Walter Dundervill

The choreographer stages his own melodrama.

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The choreographer Walter Dundervill loves that moment when you walk into the Chocolate Factory and see—because of the way the floor is slanted—two spaces at once. Looking down at the lower level is like peering into a cave; entering the upper floor, the more regularly used theatrical space, is like suddenly being encased in a pristine eggshell. In his new show, Dear Emissary,..., Dundervill takes advantage of both.

The evening-length production, which opens at the Long Island City performance space Wednesday 10, begins with a group of actors and dancers re-creating what the choreographer refers to as a “forgotten 1929 film”; it’s cinematic fiction—sort of. Dundervill’s source material includes Pandora’s Box, the silent Louise Brooks film from the same year. “I’ve been obsessed with that film and with Louise Brooks for many years,” he notes before a rehearsal. “She was a dancer, and I also feel like she’s part of our history. In terms of Hollywood success she sabotaged herself, but she was an artist.”

For his opening scene, shown in the Factory’s lower half, Dundervill stages a version of a photograph taken from the set of that movie (only this time, it’s his film and his cast). “We’re going into it like, Okay, it’s 1929, and you’re on this film set,” he says. “You’re having your picture taken.”

The time period is tricky to pin down in the work, but that’s part of the point: One catch is that the characters in Dear Emissary are members of a performance troupe from the ’70s who are looking back at the ’20s. In exploring the two decades and how they relate to the present, Dundervill—in his own fractured drama—is also influenced by the films of German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, namely Berlin Alexanderplatz and Angst vor der Angst (Fear of Fear).

“There are times when I’m pulling images from Fassbinder films, which will or will not be recognized,” he says, “but it becomes a point of departure. I think that’s generally what I’ve been doing: I start with something and then let the surface drop away. I think what I’m taking is a sense of the space between the dialogue that happens in his films and a kind of hyperstylized naturalism—where there is naturalism and artifice happening at the same time. That brought in that layer of the ’20s merging into the ’70s.”

For Dundervill, such a dense layering technique marks an integral part of his approach to structure and design. “As these source materials came up, I would say, Okay—this is going to create another layer, and what’s inside of that?” he asks. “It also provides another base just for the style, for the look of things and for how the costuming can happen. I find it really interesting to see how a decade will get obsessed with the past—so you’ll have that version of the ’20s and the ’30s that becomes a part of ’70s style—but it’s saying as much about the ’70s as whatever it’s referring to.”

In his 2008 work, You Wrote the Book, Dundervill experimentedwith building a compositional structure that broke down by the piece’s end; the same is true of Dear Emissary, where he is also exploring ideas about modernism. Though Dundervill began taking dance classes while in high school,visual art was his first passion;he graduated with a degree in painting and drawing from the University of Georgia before moving to New York and dancing, most notably, with the choreographer RoseAnne Spradlin, with whom he won a Bessie as a dancer. But he also performed early on with Yves Musard and Gloria McLean, a former Erick Hawkins dancer.

“I was dancing with Yves and Gloria when I really was still learning how to dance, which was also an interesting experience,” he says. “I studied at the Hawkins studio, and I’m really glad that I went there. Especially now—I’m thinking a lot about that experience in this piece. It was one of the last of the real modern studios and ithad that infusion of the archetypal mythic content—it’s interestingto look back on it now because we’ve been through the postmodern thing and I think we’re actuallyon the other side of it and examining: What does that mean?I feel we’re at a place where wecan look at modernism again without cringing.”

As usual, in addition to choreographing the production, Dundervill extends his imaginative eye to the costumes and scenic design (expect a lot of cardboard). “I’ve always loved clothes and style,” he says. “My mother was a self-taught interior decorator. The conversation at home was always about style and periods, and in a way I first learned about history through hearing my mother talk about furniture.” He laughs. “When I look at the dances I’ve made, I think, in a weird way, that they’re about my mother—or, at least, channeling something about her.”

Walter Dundervill is at the Chocolate Factory Wed 10--Mar 13.

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