Sarah Griffin on SKETCH 6: Coming back around

Five years ago, I performed for the first time in San Francisco in Imagery’s SKETCH: New Works program. I was 25 years old and still shedding my bunhead tendencies to embrace a more contemporary movement sensibility. Adam Hougland’s “Cigarettes”, created in just two weeks that summer, proved to be a significant opportunity for me to expand on my classical instincts and employ my natural dramatic qualities. This summer I have the distinct pleasure of revisiting this work that has stuck so poignantly in my body, mind, and heart.

Adam’s choreography resonated with me then and stays with me now because it is suffused with emotional intent. His movement language evokes powerful physical imagery, bringing meaning and purpose to each step. I have always enjoyed creating character and mood on stage, so choreography feels really good to me when I don’t have to just layer emotion on top of an arbitrary sequence of acrobatics. The intrinsic emotional qualities in the music and movement for “Cigarettes” made it come together so quickly and naturally that I didn’t give much explicit thought to my character. In performance, I remember the steps coming vibrantly alive, as if I were dancing them spontaneously as a deep and natural expression of myself. It was an incredible experience and certainly an important moment in my personal artistic trajectory.

The living, present nature of dance means that no ballet is ever danced the same way twice. Of course there are choreographic and musical goals to achieve, but the movement’s texture and quality are always alive and new. I strive to shape and sense my body in the moment with each rehearsal and performance, not to recreate an idealized execution of sequential steps. After a few days spent studying the video of “Cigarettes” from 2011, I had to let go of the images I achieved back then in order to take a fresh approach free of assumptions or affectations. I’m not setting out to embody the physical or emotional state of 25-year-old Sarah, because things have changed a lot since then. I’ve grown and matured as an artist and as a person, and let’s face it, my knees are a little creakier too!

In the restaging process, it’s important to study the physical structure of the piece while leaving room to channel the movement naturally into the body. Ben Needham-Wood and Gabe Williams—both in the original cast—did a great job of interpreting and communicating the work to us in just a few days, and Katherine Wells continues to polish us up with her fresh, intelligent insight. There is always something new to discover in the intricate physical dynamics of dance and partnering, as well as the deeply satisfying minutiae of musicality, and I’m really enjoying the work in the studio this time around.

I dance with three men throughout “Cigarettes”, and to be perfectly honest, this is quite a dreamy cast. I have history with all of my suitors: James Gilmer from the past three SKETCH seasons, Peter Franc from a season at Oregon Ballet Theatre, and Scott Marlowe from a some wild and crazy projects with Imagery earlier this year. We already feel very connected and comfortable working together because of these valuable shared experiences and friendly rapport. This level of trust allows me to feels the steps in a new way, deepen my exploration of character, and begin a dialogue of relationships with the rest of the cast. Although the feeling and sequence of the movement came back to me naturally, with different partners it’s like a whole new ballet. I can’t go on autopilot or anticipate the same sensations from different bodies, and that’s really keeping me focused and present in the work.

I’m exploring a few things to deepen this role and expand my character. I want to find individual physical textures to express my relationship to each man and to myself. With one man I feel trapped, combative, and yearning, with another perfunctory and resigned, and with the third I can be tender, honest, and intimate. The brief moments in which I escape the clutches of my partners to dance alone are introspective pleas as I strive to find myself and hold my ground in the face of conflicted emotional chaos. A simple shift of gaze, posture, or muscular tension can speak volumes, and I find myself making new choices with every rehearsal. It’s quite a treat to have the time and perspective to explore “Cigarettes” again as a new woman, and I’m so excited to share this and so much more in SKETCH 6!

Show Comments (1)
    Amy Wins an Izzie!

    We are thrilled to announce that last night Amy won the Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography for Back To performed by Amy Seiwert’s Imagery during SKETCH at ODC Theater last summer.

    We are delighted to share this honor with Choreographer Robert Moses. A big congratulations to Amy, our Imagery Artists, and all the other winners and nominees of the 30th Isadora Duncan Dance Awards!

    The Isadora Duncan Dance Awards, known locally as the “Izzies,” are awarded annually to acknowledge exceptional creative achievements in the performance and presentation of dance. Awards are given in nine categories to honor the dancers, choreographers, designers, composers, dance companies, dance scholars and other individuals who have made important contributions to the San Francisco Bay Area’s thriving dance community.

