When Chunky Move’s artistic director Gideon Obarzanek came up with the concept for I Want to Dance Better at Parties, he was thinking more of the TV screen than the stage. A documentary fan with an interest in producing work for television, he wanted to make a film that examined men’s attitudes toward dancing. The information he gathered from his subjects, who included a widowed father and a gay clog dancer, led him in an unexpected direction.
Obarzanek trained as a ballet dancer in Australia, drifting from his classical background to work as an independent performer and choreographer before founding Chunky Move in 1995. Though the company has performed throughout Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and Europe, it has rarely shown work in the United States. The current tour marks the troupe’s California debut. Obarzanek spoke with me about his work from Chicago last week.
How did the concept of interviewing men about dancing arise? I was speaking with a film and TV producer, and I suggested making a work about men’s experiences of dance, and what you can tell about somebody through the way they dance. I started to write a treatment for the piece, and in doing so I interviewed men about dance. These interviews were quite detailed. With some men, the topic of dance digressed into details about their personal lives, their issues, tensions, and desires. A lot of what we talked about wasn’t very relevant for the TV piece, but I found it fascinating, and figured I could use it to make a live work.
How did you find the men? Through friends and contacts. I also approached ethnic groups like the Greek community in Melbourne, and the Israeli folk dancers. In the end I focused on just five men because their stories were very interesting and because I was able to find my own language to respond to those stories. Some stories were fascinating, but I couldn’t find anything that I knew how to work with choreographically.
Tell me about the process of taking those stories and creating movement from them. For each character, you can divide the work into two parts. The first part is very literal: there’s a film of these men discussing dance in their lives, and my dancers actually perform movement based on what the men showed us of how and what they dance. In the second part, the men talk about more personal matters, and for that section we created movement to express the emotion of what they’re saying. It would be easy to fall into the trap of being too literal, so it’s really more of a comment on what they’re saying. The latter part of the work becomes very much my work and my take on these subjects.
Would you say you’re using the text for inspiration the way some choreographers use music? Very much so. It’s also very similar to film in the way it was put together. The music-which is by Pretty Boy Crossover-was done a lot like film; it was added after the scenes were made.
How have the five men featured in the work reacted to the show? I was very concerned when we were first about to put it on because a couple stories were very personal. I thought they might even ask us not to do it, so I invited them to our rehearsals in final weeks. They came with their families, and they were all very happy for it to go ahead. I started the project in 2004, and I’m still in contact with all five of them.
Chunky Move performs I Want to Dance Better at Parties at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday March 14 at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 8933535 or visit www.artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.