the competitive world of dance, especially with the various companies
we have in town, staying ahead of the creative curve can be a
challenge. Not counting the companies who have just given up on
having one single original thought and continually produce “The
Nutcracker” and/or “Thriller” every year, the struggle to
create new material every year like clockwork to meet the demands of
the already built-in SLC audience has can be tiresome and
occasionally frustrating. But one look at the company we're talking
about today and you'd swear the whole process was a breeze.
Formed around the late-90's from an experience and well-traveled professional, the Stephen Brown Dance Company took up task of creating unique and often times daring performances. Over time challenging the intellect of the audiences, the respect of the dance community, and the drive of those who dared take on the roles. To date it's still regarded as the most experimental of all the localized companies and continues to serve as a influence on a creative level, and a supportive force for others. I got a chance to chat with the founder himself, over a number of bottles no less, about his career and the company as well as thoughts on the dance scene. (Photos by Derek Smith, Trish Empey, John Brandon & Kip Harris)
Gavin: Hey Stephen, first off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Stephen: 6’ 2”, brown fluffy hair, doe eyes, Scorpio, 44-35-32... okay, 34. Favorite food: avocado. If I was stranded on a deserted island with anyone who would it be: Glen Beck, so I could make him my bitch. Glen, you’ve confused correlation with causality again and you know what that means... In truth, I’d choose my wife and daughters. And I’d be their bitch just like I am now.
Gavin: What first got you interested in dancing and choreography and what were some early influences on you?
Stephen: Initially, I was looking for a way to meet girls and avoid getting a real job. I liked the combination of athleticism and expression. Baryshnikov was huge at that time. He was the artistic director of ABT and the ultimate paintbrush for choreographers like Twyla Tharp. He re-invented the role of the classical male dancer. Pilobolus was doing the same thing with modern dance. I wanted to be a little of both. Would you like another glass of wine, Gavin?
Gavin: Yes please, this is a good white. I read you started in high school, but how did you officially break into it on a professional level after?
Stephen: I started “posing” at high school dances. Some people would characterize it as “leaning against the wall” but they weren’t there. I took my first bona fide dance class as a freshman in college, loved it and dived in, taking modern and lots of ballet. When Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) hired me, I was nineteen and very green. I was slow to pick up steps. I fell off boxes. I didn’t know how to put on makeup and usually went onstage looking like an old Parisian prostitute. But I worked hard and improved. Here, Gavin, have another refill.
Gavin: Absolutely. Over time you worked with a number of different dance companies on both coasts. Which one would you say you learned the most from while coming up?
Stephen: I was lucky to be in companies with standout role models: Linda Smith and Ford and Melinda Evans (RDT), Lisa Moulton (Ririe-Woodbury) and Keith Sabato (Mark Morris Dance Group) to name a few. As a budding choreographer, I learned the most from Marina Harris, who created many dances on RDT and did lots of independent shows. Her pieces are so precise, both in craft and concept. Marina showed me what kind of subjects can expressed well through dance.
Gavin: During all this you were studying at Columbia University. What was it like for you balancing an education while trying to live out your dream?
Stephen: It was less of a balance than a swinging pendulum. Though still involved in the New York downtown dance scene, I didn’t dance much when I went to Columbia to study molecular biology. Then the pendulum swung back and I returned to dancing full time. The pendulum is still swinging—I’m co-authoring a book called The Science and Art of Stretching right now. Hey, Gavin, would you like me to open another bottle?
Gavin: Sure thing, what is this, number... seven? Considering the different companies you worked with, what made you decide to stick to Utah?
Stephen: In the mid-90s, I was working in Austin as a dancer and choreographer. I had my first taste of success with grants and support. But, like so many places, there wasn’t a good theater for dance—the spaces were either way too big or way too small. Then, the Rose Wagner was completed as a home for RDT. Zoo, Arts and Parks funding also became available. And I was from SLC so I had connections. It made sense to return. Gavin, you sure do enjoy wine.
Gavin: And you sure love serving it to me. Where did the idea come from to start up your own company?
Stephen: My very best experiences in dance happened in makeshift project-type gigs. I’d join up with other dancers and we’d make work together. With SB Dance, I wanted to replicate that start-up to blast-off process. I didn’t want a traditional company where there are ongoing operations that require constant feeding. SB Dance’s business model supports a more cyclic process. Yes, Gavin, feel free to investigate our liquor cabinet.
Gavin: Hey, there's good stuff in here, except the Gin. Ohh, Vodka! Anyway, at the time you started it, what made you decide to form under non-profit organization?
Stephen: There is really no choice in Salt Lake when it comes to funding. You can work under an umbrella but that only takes you so far.
Gavin: You officially started up SBDC in 1997. What was it like putting together that first season and finding dancers and a crew to be a part of the new company?
Stephen: Easier than you’d expect. I had been actively performing all around the country and knew tons of dancers. I was close with RDT, Ririe-Woodbury and Ballet West. I had designers and costumers for friends. What I couldn’t pay with cash, I could pay with my ass-- dancing for other folks, that is. Gavin, would you like a mixer with that?
Gavin: Yeah, you got any High West around here? Anyway, how did you end up formally taking residence at The Rose Wagner, and how has it been being one of the building's occupants?
Stephen: That’s a long story but boils down to SB Dance being consistent, professional and a fun date. I love the Rose. As a dance-maker, it’s where I grew up. Everyone there has always been extremely supportive. The production managers and I figured out how to push the space technically. I used to always grab Joan (Woodbury) or Linda (Smith, of RDT) to solicit their feedback. Staff would button me into my dresses. Hey Gavin! That’s plant food! Don’t...oh, jeese.
