It’s been a big spring for John Heginbotham. Known to Dartmouth and the Upper Valley as director of the Dartmouth Dance Ensemble, he is better known beyond Hanover as director of his own acclaimed ensemble, the Brooklyn-based Dance Heginbotham, as well as increasingly high-profile projects in opera and theater. One of those is experimental theater director Daniel Fish’s boldly reinvented Oklahoma!, which recently won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a musical and Best Featured Actress in a Musical (for Ali Stroker, playing the irrepressible Ado Annie). Heginbotham’s choreography—particularly for the Dream Ballet—played a huge role in making this Oklahoma! an utterly modern and unforgettable take on the well known 1943 musical. Wrote New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas in one of a number of admiring articles she penned about the show: “This may be Broadway, but the dream ballet in Daniel Fish’s brilliantly reimagined Oklahoma! is ages from the usual step-ball-change kind of dance found there. And that’s wonderful.”
Once Oklahoma! opened, John dove back into work with Dance Heginbotham on Common Fate, a new, evening-length work that will have its world premiere at the Hop on Wednesday, June 26, as part of the Hop’s SHIFT festival. The show is also DH’s first-ever Hop performance and is a collaboration with the new music orchestra Alarm Will Sound, which performs live with DH.
We caught up with John to talk about Oklahoma! and Common Fate, and what it’s like to choreograph for theater versus the “concert dance” world. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Choreographing for theater versus concert dance:
With the work that I’m doing in theater right now the dance has a very specific function, which is to serve the greater show, and that show has a story line that’s very literal, so a lot of the work that I’m doing is about making sure that the movement supports the other elements of the show. For example, for the number “The Farmer and the Cowman,” Daniel Fish wanted to make it feel like a party in a community hall where there’s maybe a square dance caller and the actors look unchoreographed. So all of the dancing in that number is totally based on social dance forms like the Texas Two-step and country line dancing. Also in that number, there is a story line in which the two factions, the farmers and the cowmen, are insulting each other, and a big fight breaks out. So I also had to make sure that certain actors were a particular proximity to each other at various points in the number. Those are concerns in work in the theater that have nothing to do with concert dance
One of my proudest moments is that number because to me, it really looks chaotic—sometimes people are dancing, sometimes they’re not, sometimes they’re walking around, sometimes they’re hanging out with the band, sometimes they’re grabbing a beer—the way that it would be at a party that you and I might go to. We want it to feel spontaneous in that way, but in fact, that number is absolutely repeatable every time they perform it.
In concert dance, I don’t have those kinds of concerns—I’m more free. When I choreograph work on my own company or the Dance Ensemble, I tend to not walk into the room with a narrative or sense of character in mind. Anything can be inspiring: someone walking down a cobblestone street and the way that affected their movement, or a historical dance that may have left an impression on me, or the way a child moves, or—I don’t know—one of those inflatable car lot advertisement people. The movement vocabulary of life is what is interesting to me when I’m making something up. That’s usually the starting point of a piece. Or sometimes an inspiring piece of music is the starting point. Once in a while, text is a starting point—but it’s always a starting point, and then things evolve organically in a particular direction—as opposed to the theater space, where there’s a confinement of an existing script that you’re serving.
The Dream Ballet in Oklahoma! drew more on Heginbotham’s concert dance background. This sequence has a hallowed history: for the original Broadway production, modern dance pioneer Agnes de Mille was the unconventional choice for the choreographer.
“I had a wonderful, wonderful time working on this. Our Dream Ballet could not be more different from the Agnes de Mille version. I think that is a great work of art and what she did was incredible both for its content and also for what it did for the broad sense of theater at that time. It was through her Dream Ballet that she changed the way that people thought about what dance could do in a theatrical production. She also pushed for the ballet to be an opportunity to explore something that you can’t explore in the spoken lines of the show—which is the choice that this main character, Laurey, has to make about who she’s going to focus her attentions on: this upstanding cowboy Curly or this much more sinister figure, the farm hand Jud. Earlier in the show, it’s established that Laurey has been to the quarters Jud lives in and sees that he has dirty pictures on his walls. Agnes de Mille said to Oscar Hammerstein, who wrote the book for the show, “Do you think Laurey wasn’t fascinated by what she saw? She may have been frightened but she was also enticed by what she saw, and this dream ballet is an opportunity to explore Laurey’s sexuality.”
