There's a moment during Steve Teran's swarming, sassy group dance piece "Strut" when it appears the joke just may be on the audience. The six dancers, each decked out in pounds of bling, preen across the stage with enough attitude to make a diva blush—think fashion runway pout crossed with serial killer scowl. Meanwhile, the immanently danceable track "Something Like This" by Scissor Sisters blares from the sound system. Hips and shoulders pulse. Swagger dominates. Those stares never waver. As if it were possible, the attitude ratchets up. Then, naturally, glitter falls from the ceiling. It's all enough to wonder, in a mix of awe and giggles, is this guy serious?
In short, yes.
Teran is an unapologetic devotee of in-your-face pop dance. For him, it's high heels over toe shoes, brash spectacle instead of abstract meaning, Britney Spears ahead of Martha Graham. And he's fiercely serious about all of it. There's never any wink, or ironic hipster nudge. In an arts culture that puts a premium on name-dropping the most tragically obscure talent, Teran aligns himself squarely with the world's biggest stars.
"I can't help what I like, so why be ashamed?" he says, sounding very matter of fact. "I'm into mainstream. I don't do avant garde."
Teran's influences assure that his first evening-length dance concert, which debuts this week, will be unlike the typical Missoula modern dance show. Titled The Main Attraction, it features 12 original pieces choreographed by Teran, 13 dancers from the University of Montana dance program, four original short videos and a healthy dose of music from the likes of Spears (seven songs total), Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga and Janet Jackson. In fact, Teran likens the whole evening to a touring rock concert that will "transport audience members like passengers in a limousine through the hypnotic, the dark, the glamorous, and the urban worlds of pop culture."
"I'm largely influenced by the whole scene," says Teran, who graduates from UM's dance program in May and counts Spears as his biggest inspiration. "I've grown up watching music videos and concert tours and performances on TV like the Video Music Awards. My work reflects that, but with my own take on things. It's familiar, but still mine."
"Smoking Haute," one of the pieces in The Main Attraction, speaks to that fine line in Teran's choreography. Some of the movement resembles Madonna's 1990 music video for "Vogue" in how the dancers frame their face and body with their hands. But "Smoking Haute" goes beyond just striking a pose. Teran's four female dancers don nothing but black tights, black bras, black sports coats and black sunglasses, and sexily slink across the stage or standoffishly slouch to the side. They never make contact with each other, nor reveal their eyes. They are, in every way, untouchable.
Teran combines "Smoking Haute" with another all-women piece titled "Bitch." He says the two dances, which feature Minogue's "Slow" and Spears' "Phonography," respectively, aren't about anything other than a palpable sense of female power. Like a lot of Teran's work, they convey more of an attitude than a specific meaning—and, as long as it's a distinctive attitude, he's just fine with that.
"I feel like sometimes, in an overall generalization of the Missoula audience, my dance gets looked at as pretty superficial," he says. "It does have elements of that—it's certainly flashy—but I hope they understand that a lot of work went into it.
"I don't think everything has to be a statement on some sort of social event or a commentary," he adds. "I've learned that I can create things that are intelligent, that have choreographic thought and that can be stimulating. Maybe it's not abstract or challenging someone's thinking, but it can still be stimulating."
Heidi Jones Eggert, an assistant professor of dance at UM, points out that Teran may focus on pop, but he still follows the same artistic process as his contemporaries. He's simply using the program's resources to pursue his goal of eventually choreographing music videos and other dance in Los Angeles. (Editor's note: The author's wife is a faculty member in UM's dance program, but not affiliated with The Main Attraction.) Jones Eggert says Teran's interests and drive make him stand out for two reasons: He's not just the only student in a predominantly modern dance program to pursue a different genre, but he's also successfully choreographed so much in the same vein that he's in the rare position of presenting an evening's worth of work.
"He makes smart choices," Jones Eggert says. "Stevie doesn't accept what's already been done. He takes what's out there and builds on it with his own ideas. If he wasn't pushing himself, that'd be a problem. But he has a vision. He's always reinventing pop dance on his own."
Jones Eggert calls "Strut" a perfect example. The way Teran plays with timing and creates a tension with the audience makes it more than some easily consumable, ultimately forgettable pop dance.
"It's sexy but smart, with just enough tongue-in-cheek to keep the audience on edge," she says. "That piece brings me to my knees every time I see it."
And that's exactly what Teran's aiming for.
"People should feel like moving after they see my work," he says.
But "Strut" didn't originally come together the way he hoped. Ideas he brought to the first rehearsals fell flat. He kept with it, however, and over time created a dance that has since represented UM at a regional collegiate dance conference and been selected for the UM's year-end concert. In typical fashion, the turning point came when Teran switched up the style and posture of the piece.
"At some point I realized I wanted us to be a gang," he says. "In my mind, we're this group of badasses on our way to a disco. We're street chic. We're a bunch of badasses on our way to a disco, walking down a dark alley, ready for anything. That's how I see it."
It may not hold the high-concept meaning other artists aspire to, but a mob of modish dancers let loose on the town sure makes the mainstream more attractive.
The Main Attraction continues at the University of Montana PAR-TV Open Space through Saturday, March 26, at 8 p.m. nightly. FREE.