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The Dance Insider Interview, 11-29: Elkins
This is the Sound of Doug

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2006 Philip W. Sandstrom
Photography by and copyright Tom Caravaglia

December 8 will see the birth of a brand new work from Doug Elkins, one of the most celebrated choreographers of his generation, to music from a very old and equally celebrated work, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music." Presented by DancemOpolitan at Joe's Pub and produced by Dancenow/NYC and Joe's Pub with the assistance of longtime Elkins cohort Amy Cassello, the work stars Archie Burnett, Keely Garfield, Mark Gindick, Jen Nugent, David Parker, Nicole Wolcott, Johnnie Moore, members of the House of Ninja and the choreographer himself.

I worked with Doug Elkins and designed lights for a number of his works in the early 1980s, touring with his company throughout the U.S. and in France. Like many in our field, we drifted apart and lost track of each other's work. When we spoke in mid-November, we began by catching up. While his company is not currently active, Elkins has not been idle. He continues working with the Flying Karamazovs, whose shows he's helped stage for 13 years. American Repertory Theater artistic director Robert Woodruff has hired him to choreograph or stage four productions. And last season at Juilliard, he choreographed the musical "The Listener." Like me, Elkins has also delved into teaching, taking a regular post at Town Unlimited, a performing arts high school in Manhattan. On Monday, the Martha Hill Dance Fund honored him with its inaugural mid-career award.

After a long discussion about where we were, where we went, what we did, and where we are now, we finally got down to the item at hand.

Philip W. Sandstrom: Let's jump right into it. Your new dance is called "Fraulein Maria"; about the music, are you really using...?

Doug D. Elkins: Yep, it's the Rodgers and Hammerstein "Sound of Music."

PWS: The whole thing?

DDE: As much as I can finish by show time.

PWS: So, what's your structure?

DDE: Obviously I'm not working in a linear narrative. I'm hopefully drawing from the collective memory in the room.

PWS: Let's get into specifics: Are you using "How do you solve a problem like Maria?," a.k.a. "Maria"?

DDE: Yep, we just finished that this weekend.

PWS: And "Doe a deer," a.k.a. "Do-Re-Mi"?

DDE: "Doe a deer," yes, and, let's see, "Edewlweiss," "Sixteen going on Seventeen," "I Feel Confidence."

PWS: I don't remember that one.

DDE: (Sings a few bars) You remember, it's when she's kicked out of the convent and is girding herself up to be the au pair for seven children. It's the vehicle to get her over to the Von Trapp house.

PWS: But why "Sound of Music"? What was your inspiration?

DDE: The inspiration was watching "The Sound of Music" with my son Liam; he loves the "Lonely Goatherd" section. Liam would want to watch this ten times before bedtime. We'd watch it and dance around. It drew me out of a depression.

Choreographer and muse: Doug Elkins and Liam Kai Elkins. Tom Caravaglia photo copyright Tom Caravaglia and courtesy Dancenow/NYC.

(Elkins and his wife, Anne, Liam's mother, had separated during this period.)

I don't know why, but "Sound of Music" drew me out of a depression.

PWS: That's not surprising; it's peppy, it's upbeat, it's a powerful piece, and it's inspirational.

DDE: Yeah, it took me back in time; this was perhaps the first musical I was ever taken to as a child. Shortly after that I saw "Mary Poppins" and I wondered, Who is the woman who is coming over to other families' houses and fixing them? In one of my earliest performances in kindergarten I was Re, a drop of golden sun in the "Do-Re-Mi" song. I wore a sun around my neck and carried a flashlight. Little did I know I was recreating a Judson event.

When you look at the "Sound of Music" movie, the dancing is unremarkable. In fact there is very little dancing in it. A lot of walking patterns; there is something quite pedestrian about it. I started to compare it to the early post-modern. If you look at "So Long, Farewell" you can actually tie it to Taylor's "Esplanade"; especially the gestural language.

The musical is very iconic for many people. Whenever I'd mention it to others, it seemed as if everyone had some sort of "Sound of Music" memory. Whether seeing the movie, learning the music for a choir, or having some fixation with Julie Andrews. For me it was, also, being raised in a Jewish family, to see those nuns and wonder, Who are those people?

PWS: So, how did it start? What was your first move?

DDE: Eight days before I was due to host a DancemOpolitan show at Joe's Pub, I was again watching "Sound of Music" with Liam, whose favorite song is still "The Lonely Goatherd." I got the idea of deconstructing three of the songs. I created choreographic sketches for "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," "The Lonely Goatherd," and "So Long, Farewell" and showed them to Robin (Staff), Bill (Bragin), and Andrea (Stoller), the producers of DancemOpolitan at Joe's Pub. They immediately encouraged me to continue the project and later asked me if I'd like to create choreography for all the music in the musical. We went to the Rodgers and Hammerstein people to ask permission to use the music. After making a respectful pitch and promising not to denigrate or parody the image of "The Sound of Music" and sharing my personal love of this movie, we got permission to produce this show on a one-time basis. I did tell them that I wanted to use two men for the "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" song; no objections. If they like the show and continue to grant permission, we'll see where it goes. I'd like the work to continue, to have a life. I'd like to take it to other venues.

PWS: How did you put it together, considering the space limitations at Joe's Pub?

