An Essay: KEIGWIN + COMPANY

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Runaway; photo Christopher Duggan

Note: This is an excerpt of my pre-show talk before KEIGWIN + COMPANY at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, while I was a scholar-in-residence this summer.

Will nightclubs in the future have a retro spin? Are birds performing for us when we go bird watching? Why is love so complicated and tender all at the same time? What in the world makes runway models so angry?

These are some of the questions swirling around my mind as I watched the program by KEIGWIN + COMPANY, now in their third appearance at the Pillow. The company first performed at the Pillow in 2003, the very year of the company’s founding, and more recently again in 2008.

The son of post-modermism and pop culture, Larry Keigwin picks and chooses the ideas that serve his purpose, switching between aesthetic streams with an ease rare to the dance world. He’s unapologetic about being entertaining, it need not intrude on artfulness. Following the lead of his generation in other art forms, Keigwin seems less concerned with holding true to any one convention of art making. It’s all for the taking, borrowing, invading and exploring on Planet Keigwin.

A native New Yorker, Keigwin seems as influenced by life on the street as life in the studio. He possesses a particular urban sensibility. These are dances made by a lived life, where the familiar outer world not only has a place, but flourishes. In looking at Keigwin’s own dance history, I can’t help but notice he has lived both inside and outside of the traditional dance bubble. His career has enjoyed a remarkable fluidity between dance, theater and pop culture.

He’s been a backup dancer on Club MTV, he’s worked with a pop band and a comedian . He created the Keigwin Kabaret, merging dance, vaudeville and burlesque at the Public Theater at Joe’s Pub and Symphony Space. He served as an associate choreographer for The Radio City Rockettes and off Broadway’s The Wild Party. He just recently choreographed the new off Broadway version of RENT, opening later this summer and choreographed Tales of the City, which just opened at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

Imagine 150 of the Fashion industry’s top models strutting in formation around the fountain and plaza at Lincoln Center. Well, he did that too, when he staged “Fashion’s Night Out: The Show,” which was Fashion Week’s opening event produced by Vogue. We need more choreographers in unlikely places, and the next time we see one, it’s likely to be Keigwin.

On the more traditional side, Keigwin has a dance degree from Hofstra University. He’s had commissions by Works & Process at the Guggenheim, The Juilliard School, The New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute, and The Martha Graham Dance Company, among others. Last summer, he set work on four ballet stars as Vail International Dance Festival’s first artist-in-residence.

Keigwn also has an impressive resume as a dancer. He has danced at the Metropolitan Opera in Doug Varone’s Le Sacre Du Printemps and in Julie Taymor’s The Magic FluteHe won a 1998 Bessie award for his performance in Mark Dendy’s Dream Analysis. The list of seminal choreographers he has worked with also includes Jane Comfort, John Jasperse, Doug Elkins, David Rousseve and others. Keigwin managed to glean from his predecessors and still emerge out with an original choreographic voice such that his dances are informed by his history but not limited or defined by it.

Dancing making is a co-creative process at K + C. Dancers workshop phrases, which will eventually be molded by Keigwin. The company culture is one of collaboration. The choreographer adds, “It’s like creating a suit or a dress, the dancers shape and develop material, then I sew it together.” The dancers have an enormous creative investment in the final product, each with their own distinct movement intelligence.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Megalopolis; photo Christopher Duggan

“Mega” is the operative syllable in Megalopolis, the first work on the program, which was commissioned by The Dance Division of The Juilliard School in 2009. The piece exudes a retro futuristic style, imagine Judy Jetson’s night out in outer space. I had the good fortune of being in the audience, or rather the mob, when the piece premiered at Juilliard. I say “mob” because it seemed nearly impossible to stay still or quiet. Juxtaposition is a key element in many of Keigwin’s works; Megalopolis uses music from minimalist Steve Reich along with electronic master MIA.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Love Songs; photo Christopher Duggan

Love is a “many-splendored” thing, until it’s in Keigwin’s hands in Love Songs, and then the plot thickens. Add in Roy Obrison’s gut-wrenching anthems, Blue Bayou and Crying, Aretha Franklin’s bluesy Baby I Love You, and I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, and finally Nina Simone’s haunting songs, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and I Put a Spell on You, and you will see that love can indeed a many splendored and splintered thing.

Keigwin captures the way couples communicate with each other, or fail to do so, the way they can be in the same room, but a million miles away from each other, or saying the same thing over and over and not being heard. Look for the synergy between song, step and emotion. Through Orbison’s soaring tenor, the urgency in Franklin’s commands, and the velvety tone of Simone, we witness three couples navigate through the minefield of love. I’d like to think that every love song started with a story, in Love Songs, we get glimpse of these stories.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Bird Watching; photo Christopher Duggan

I find a formalist lurking just under the surface in his 2010 piece Bird Watching, which pokes playful fun at balletic pantomime, along with gestures of flocking, flapping, fluttering and flying. Keigwin describes the movement as “superficial super retro Sears catalog posing.” Really, our feathered friends do seem rather self obsessed, and at times, outrageously showy. There’s a voyeuristic quality to Keigwin’s avian antics, which are set to Hayden’s Symphony #6 in D Major. I also see a parallel between the exotic nature of birds and dancers, surely there’s no shortage of birds in the ballet canon. It’s formal alright, but at no sacrifice to the fun factor. Even the men wear tiny black tutus. Sparkles are included.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Runaway; photo Christopher Duggan

Fashion has always seemed to straddle the edge of art. Sure, there’s a long history of influence between fashion and dance, from ripped T-shirts, to oversized bags, along with a slew of famous designers creating costumes. Fashion is inherently theatrical. Keigwin gets that. Runaway straddles homage and critique of this insular culture of high end consumerism.Yet again, we find Keigwin boldly invading this hybrid world with his own particular stamp, and it’s a menacing one at that. The pun in the title makes me wonder what models are running from.

Narcissism, the amplification of glamor, the extreme exaggeration of our “look at me” culture, the body as display object, all play out to Jonathan Melville Pratt’s pounding score. Runaway, the penultimate Keigwin piece, is simply a feast of excess.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Runaway; photo Christopher Duggan

I imagine Keigwin to be in love with the stage space His finesse with moving bodies through space, on and off the stage, and complex groupings of dancers forming and dissolving is evidenced in each of these pieces. In Megalopolis, we find train-like diagonal parades that come and go instantly, in Love Songs, it’s the charged space between the dancers and the wildly expressive partnering, which just oozes sensual tension. In Bird Watching, it’s the ruffled edges in the airspace and crisp unison, and finally, in Runaway, it’s a fierce use of the catwalk strut. Never underestimate the power of the straight line, or that frisky way models just turn their backs on us and walk away. Underlying all this attitude though, is the piece’s solid spatial geometry. Keigwin possesses such a rich locomotive vocabulary. Often, I get the feeling that the stage space is just a portal of a larger space. One wonders what’s happening in the backstage space.

KEIGWIN + COMPANY in Love Songs; photo Christopher Duggan

Much as said about Keigwin’s use of pedestrian movement. I’d like to meet these pedestrians. Certainly, he’s not the first or last to employ everyday movement in his dances, there’s a long tradition of pedestrian movement in modern dance. Yet there’s a twist, a sharp edge between technical flair and human gesture.

There’s a generosity here, in the subject matter, in the expansive use of space, the mouth watering juiciness of his movement vocabulary and the full throttle commitment of the dancers. We want to lean in, maybe even fall in to these dances. Keigwin’s kinetic curiosity entices us into his world, and in doing so, into our world.

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