For Daniel Fish, his Oklahoma! is not so focused on the choice of Curly or Jud, but more on what it means to be a sexual being in frontier territory, where it was probably very difficult to be a woman, a really hard life. Daniel wanted to do two things with the Dream Ballet: he wanted to give us a more complicated version of Laurey’s sexualty rather than simply a choice of Curly or Jud, and also to use the Dream Ballet to shake the room up a bit, to put us off balance as an audience, to give us a sense that we don’t know how this will turn out—because Daniel has done something with the ending of the show that is very much not traditional. Daniel wanted the Dream Ballet to give us a sense that we are not in the same world we have been up to this point in the evening.
So our Dream Ballet was meant to give us a sense of Laurey’s sexuality, whatever that might be, but also to disorient the people witnessing the show. Unlike the Agnes de Mille ballet, which had a full corps de ballet and a clear story line, our Dream Ballet is centered on one dancer, Gabrielle Hamilton, who isn’t in any other part of the show, and we experience the dream through her guidance. She’s not a stand-in for Laurey, but there are moments where we invite people to associate Gabbie with the character of Laurey. But mainly, Gabbie is this mysterious figure taking us through a theme and variations that involve different ways of having physical contact—from caressing to violence, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes not, and sometimes the things you think would automatically be frightening are intriguing, and the things you think would automatically be tender are also put into question. It’s a lot about physical contact and complexity within that.
A mutual friend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music introduced Heginbotham and Daniel Fish as Fish prepared to mount his Oklahoma! in 2015 as part of Bard SummerScape. The pairing worked as the show moved to Off Broadway last fall and Broadway this spring. This classic American musical wasn’t an obvious choice for Fish, known for work that “lies at the challenging intersection of experimental theater, opera, film and installation art” (New York Times), or for a choreographer with Heginbotham’s background—but he considers it a sort of homecoming.
The whole reason I’m in the arts at all is because of musical theater. That was my first exposure to viewing a performance. Musicals were very well loved when I was growing up. At dinner time we would always have on some kind of original Broadway soundtrack. My parents were really into it so it didn’t feel unfamiliar to me and I was really so excited to have an opportunity to do something in this context.
Once Oklahoma! opened in April, John began work on the Hop show, in which Dance Heginbotham and Alarm Will Sound perform a dance suite entitled Common Fate. Late in his 14 years as a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, Heginbotham was introduced by Morris to Alarm Will Sound Director Alan Pierson, and the two bonded over their shared fascination with electronic music pioneers like Edgard Varèse and Raymond Scott and their contemporary descendants. They collaborated on Twinned, an evening of dance and live music in 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the Hop show, they are using one piece of the Met show—a dance set to Tyondai Braxton’s Fly By Wire—and bundling it with works that include a new Braxton work entitled Common Fate, for which Dance Heginbotham will premierw new choreography. John talked about how he and Pierson formed the Hop evening.
In the creation of this evening, we knew that we would do Common Fate, the new piece of music, and Fly By Wire, and we were trying to understand what might complement or be well juxtaposed with those pieces. The fact is, both pieces involved electronic methods of composition and incorporate electronics in performance. Alan, who is so great to work with, came up with a series of suggestions. One of those suggestions was a piece by John Adams, Scratchband, which was in the Alarm Will Sound repertory. I had just finished working on a new opera [Girls of the Golden West] with John Adams, and I love that music so much that I was sort of feeling a little bit melancholy about not having a way to keep going with this style of music. Scratchband seemed like the perfect addition to the evening.
The evening is a bit of a palindrome. We start with Tyondai Braxton, then we move into an instrumental-only interlude, Faceshopping [by SOPHIE]. Then the dancers return to the stage for our next substantial piece, Scratchband, and then we have two short instrumental interludes, one intensely energetic [Family Galaxy by Tim Exile] and one very melodic [Avril 14 by Aphex Twin], which will give us a little bit of air, a little chance to breathe, before Fly By Wire, which is very intense for the musicians and the dancers. So we have three major works on the program separated by two interludes that give us a moment to miss the dancers and prepare for the next piece. Alarm Will Sound will be on stage with us and will be a big part of the picture the audience will see that evening.