Gavin: You said it was pretzels, how dare you. Since the start you've put on many "alternative" performances, or at least material that isn't directly considered traditional. Was that by design or something you fell into doing over time?
Stephen: Alternative is a question of what kind of zoom lens you use. Zoom in close enough and everyone is different, right? Zoom out and we look the same. In my case, on a national level, I don’t think many artists make a play one year and a dance the next. On the local level, I’ve never been shy about non-mainstream characters or subjects. I think a better word to describe my work is “idiosyncratic”— literally, “with one’s own mixture.” It doesn’t mean free form. It means you carefully choose and mix your ingredients with a minimum of pre-processed components. After fifteen years, idiosyncratic art is my area of expertise. Do want something to eat, Gavin?
Gavin: I'll take more of those pretzels. You also perform a large amount of original productions and hardly ever branch into something familiar. How is it for everyone creating new works on a yearly basis?
Stephen: It’s scary. You’ve got to be prepared to accept failure and I’ve failed spectacularly. I’ve also had my successes and learned skills that I wouldn’t have acquired any other way. The only thing that really disappoints me is a failure of ambition. I think the folks I work with feel the same way. A lighting designer and frequent collaborator, Stefanie Slade once gave me a card with the Andre Gide quote: “One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” That about says it all though I think Mr. Gide should have mentioned seasickness. Oooh, Gavin, you’re not looking so good.
Gavin: Oh I'm fine, trust me, I'm Irish. When did you start incorporating Yoga Confidential, and how has it been working with Carolyn Wood on those productions?
Stephen: I made Yoga Confidential last year over about ten months. Carolyn (aka Winnie) was the producing director, which, for our working relationship, means she directs me the writer as much as she directs the show itself. Winnie is spectacular—gifted, multi-talented, clear and dedicated to making art-- go-down-with-the-ship dedicated to making art. In my dream world, where SB Dance was really really funded, she’d be the artistic director and I’d be the creator. Gavin? Go ahead and take your time in the bathroom. Just yell out your questions.
Gavin: Kinda echo-y in here, I like the marble. Next year will mark the company's fifteenth anniversary. What are your thoughts on coming so far in an entertainment scene where most stuff dies off before its fifth year?
Stephen: I think I’m really stubborn. I’ve also been fortunate to work with good people and to have generous board members, supporters, audiences and family.
Gavin: Going local, what's your take on the Utah dance scene, both good and bad?
Stephen: The local dance scene is incredibly rich. I bet we’ve got more dance per capita than any other city in America. SB Dance bridges both independent groups and established companies so I’ll talk about both. In the independent world, the opening of the Sugar Space by Brittany Reese is the single most important recent development. It’s an inexpensive, 100-seater that’s dedicated to helping artists. Brittany actually presents local emerging artists! Do you know how often that happens? In many cities, places like Sugar Space are the backbone of the performing arts scene. I’ve got a bit of a soapbox here and I’ll climb on: The local independent art scene is vibrant but scattered. It consists of a bunch of little, isolated islands. It always has—I’ve watched it for years. What we need is something to knit the community together. Sugar Space fits the bill. I’ve done my best to support it and I hope other artists and groups get on board. I’m excited that Raw Moves—an independent group that’s doing more and more shows and getting lots of well-deserved attention—has a show there in May. Yeah! Brilliant and articulate, Ashley Anderson is a super addition to the scene. She has formed a new nonprofit company, has an active blog site and organizes a low-pressure forum for showing work called Mudson. Though I can appreciate that the Masonic Temple and other spaces are both cool and weird, the community would be stronger if Mudson happened at Sugar Space. The Pickle Company was once a candidate for Independent Arts Central Command. However, it opened years ago, continually sputtered and now needs a new location. Why not partner with Sugar Space? Among the established groups, RDT’s Green Map is a beautiful marriage of art and environmental awareness and I hope it gets the national attention it deserves. Ririe-Woodbury is doing double-duty by continuing to resurrect the Nikolais repertory and staging new works by Charlotte—their artistic director-- and others. They’re really great to watch these days. Filling the youthful and exuberant niche, Odyssey keeps getting better. And it looks like Ballet West has finally scored a new building for the company, a major coup for Johann, the Executive Director, and probably the best thing to happen to that company in years.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?
Stephen: Yeah, give us all more money. Truthfully, the recession has been merciless to arts funding and, despite the winds of recovery, it’s still very hard. Most folks are still in survival mode. Hey, Gavin. do you need some aspirin?
Gavin: I'm good, the forehead usually goes numb after a while. What's your take on other local dance companies and the work they're doing to promote the art?
Stephen: Everyone does a good job representing their own mission and, in general, we treat each other generously. Here, why don’t you lie down on the couch, Gavin.
Gavin: Hey, thanks buddy. What advice do you have for anyone looking to get into professional dancing for a career?
Stephen: Develop another interest that can augment your income and form the roots of a second career. Or marry rich. Avoid dying young.
Gavin: What can we expect from both SBDC and yourself over the rest of the year?
Stephen: Running June 10-18, my next show is called The VERY BeAST of SB Dance. The only real retrospective I’ve ever done, it plucks solos and duets from the company’s first ten years, starting at infancy and reaching teenager-hood. It’s a pretty wild ride. Yes, Gavin, we have a blanket and pillows.
Gavin: I'd leave if this couch wasn't so soft. Last thing, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Stephen: I’ve posted video to a YouTube channel. It gives the uninitiated a feel for the kind of work I do. While you’re on YouTube, type: Mikhail Baryshnikov - 'Don Quixote' solo. Check out the Basilio solo (green tights and a vest). That little freak slays me when he drops the chalices. Gavin? Gavin?
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