"I feel like a kid in a candy shop," said San Francisco choreographer Helen Dannenberg, as she took a break from rehearsals in San Diego recently.
Dannenberg was here to design a dance work for four Three's Company dancers. It was the first time she had ever worked with San Diego dancers, and the experience unleashed a flood of creative energy in her.
"The way I like to work is to ask dancers questions about their strengths and weaknesses. I'm interested in all their skills," she said, "not just their dancing."
With that ammunition, and stock items from her own arsenal of choreographic tricks, Dannenberg extends the lexicon of modern dance and creates highly idiosyncratic dances. In rap sessions with Three's Company dancers Nancy McCaleb, Faith Jensen-Ismay, Terry Wilson, and Terri Shipman, Dannenberg discovered a windfall of special skills that could be shaped and molded into a unique dance work.
"Usually, there's not that much to choose from, but this is such a wonderful group," Dannenberg said, as she put the dancers through their paces. "We have baton twirling, juggling, ventriloquism, accordion and flute playing, water skiing, snow skiing, and ice skating--not to mention their strong technical training."
These offstage talents will show up on stage in Dannenberg's yet untitled theater piece when it premieres at Three's Company's Sherwood Auditorium concert April 29-30. Since Dannenberg takes artistic license with the random bits of personal flotsam and jetsam she gathers from her subjects, some of the source material may be too abstracted to recognize in the finished product.
"Faith was a competitive baton twirler, but she would not be waving her head around in competition as she does in this dance," Dannenberg said. "I feel free to choreograph anything I want in my dances."
After a grueling workout at the studio, Wilson explained how each of the dancers contributed to this unorthodox dance making process.
"Helen made categories--what we like to do, and what we can't do--and then we did a lot of talking. We were all very helpful in offering information on each other ," she said.
"I said I loved skiing, but it was hard for me to think of anything," Shipman admitted. Fortunately, I didn't tell her about my acrobatics. As it is, the piece is exhausting."
Jensen-Ismay is an accomplished flute player so Dannenberg devised a way to include a zany musical segment. McCaleb, a self-proclaimed "master of the accordion," will put the squeeze on the instrument but her music making borders on parody.
"That was back in 7th grade," McCaleb said. I didn't grow into an adult accordion."
McCaleb's youthful obsession with ventriloquism found its way into the act as well. Donning a frumpy dress and bushy wig, McCaleb will exchange jibes with a makeshift puppet. The dummy has the last word in this off-beat dance work, but McCaleb is not intimidated.
"I began as a ventriloquist on TV as a child," she said.
Interspersed with this happy hodgepodge, are spurts of quirky kinetics that test the mettle of the four dancers. But even during the episodes of dizzying spins, powerful leg lifts, long leaps, and wildly-flailing ports de bras , a sense of the absurd pervades the piece. The dance--or is it really performance art?--confirms Dannenberg's reputation as "a natural clown with a wry intelligence." It's weird, whimsical, and chock full of surprises.
At one point, McCaleb springs into a daffy juggling act with oversized tooth brushes, while Jensen-Ismay, decked out in kitschy twirling costume, performs some tricky maneuvers with a shiny baton. Each of the dancers takes a turn in the spotlight for a silly-sounding recitation, delivered with poker-faced sincerity.
"The telephone pole was approaching fast. I was attempting to swerve out of its path when it struck my front end," says the first. "A pedestrian hit me and went under my car," says another.
"Those are all true statements," Dannenberg added. "They were taken from accident reports. I just decided to include them. I also brought some little things from a San Francisco toy store that could be used as props. That's where those giant tooth brushes came from."
Then, two of the dancers team up for a badly-executed flute duo, before they all decide to do their own thing with the kooky, robotic-style moves Dannenberg has designed for them. There is a brief segment partnering brooms--a goofy variation on the "Matchmaker" number from "Fiddler on the Roof."
Another portion is performed in deadpan, wearing phony, fun-store noses. The dance seems to opt for the quick chuckle, but getting laughs is not the bottom line for this Bay Area choreographer.
"I don't always look for comedy. They may look funny, but I find it interesting to work with the things the dancers have to struggle with--although I always want the dancers to look good and feel good about what they're doing."
Dannenberg will take center stage on her own this weekend for "Ruthie's Dance." The solo is set to a muddle of gamelan and klezmorim music. Also on the program are selections from Three's Company's repertory, and another premiere--a collaborative duet by McCaleb and ex-Twyla Tharp dancer John Malashock.
But it's Dannenberg's presence that makes this concert special. As Three's Company's co-director, Jean Isaacs, explained:
"There's always been an invisible cultural boundary between Northern and Southern California. This is the first time that we're actually having an artistic exchange. Helen will show her work here, and then we'll be going up to the Bay Area to show ours. This piece will be performed--with our dancers--at the New Performance Gallery in July.
"It's very exciting, there's a whole new attitude," said Isaacs. "We just weren't savvy enough to trade off our talents before."