A year after its founder’s death, the Bruce Wood Dance Project continues to spread a legacy of art
The news hit almost exactly a year ago. Two weeks before the world premiere of a new piece called Touch, Bruce Wood — the renowned North Texas choreographer — had died suddenly, succumbing to complications from AIDS. His death devastated countless fans in the arts community here and worldwide. But for the members of the Bruce Wood Dance Project, the sadness was more than overwhelming; it left everyone in a state of spiritual limbo. Dance is perhaps the most ephemeral of the arts; would Wood’s legacy continue?
For Gayle Halperin, Wood’s friend and producer, there was never a question that it would. The company would perform that concert … and it would continue. Halperin quickly appointed Kimi Nikaidoh, who had danced with Wood’s companies on and off for years, as BWDP’s new artistic director. That first performance would be a memorial; beyond that, the company’s continuation would be the celebration of his work.
Running any arts organization is a challenge, but for the last year, Halperin, Nikaidoh and their colleagues have demonstrated incredible commitment not just to preserving Wood’s legacy, but expanding it. 5 Years, the new performance that opens the latest season of the Bruce Wood Dance Project on June 19, represents the fulfillment of a promise.
“This is not a memorial — we did that,” Nikaidoh says. This performance needed to signal a change and establish that the Project could thrive without Wood at the helm. That means a program that consisted not merely of selections from Wood’s catalogue of approximate 60 original works but a world premiere commission by company member Albert Drake.
Turning over responsibility for a major new work to a young dancer — one of the stars of BWDP since he joined five years ago — was a leap of faith, but one Nikaidoh was willing to make. When she began preparing for the current concert, she had an idea of what she wanted but everything was on the table. “You’re never sure the [talent pool] you’ll have access to, including how many men will be available, which is a constant in the concert dance world,” she says.
The company opened up its auditions in the spring; 44 dancers showed up; some who didn’t secure spots asked to come on nonetheless as unpaid apprentices.
With a company of 17 dancers, Nikaidoh quickly settled on a program that would include Requiem (set to Mozart’s orchestral masterpiece, a work that has never been performed in Dallas before) and Wood’s popular Polyester Dreams. But for the middle piece, she turned to Drake.
“[Before he died], Bruce had said he wanted to give both Kimi and Albert a chance to [create new works],’ says Halperin. And Drake’s vision for the piece impressed everyone.
“I started with a grand idea,” says Drake about his process. “Then I needed to find the music that complemented that idea. They I needed to find the movement to complement the music.” The result is Whispers.
The “grand idea,” Drake admits — while culled from his own life — is difficult to articulate, though he calls it “an introspective piece about the relationship to the subconscious … basically, what is the meaning of happiness?” A grand idea, indeed. But for anyone who has seen one of Bruce Wood’s concerts, a theme that dovetails beautifully with the company’s mission, “to make dances for people and about people,” Nikaidoh says.
Whispers involves eight company members, including Drake himself and Nikaidoh. So what was it like for the artistic director to also take a part in someone else’s piece?
“My main concern about dancing with the company was, how would it be for the other dancers? But my sense has been that it’s pretty seamless. Albert is a very easy person to work with. He’s that [ideal] mixture of talent, honesty and humility that makes him so giving. I totally trust his aesthetics and his judgment.”
It’s also clear that Drake has been deeply influenced by Wood’s tutelage, who trained him for fully half his dancing life.
“Everything I do, I can hear Bruce yelling at me, ‘Why are you doing that?’” Drake laughs. “Bruce used to say, ‘Popularity or purpose: Choose one, because it’s rare you’ll have both.’”
Stepping into his mentor’s slippers, though, has given Drake pause, though he thinks he’s in enough shock that the gravity of it — continuing a legacy and making his big-time debut as a choreographer — hasn’t fully sunk in.”
“I’m kind of lost — I don’t know what I feel,” he says. “I [cycle] between nervousness, excitement, discouragement, numbness and a limbo state. I probably won’t feel the pressure until dress rehearsal. And then the Sunday after it’s all over, I’ll probably wake up and say, ‘What just happened?’”
Whatever happens, the Bruce Wood Dance Project is determined to spread the artistic gospel of its founder and visionary.
“We’re planning already for our November show,” Nikaidoh smiles, “but I’m not gonna tell you what the program will be, though there will be something on the classical side from Bruce’s [repertoire], a guest choreography and one more funky, celebratory piece that I will create.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 12, 2015.