DDE: I made the work to fit the space. It's hard to convey the spaciousness of the Alps on a 10' x18' stage. The way I made some of the pieces, like my duet with Keely Garfield to the music of children singing the title song -- "The world is alive with the sound of music" -- was to clear her living room and make the dance right there. The dance is something like "ready-mades," like what I did in the early days for my first shows at Dance Theater Workshop. I followed the same process with David Parker and Archie Burnett from the "House of Ninja"; we cleared David's living room and made the dance.

PWS: So you've chosen to work with mature dancers; why?

DDE: Some of the dancers I'm working with are new parents; we are continually infusing past and present. My whole sense of "The Sound of Music" relates to my bonding with my child, which in turn reflects the whole sense of family when I was young. It's all related to family.

Recently, before Willie Ninja died, his friends and I would visit him in the hospital. When we thought he was going to make it, albeit with the loss of sight and (leg) movement, I told him I really wanted him to play Mother Superior. I was going to have him sit on Archie's lap and they both were going to Vogue to "Climb Every Mountain." When I went to the funeral, I saw many of my friends from my old company, the House of Ninja people, half of Wigstock, friends of my club days, and Extravaganza; I saw my whole life there. In short I want to reflect that in this work.

PWS: Many choreographers use dancers who are familiar with their work; often they are friends....

DDE: Like the old days at DTW, the company was a community, like a hand-made quilt. I'm using parents like Keely and Jen Nugent. I am bringing in one or two younger dancers but it's a cascade of talent, it's like a tapestry.

PWS: A mature dancer has a presence that....

DDE: Jen Nugent could pour water in a glass and drink it onstage and the audience would stick around for and wait for more of it.

PWS: Did you fashion the dances around the particular talents of each dancer?

DDE: Yeah, we get in these conversations (verbal and movement based) and we start building the work. It's about communicating.

PWS: Are you in the work? Does each dancer have a specific role?

DDE: Yes and yes, but the dancers can play different roles depending on the performance; it's all double cast because of the nature of people's schedules. That being said, each dancer has their own take on their roles; I have them play to their strengths, in the same way that no two actors have the same approach to a Shakespeare character.

PWS: Let's recap. You start with the song, then you pick the dancerÉ.

DDE: Then we look at the scene from the movie so the dancer has a reference.

PWS: A visual reference?

DDE: Yes, first we examine the story -- and many of the dancers already know the story -- then we examine what the characters are doing to move the story forward; we might find a gesture to allude to, sampling a moment from the movie. I'm not interested in the narrative; I'm interested in the collective memory of the story. It's like a game of post office. (Also known as telephone tree.)

PWS: Okay, you watch the movie, you find the gestures, the samples, you play post office, then what happens?

DDE: I start sketching out some phrases and steps, then we start improvising on what we have; I have them try it in a variety of different ways. I look at a song like "Do-Re-Mi"; what is it? It's an accumulation. It's also a memory song. Each dancer will take a movement and work within that structure like in a post-modernist's playbook. For example, there's an accumulation phrase that's a reference or homage to Trisha. If you look at "How do you solve a problem like Maria?," the four women who are the nuns, they quote everything from Ballets Russes to Balanchine to Mark Morris to Limon. Like a Highlight magazine where you have to find the hidden words in the drawing or a Hirschfield drawing where you have to find the Ninas. In the work, I try to place little clues, little references to the work of others. Little jokes.

PWS: How do these references develop? Are they part of the dance to begin with, a point of departure, or do they spontaneously occur?

DDE: I have a number of people work on different things at the same time. It's a real chaotic mess that eventually comes together. Sometimes the work comes together through the process of erasing; we cut out parts, leaving the references, and then we decide whether it's interesting enough to watch. Is it compelling or boring? I might be intrigued by the intellectual idea but if it doesn't hold your Uncle Jeff's attention then I've failed.

PWS: How do you maintain objectivity? I find that if I've seen a piece throughout its creation it is difficult for me to be objective.

DDE: I bring people in to look at the work for an objective viewpoint. I seek out people who can look at the work tabula rasa. If they don't get it or find it funny then I re-edit. That being said, I'm not looking for parody -- I actually have a sentimental attachment to "The Sound of Music."

PWS: Okay, let's change direction here for a while. What happened to the Doug Elkins Dance Company?

DDE: I started having a family and I had to decide between the company, which was a family, and my new family. I would be on the road or in a residency and I realized I was getting depressed; I wanted to be with my son and my wife. I had to decide between my two families. In addition, funding is not what it used to be. You know what the touring scene is like these days: there is no longer any infrastructure.

PWS: So, you ended it?

DDE: Everything I did and earned went into the company. It became the case of the tail wagging the dog. It was becoming exhausting. It became unsustainable and I was having a family. I had to fish or cut bait.

PWS: Who's supporting this "Sound of Music" project?

DDE: The producers of Dancenow/NYC and Joe's Pub, and Amy Cassello (former manager of the Doug Elkins Dance Company) came back to help with the fundraising.

This project is like a small dance company; I'm calling in a few friends to help me out. It's like a guild, they are helping me make what I want to make. Everyone is very supportive. They don't walk away; they help. I trust them to help build the structure.

Doug Elkins's "Fraulein Maria," to music from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music," premieres Friday, December 8 at 7:30 p.m. at Joe's Pub in New York, with additional performances Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m..


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