The end of a recent rehearsal finds Kevin Wall and Anya Cloud strewn across a tumbling mat, exhausted physically and emotionally, holding each other. The two have just completed a run of “Dance for a Girl Unnamed,” part of the upcoming debut performance of Headwaters Dance Company, and even a few minutes beyond the piece’s conclusion, Wall continues to gasp for air. Cloud, finally pulling herself away, wipes away a tear.
“It’s different every time,” Cloud finally says. “That piece is so intense, it’s as if sometimes we’ve been married 50 years and other times it’s like a first date. I think it would be false to put some sort of context to the relationship.”
The setup for “Dance for a Girl Unnamed” is simple: Wall, an acrobatic mover well known for his modern clowning with The Candidatos, stands on a tumbling mat dressed in a tuxedo. Directly across from him is Cloud, sitting upright in a formal strapless dress, holding a cello. Cloud is an intensely powerful dancer in her own right, but here she hardly moves; four months ago she began learning to play the cello just to accompany this piece. As she starts to play, Wall jumps into a dramatically arching back flip, like an Olympic diver, that ends with him thudding, belly-first, onto the mat. And then he gets up and does it again while Cloud continues to stoically play her instrument. It’s a bit playful at first, and then it devolves into something much more serious, an almost abusive game of physical and emotional “mercy.” To describe it any more, Wall and Cloud implore, might ruin it.
“It’s intensely honest,” says Cloud. “I’ve never worked on a piece like this where, afterwards, I need to almost step away. It’s all or nothing every time.”
“Dance for a Girl Unnamed” was set by Terry Dean Bartlett, alum of the University of Montana Drama/Dance program and current Associate Artistic Director with STREB in New York City. An alternative modern dance company founded by Elizabeth Streb, STREB describes its mission as intertwining the disciplines of “dance, athletics, extreme-sports, and Hollywood stunt work” into what its founder prefers to call “Popaction” instead of choreography.
“Terry started by teaching an entirely different technique, where everything is so much more physical, and then we worked on endurance,” says Wall of the unconventional STREB style. “We had to have those two things down before beginning to build the dynamics of the relationship between the characters.”
Bartlett’s work with Cloud and Wall—he set the piece over a four-day period in mid-December—is exactly the sort of varied modern dance that Headwaters’ Artistic Director Amy Ragsdale is searching for as she develops a program for her repertory company. Although she does choreograph herself, Ragsdale also spends considerable time scouting for contemporary works she can bring to Montana. Her challenge is to find dances that are not only artistically stimulating, but also accessible to audiences that may be apprehensive about, or simply “not get,” modern dance.
“That’s what works so well with Terry’s piece,” says Ragsdale. “It’s a fabulous example of the power of minimalism, and as a dancer I can appreciate that, but there’s also something very real in front of your eyes. You see something between Kevin and Anya. I think it would be impossible for anyone to come away from the piece and not be affected.”
Headwater’s debut performance, which runs Wednesday, Feb. 22, through Saturday, Feb. 25, at MCT’s Center for the Performing Arts, is an important one for the company. Last year, Headwaters separated from UM, changed its name (it was formerly known as Mo-Trans) and reformed as an independent nonprofit corporation. Ragsdale likens Headwaters’ transition to that of a child moving away from home, ready for new challenges.
“With Headwaters, it definitely feels like we’re flying a little more by the seat of our pants,” she says. “It’s a learning process, one where I feel we’re more a part of the community, trying to make it happen together.”
One of Ragsdale’s first actions with Headwaters was to initiate the “Montana Suite,” a multi-year project she’d been planning for years that gets directly to the communal aspects of the new company. Aimed at capitalizing on the state’s natural appeal, Ragsdale plans to bring some of the most recognizable modern dance choreographers from across the country to set pieces inspired by Montana’s history and landscape. The first installment of the project, “Boulder Batholith,” by New York City’s Jane Comfort, will debut in the upcoming performance. Comfort traveled to Montana in May, June and September of last year and created a 20-minute travel-log of her journey. The finished piece—scored by UM music professor Charles Nichols—is a somewhat literal and thematic interpretation of the environment, but one that Ragsdale feels will connect with local audiences. “Jane became passionate about Butte,” says Ragsdale. “I mean, it was to the point where she would come to Missoula and then do whatever it took to get to Butte just for one night. As an urban New Yorker, she was just enthralled. There’s something about that outsider’s perspective that is really great.”
In addition to Bartlett’s duet and Comfort’s Montana-inspired group piece, the program features three original works from Ragsdale, a duet showcasing dancers Brian Gerke and Kaila Gidley, and a striking solo by Gerke called “Naranj.” The latter, choreographed by UM alum and former Mo-Trans dancer Felecia Hammond, includes aspects of hip-hop, East Indian stylings and modern dance floor work; at times Gerke breaks into precise, stuttering progressions that make him appear as if he’s dancing through a strobe light.
“‘Naranj’ is electrifying,” says Ragsdale. “It’s virtuosic, but not in a really obvious way…It’s another one of those pieces I felt the audience would appreciate on a number of different levels. It’s not about anything specific, but there’s something implied that there is more to it.”
In that sense, “Naranj” is similar to “Dance for a Girl Unnamed” in that each piece is fascinating to watch for the pure movement, but is also open to deeper interpretation. These pieces, as well as much of the work in Headwaters’ debut performance, address head-on Ragsdale’s biggest challenge in developing an independent professional modern dance company in Montana.
“One thing I always hear about modern dance, a criticism, is that it’s too abstract or that you never know what the narrative is of a particular piece,” says Ragsdale. “I think that’s one reason jazz [dance] is so popular—people come in and see that it’s not about anything, it’s just moving for fun…I think modern dance can accomplish that same sort of accessibility and interest, and do it without compromising our artistic interests. I think this program proves it.”
Headwaters Dance Company presents its debut performance Wednesday, Feb. 22, through Saturday, Feb. 25, at the MCT Center for the Performing Arts. Evening performances begin at 7:30 PM and there will be a Saturday matinee at 2 PM. Talk-back sessions follow each performance. $12/$10 seniors and students, available in advance from Rockin Rudy’s and Wordens.