Brandon Collwes

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They're coming back. So how did you hear you got in?
Just a letter in the mail, and I was totally excited. I decided I was going to go home and get ready for school. Took my GED and passed it in a day. For the rest of my time in Pittsburgh, I taught a lot. For like a couple summers too, I would choreograph at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. They have these really great summer programs for kids, so I've done every musical you can ever imagine. I performed in some when I was younger, but I didn't have that love of it. So it was always a funny approach to like figure out, How am I going to make this work? I don't really have in my repertoire standard, show-stopping things. It was kind of fun figuring out with them.

Is that how you saved money to be able to live here?

Yeah. I made a lot of money doing that.

What was the Juilliard experience like for you?
Short. [Laughs]

What happened?
I did it for a year and loved it. And then I went to ADF for the second time that summer and worked with John Jasperse and had a taste of more of a postmodern thing. Did some Trisha Brown rep. And I really felt like the training I was getting at Juilliard was great, but seemed like the same situation I had been in before. [Then-director] Benjamin Harkarvy wanted me to be a ballet dancer. He thought I had the facility to do NDT [Netherlands Dans Theater]. That was their whole thing—to do stuff like that.

He loved that crap.
He loved it. The competitive nature of the program and the amount of money that it cost started to really stress me out. Financially, it was really difficult for my family; I always knew that. I got to my second year and I made it through my first semester, and I decided to take a break because I was really struggling in the program. I was doing so many projects—I didn't know how to say no. I just pushed and pulled. At the same time, they were doing this weird documentary for American Masters, so it was my class that they followed around and it had this absurd Real World element too. I didn't feel great there.

Was it that it was hard to have studied with John Jasperse and then you're at Juilliard taking Graham classes?

Yeah. Graham or Taylor, which I really don't like. The people that I had known who had left—I was realizing that they were having their dancing careers in college and then a lot of them got really burned out and didn't really work. Or maybe they were just too selective about the kind of work that they wanted to do. I just felt like I don't need a degree to dance, but initially I was just taking a break. I started taking class at Cunningham. I was still in the city. I got a scholarship and just really, really liked it. What is funny though, is that Benjamin Harkarvy, as much as he really did not have an appreciation for Cunningham or the aesthetic of that work, he did tell me once in a jury: "There's something about your arms that I feel could be greatly benefited by some Cunningham classes, maybe you should go down there." I think that was the first time I ever even really considered that.

Did that get you to the studio?
I guess. But I think it was more like an ad in the Village Voice for free classes. It was amazing. I was like, You still can have this really physical experience with a technique that's so modern. And to have seen some of the dancers in the company at that time, they were phenomenal. I had been having so many different experiences with so many different people with everyone telling me, "Oh yeah, you could do that," or "You could do that." This was the first time that it was something I would want to do.

How did you end up at Purchase?
Then 9/11 happened. The first time I was ever at the studio was 9/11. That was the audition day for the program. I saw the first plane—or maybe it was the second—from the 14th street stop on Greenwich and Eighth. And I think I was just like, That's crazy. I didn't take it in. I just continued to the audition. I got there and the person at the front desk said, "Do you know what happened?" It was odd to be at Westbeth because there are so many nutjobs that live in that building anyway, right? So they're all out on the roof with their binoculars, and it felt really weird. I remember leaving the studio and going to Washington Square Park—hanging out, walking home. I lived in Washington Heights. They rescheduled the audition for like the next week, but it was such a weird time in the city to be on your own. And that's what eventually made me think that I should go back to school. I should be in a program. The city just started to feel really dark to me, and I kind of wanted a break.

You did want some structure?
Yeah, and I was still hanging out with some of my Juilliard friends. At one point I considered going back there. They said that I could come back but that I would have to basically start all over again, and that didn't feel right. So I ended up going back to Pittsburgh knowing that I was going to go to SUNY the following year. I did that for a year and really didn't like it. I had a friend who moved to the Netherlands and was working with Scapino Ballet, so I thought, Maybe I'll hang out there. I'm going to go to Rotterdam Dance Academy and finish my degree there. Because at this point, I only needed minimal credits left to get a standard BA. I thought I was going to do this choreography program there; upon arriving there, they're like, "Oh yeah, we don't have that program anymore, but you can stay and be a part of the regular BA program and finish off that way." It was taking a Graham class from someone who's never taught at Graham. The ballet was good, it was Forsythe teachers; that was great. But it was super postmodern-roll-around-on-the-floor, and I like to move big. It just wasn't a good fit.

Wow. You've had an eventful life.
Yeah I've had a little adventure figuring out my own path. Mostly it was a good idea. I definitely remember being in Rotterdam: What's going on? What am I going to do now? And I think that's when I found out that Merce had made Split Sides and was working with Radiohead, and I was like, This is my calling. I love Radiohead so much. So I was like, I'm just going to go back to New York and I'm going to get a job with him. That was really my plan. And it kind of worked like that. I sold my bike to some little Dutch man, and I still had a lot of money from the summer I'd been teaching. I took one class and then I got a phone call from Robert [Swinston] saying I should come the next day to take a company class. He already knew of me from my previous time there and was considering me to be a RUG at that point, but the economy was completely tanking and 9/11, all that stuff—they weren't going to hire anyone for a really long time, no one was going to leave. So that didn't happen then for me, but it just worked out perfectly that someone was leaving. They were doing Antic Meet and they needed to replace someone really quickly, so I joined the repertory group within two days of being there. It was kind of a lot though, too. It was like, Okay, so this is what I wanted, I didn't think it was going to be like that.

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