At the end of the dance duet “Love Always, Debbie and Susan,” Brian Gerke is supposed to pour water over Steinunn Ketilsdóttir’s head and then wait for the lights to dim. But in the duo’s debut performance at Copenhagen’s Kedja Dance Competition, the lighting tech forgot to fade the lights right away, leaving Gerke to stand there awkwardly staring out into the crowd. In a moment of playful desperation, he began running his hand across his throat in an exaggerated, off-with-the-head gesture trying to get the guy to cut the lights. The crowd roared. The piece won the competition. And after that, Gerke did it for every performance.
“Mistakes are sometimes the most perfect thing that you’ve been missing from a piece,” Gerke says. “I always love to see what mistakes we make and how we end up keeping them. I think it’s so much more interesting that way because I’m not the kind of guy who can do the same piece exactly the same way over and over again.”
Gerke, 26, grew up in Missoula—which he fondly calls the “vortex of eternal wellness”—and studied both dance and choreography at the University of Montana. During his time in the program he performed in various UM dance productions and with Headwaters Dance Company (formerly known as MoTrans). After graduation, he moved to New York City to dance with prestigious companies like Hilary Easton + Company and Sondra Loring and Dancers. Even then, he liked to shake things up.
“I used to pinch the dancers when we were dancing together,” he says. “Or I’d put them down [from a lift] just off their balance or pull their elbow skin during the dance, but so no one else could tell. It would keep it interesting for me.”
While in New York, Gerke began splitting his time between the Big Apple and Reykjavik, Iceland, teaching at Listdansskoli Island, otherwise known as the National Ballet Academy of Iceland.
“In Iceland, dancing is a bigger scene than in Missoula, and since it’s part of the EU it’s funded so much better than anything in the U.S.,” Gerke says. “It’s so sad. I come back and I see my friends in New York struggling to make a living and I’m like, ‘If you just come to Europe people give you money!’”
Gerke finally received his work and residency permits last year, which allow him to settle down and teach full time in Iceland. He only lives out of his suitcase when touring to perform.
Gerke and his dance partner, Ketilsdóttir, the director of Listdansskoli Island, have created three dance pieces about sex and love. “Crazy in Love with MR. PERFECT” debuted at the 2007 Reykjavik Dance Festival, was nominated for Choreography of the Year, and traveled to festivals in Dublin, London and New York City. The aforementioned “Love Always, Debbie and Susan” led to the duo being commissioned to create another piece, a work in progress called “Butterface.”
“It’s dealing with the way you view yourself when you’re in relationships,” Gerke says. “So we’re working with fairytales and mad tea parties.”
Gerke says the term “Butterface” comes from when he was living in New York and suffered a bout of self-consciousness about his appearance. But he also says it’s a sort of cruel term that comes from the sometimes harsh world of dating.
“A guy will say ‘How was your date last night?’” explains Gerke, “and the other guy will say ‘Oh, she’s really hot but her face is kind of not cute.’ So in the piece we’re telling this kind of [empowering] tale of Princess Butterface showing the normal progression of a fairytale: a challenge, an excommunication from the kingdom and then these trials to regain herself.”
If Gerke’s progression follows the Butterface fairytale in any way, it would seem he’s on his own way to reward. The commission will allow Ketilsdóttir and him to finish work on “Butterface” and to travel with “Love Always, Debbie and Susan” through Eastern Europe, Switzerland, Italy and Russia.
Furthermore, Gerke’s schedule allows him to travel back to Missoula and perform with Headwaters Dance Company. For their upcoming gala concert, Gerke’s dancing in a duet with Kitty Sailer called “Don’t Touch.” The collaborative effort between Gerke, Sailer and Amy Ragsdale, Headwaters’ artistic director, explores how two people with separate love lives begin to cross the line into falling for each other. Gerke and Sailer occasionally collide, but mostly they dance around each other so closely that it seems impossible that they aren’t touching.
“I really enjoy the side-to-side game,” says Gerke. “Amy’s let us keep some of the situations improvisational, like how you react to people if you keep open the emotional tone so the piece can develop and change. So that it’s never stagnant.”
“Don’t Touch” debuts along with several other original works, including the fourth and final section of the multi-year Montana Suite Project. New York contemporary dancer Donna Uchizono choreographed the piece—which is scored by several local musicians—about the Custer/Crow area of southeastern Montana.
Other pieces include “Interview” by Claire Porter, which evokes the dark humor of getting a job, and “Ghost Ship,” a highly athletic piece by Salt Lake City’s Erik Handman.
“This is what’s nice to come home to—I’m coming back to a place that has a growing artists’ scene,” Gerke says. “Iceland is this kind of perfect in-between point because there’s this beautiful natural element and it’s an artsy city, almost the same size as Missoula. I feel like it’s home away from home.”
Headwaters Dance Company’s gala concert runs Thursday, Feb. 5, through Saturday, Feb. 7, at MCT’s Center for the Performing Arts nightly at 7:30 PM with a 2 PM Saturday matinee. $12.