    Leave a reply
      Fun fact: Why Sue’s butt says “Vorsicht“

      “Vorsicht“ translates as caution. If you’re watching “Broken Open” and get distracted by Susan Roemer’s costume, thinking “why vorsicht?” when she’s facing upstage, here you go:

      The creation process for Broken Open started with a very clear intention – an exploration of how, sometimes, absolute beauty can be born from a scar. One inspiration was a photo of a woman who had had a severe medical surgery, and turned that scar into a fantastic tattoo. Love or hate tattoos,  this woman took her scarring and turned it into her own personal statement of beauty. Something I applaud.


      Another inspiration came from the city of Berlin, where I had the good fortune to spend a couple of weeks back in 2009. On a warm spring day I stumbled across Kunsthaus Tacheles, a building originally slated for demolition by the GDR. Artists had taken over the site by squatting there after the Berlin Wall came down. I spent hours in the garden reading and writing in my journal, wondering how someone was able to create graffiti murals five stories tall. I was amazed at the large scale beauty created by the artists. It wasn’t pretty, but it was absolutely beautiful. How a place with such a horrid history (the building housed a Nazi prison at one point) became a vibrant hub for beauty and expression. I was amazed at how a wound so deep healed over, and something beautiful came from that scar.

      Early on the process designer Sandra Woodall mentioned graffiti for the costumes. This was totally by coincidence, she didn’t know of the Berlin inspiration. I sent her images of murals I had taken in the city, the  image above, which in my memory is from a stairwell in the Kunsthaus Tacheles, was one of them. In her search for fabric she found a print that must have been inspired by the same wall. She then had them painted over so the scale would read from stage.

      Costumes being painted for the premiere of "Broken Open." Design by Sandra Woodall.

      Costumes being painted for the premiere of “Broken Open.” Design by Sandra Woodall.

      I am sad to say the Kunsthaus Tacheles was closed in September of 2012. I have to wonder if any of the murals were preserved. And I have to thank those artists who inspired me with the beauty they created.

      If you’ve read this far – you were really interested in some background for Broken Open.  So a little bit more. These ideas: the graffiti, surgical scars – they were a spring board. As often happens, the ballet took a left turn and demanded to have a life of its own. 

      “It seemed a straightforward story, and it was only when I came to write it I discovered it was like trying to hold fine sand: every time I thought I’d got hold of it, it would trickle through my fingers and vanish. ”

      -Neil Gaiman on the creative process

      I often find Mr. Gaiman inspiring, both his fiction and his comments on the how and why of creating. Broken Open was a difficult birth as far as ballets go. I had I very clear idea where I wanted the ballet to go before I began, but the ballet had a different agenda. While I encourage the dancers to thrive while being “lost in process,” I know deep down it is a highly uncomfortable place to be. When creating a ballet, I feel I’m watching something unfold that already exists, my job is simply to help it into the world. Broken Open hid from me a little bit, but perhaps I was looking in the wrong direction. Finally, I shifted my perspective and met what this ballet wanted to be.  

      So in viewing, I encourage the audience to not look for the intention with which I began. There’s no right or wrong way to view a ballet, there’s no quiz afterwards.  Experience the work in a way unique to you. Gathering together a community to have a shared yet unique experience is one of the fantastic things about what we, as dance makers, get to do.

      Video teaser for Broken Open.  https://vimeo.com/140251223



      Leave a reply
        Slow Motion Ballet

        How does Imagery spend our free time? We like to slow things down a bit…

        Peter Litwinowicz joined the Imagery dancers in the studio to “play” with Twixtor (slow motion software) by his company RE:Vision Effects. The dancers are shot on Red Epic at 120fps, retimed up to 160x slower than real time.

        Leave a reply
          Sarah Griffin on SKETCH 5: Inside Another Skin

          Inside Another Skin: Instinct, Collaboration, and Creation

          Collaboration is the spirit of the SKETCH series. Through the last five years we have collaborated with nine choreographers, five musicians, two composers, and nineteen dancers. Every one of our thirteen world premiere works has been shaped by artistic collaboration and exchange between the artists. So it wasn’t too far fetched to commission a work this year as a joint collaboration between two choreographers. It’s been a fun, challenging, and engrossing project for many reasons, above all the strong creative leadership of Amy Seiwert and KT Nelson.

