It’s noon on a Tuesday, and New York choreographer Doug Elkins stands onstage at the Lobero Theatre, his back to the empty house. He wears Adidas, baggy basketball shorts, and a T-shirt one size too small. His socks are pulled up to his knees; a well-worn beanie nearly covers his eyes. “I’m taking inventory,” he announces to his four dancers. “Let’s see what we’ve got so far.” Gregory lets out a falsetto cry. “Thanks, Mariah,” Elkins shoots back, and pushes play on the stereo. The opening bars of James Brown’s “Super Bad” blast from the speakers: “Watch me! Watch me! I got it!”
On cue, Cori and Gregory launch into lightning-fast footwork, flying through sped-up versions of the grapevine and the Charleston. While their legs whip through these tricky combinations, their torsos wind into break dance-style body rolls, leading them down to the floor. Suddenly, they’re spinning on their knees, and then they’re on their feet again, voguing like Madonna before vaulting into the air. They reach the end of the section, and Gregory rests his hands on his knees, while Cori collapses dramatically onto her back, her chest heaving. “Dear Cardio: Get in shape,” she pants. “Love, Cori.”
They’ve just shown a short section from Elkins’s latest work-in-progress, “Mo(or)town,” a deconstruction of Shakespeare’s Othello—set to Motown music—which they’ll premiere at the Lobero on March 18. Elkins’s residency here represents the third season of DANCEworks, a partnership between the Lobero Theatre and SUMMERDANCE Santa Barbara that gives choreographers unprecedented time and space to create new work in a performance venue. Last year, DANCEworks brought Larry Keigwin and his company to town; their culminating show involved a cast of Santa Barbarans—dancers and non-dancers alike—in the rousing community celebration “Bolero Santa Barbara.” The year before, Aszure Barton used her residency to create “Busk,” a work that’s since met with great critical acclaim.
For four weeks this February and March, Elkins and his dancers have full use of the Lobero stage. They’re using the daytime hours to create “Mo(or)town” and rehearse existing repertory. And because Keigwin’s “Bolero” was such a success last year, Elkins has decided to take on his own community outreach project. In three short rehearsals, he’s teaching nearly 100 people of all ages a routine that will be performed in surprise flash-mobs downtown this month.
Of all the choreographers DANCEworks has hosted so far, Elkins is the most established. He founded the Doug Elkins Dance Company in 1988 after having performed for years as a break-dancer. In 2003, his company disbanded, but three years later, he was back on the scene with “Fräulein Maria,” a send-up and homage to The Sound of Music that’s become something of a modern dance cult phenomenon. He’s known for being zany and irreverent, and for mixing and sampling everything from hip-hop to martial arts to ballet. “Mo(or)town” promises to be another Elkins mash-up; besides being sourced from Shakespeare and the music of 20th-century Detroit, it’s also inspired by José Limón’s classic modern dance masterpiece “The Moor’s Pavane” (1949) and shot through with hyped-up house dancing à la the New York club scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
This isn’t the first time Elkins has been to Santa Barbara; SUMMERDANCE organizer Dianne Vapnek originally brought him here in 1998, and loved his work so much she invited him back for three more seasons of the festival. “He is one of the wittiest, most inventive choreographers I've seen,” Vapnek stated, calling this residency “an ideal opportunity for him to create his next important work.”
The relative “importance” of “Mo(or)town” remains to be seen, but Elkins and his dancers are sure having fun with the process. Fast-paced banter, affectionate roughhousing, and outbursts of hysterics characterize their rehearsals. Elkins is the class clown: Hyperactive, fond of profanities, and smart as hell, he brings out the inner child in everyone.
As dancer Donnell Oakley put it, “If we’re having trouble getting a move and feeling frustrated, Doug says, ‘Okay, keep it light,’ and he cracks a joke, and suddenly we’re about to pee our pants we’re laughing so hard.” It’s a similar tone in flash-mob rehearsals, where Elkins gets everyone from teenagers to retirees laughing and collaborating.
Though it looks like a whole lot of fun and games, Elkins is intentional and driven when it comes to dance making. Despite having more than 20 years in his field and admirers who include New York Times critics, Elkins attributes his successes more to persistence than talent. “Larry Keigwin, Aszure Barton— they’re brilliant choreographers,” he announced. “I’m not, but I’m curious and tenacious.” He’s also fearless about the creative process, and willing to fail, citing “a high tolerance for uncertainty” as his most important choreographic tool. It’s precisely this comfort with chaos that allows Elkins to juggle references as widely divergent as Noh theater, The Brady Bunch, and Beyoncé and make it all seem like a natural union.
Of the flash mob, Elkins noted, “It’s for people new to the whole experience of art making,” then immediately corrected himself. “Not really new—when we were little we all knew how to make things. It’s more like we come back to that impulse—revisit it.”
Doug Elkins and Friends will perform “Mo(or)town” and other works at the Lobero on Friday, March 18, and Saturday, March 19, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com. For more on DANCEworks, visit sbdanceworks.com.