gotten to know.”
For a choreographer of his caliber, Keigwin is a surprisingly unassuming character. Onstage and off, he’s approachable and chatty, and he often seems to be on the verge of laughter. In rehearsals for “Bolero,” he has plenty of cause for frustration: Few of the dancers are familiar with counting music and, therefore, miss their cues repeatedly; busy schedules and last-minute conflicts mean he’s never working with quite the same group; some dancers are inclined to ask questions or suggest adaptations at inopportune moments. But Keigwin sails through each day with ease, casting his broad smile on each new situation and erupting into giggles frequently. His sense of humor is contagious: Rehearsals are always an exercise in controlled hilarity. It’s obvious everyone in the cast adores him.
Rhonda Grant, a fiction writer who read about the casting call for “Bolero” on Craigslist, says she has been inspired by Keigwin’s approach. “I’ve never seen someone work on the fly like this, and with a bunch of non-dancers,” she enthused. “He’s picked up on our strengths and weaknesses and made the whole thing flow. Someone does a movement that looks awkward or embarrassing, and he turns it into something wonderful.” Fellow cast member Randy Franks, an interior designer, admitted to mounting stage fright in the lead-up to opening night. “I’m confident he’ll have us ready, even though the dance is still in fragments,” he said. “But I still get a little nervous.” For Franks, the best part of being in “Bolero” is the opportunity to connect with other Santa Barbarans. “It’s a very bonding experience,” he said. “So much of our lives we see the same people over and over. We’re all so busy. Rehearsals for ‘Bolero’ are like recess at school.”
According to Keigwin’s company members, the dancers of “Bolero Santa Barbara” are more in touch with their bodies than those in New York and Denver. “This is the first ‘Bolero’ where Larry’s been able to do real dance movement,” explained Ashley Browne, associate choreographer for “Bolero.” “Whether or not they have dance experience, they are natural performers.” It’s true: many “Bolero” cast members have performed in the Summer Solstice Parade or in other settings. Some have done gymnastics and aerial work; others have experience in acting. Among the cast are yoga instructors and ballroom dancers, as well as schoolteachers, administrators, writers, surfers, retirees, and meditation practitioners. At a rehearsal two weeks ago, a choreographer handed her business card to a hula-hoop instructor, while in the corner, an art teacher and a retirement home employee sat down for a chat. Franks is right: Rehearsals are serving as a chance for Santa Barbarans to get to know one another better.
For Keigwin + Company, the month in Santa Barbara is about more than “Bolero,” They’re also working on a new piece that will premiere this weekend, and they’re rehearsing two other works from the existing repertory. “Being on stage for the whole month is really a gift,” Keigwin explained of the opportunity of DANCEworks. “I can think theatrically from the beginning. Building a work that’s site specific gives it texture that’s not bred in a dance studio.” Apparently, the dark, windowless theater space has led to an emerging theme for the new work; Keigwin described it as “film noir—surrealist, darker, with two ghost lights on stage and chairs on rollers.” The rest of the program will consist of “Air,” “a full-blown dance work” that’s at turns campy and serious, and “Triptych,” which he called “an austere dance essay.”
There’s no doubt Keigwin’s professional company will deliver one of the year’s pinnacle dance performances. Yet for many in town, the highlight of this weekend’s shows will be “Bolero Santa Barbara,” the joyous, unbridled celebration of our city performed by those who call it home. Keigwin says his themes this time around are “sun, surf, and celebration,” though he finds it hard to limit himself to just a few words when describing “Bolero Santa Barbara.” “It’s about freedom,” he said, throwing his arms wide. “It’s about color. We’re taking cues from the sun, surf, wind, and waves.” He’s also taking cues from the performers, as he does with his professional company. “I think part of the job of a choreographer is to excavate personalities,” he said, adding, “It’s about being observant. We’re still digging and finding gems.”
And while it’s easy to see “Bolero Santa Barbara” as a gift to this community, Keigwin says the process of working with amateurs also enriches the rest of his work. “When I see non-dancers taking such huge risks,” he said, “it reminds me that we can go farther.”
Larry Keigwin + Company will perform at the Lobero Theatre on Friday, April 23, and Saturday, April 24, at 8 p.m. Both shows will conclude with “Bolero Santa Barbara.” For more information, visit sbdanceworks.com. Check out video footage of the rehearsal process at davidbazemore.com/Pages/DANCEworks.html. For tickets, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.