          The piece, called “Starting Over from the End”, is very much a blend of Amy’s and KT’s voices. Much of a choreographer’s voice is shaped by instinct. Amy has the discerning eye of a ballet dancer, and KT has the human sensibility of a modern dancer. This combination of finely tuned instincts and aesthetics makes for new and unexpected juxtapositions of form, space, and language.

          We began the collaborative process with each choreographer generating a gestural phrase with the upper body. Those gestures were manipulated individually by the dancers, then edited and composed by both choreographers together and separately. The dancers acquired each other’s manipulations, combined into partnered or group interactions, and only then applied musicality. Amy most often works very closely with music from the beginning of a creative process, but KT wanted the dancers to find our physicality before exploring the music. While this was unusual for me, it began to make sense as the choreographers mixed and matched the creative puzzle pieces to form the complete work. There were several rounds of editing, and we are still growing in the work with each rehearsal.

          Challenges abound in this highly collaborative environment, but in the best ways possible. KT challenges Amy to break with her usual processes and methods in the studio. Amy challenges KT to find new and subtle ways to use pointe shoes. Both choreographers challenge the dancers to problem-solve phrases and partnering assignments. Amy tasks the dancers with seven specific ways to inform our creative manipulations, KT pushes us to create movement through sensation. I am fascinated by what attracts each choreographer in the movement created by each dancer, and how they challenge us to shape our material. I find myself making new choices, acquiring a different sensibility in my body, and sometimes spending an hour or two in the corner of the studio just playing around with something. A simple choice in weight shift, range of motion, or dynamic can open entirely new pathways and possibilities for choreographer and dancer alike. We discover new access points and transitions, adding flourishes of gesture that connect to the work’s movement language. Improvisation and happenstance can become part of the choreography. There are no mistakes, only clues to solve a problem.

          This collaborative effort incorporates the instincts of all the dancers as well as the choreographers. SKETCH dancers must possess versatility, openness, and a well-tuned instinct for movement in order to be good collaborators. I am amazed by how unique we all are in our training, experience, body types, and personalities, and how these elements lend themselves to highly individualized personal style and movement instinct. This instinct shows itself in a dancer’s muscular dynamic – some naturally tend to be long and languid, others strong and deep, quick and precise, or soft and airy. Likewise, instinct shows in a dancer’s tendency to use turns, jumps, extensions, or floor work to differing effects. Executing another dancer’s created phrase can therefore feel foreign, like being inside another skin. Touching and experiencing another person’s instinct through movement can reveal and inform creative navigations in shifts of weight, muscular dynamic, and range of motion.

          I have learned more in the SKETCH environment than any other by watching my colleagues work, occasionally inhabiting their skins to become a part of their processes. I’ve experienced the instinctual creations of so many wonderful artists and am happy to call myself a collaborator. I find that dances shaped and manipulated by the artists’ instincts look and feel very personal, which is what I find so special about this collaboration and the spirit of SKETCH.

          Day by day we continue to layer nuances of form and timing, and the piece feels entirely original and alive. SKETCH audiences are in for a real treat, and I look forward to sharing this exciting, diverse program in San Francisco, Walla Walla, Bozeman, and New York.

          Sarah Cecilia Griffin

          Show Comments (2)
            Sarah Griffin on SKETCH 4: Dance and language

            The Imagery dancers and choreographers have finished up the last full week of rehearsals, and now we prepare ourselves mentally and physically for a week in the theater and a week on tour to Walla Walla. This year’s SKETCH has been a real joy. We have all eight dancers from last year’s project, and that familiarity has brought so much ease, intimacy, cooperation, and laughter to the process. I’m fortunate to have worked with both Adam and Amy in the SKETCH environment in previous years as well, so I’m also familiar with their movement languages and creative processes. In the few days before opening, I focus on adding nuance and thought to my work with the performances in mind. It’s important to find my footing, timing, spacing, and breath, both on my own and with my partners, so that we can develop a cohesive and consistent approach to performance. All of the work continues to evolve on stage, with each performance unfolding in a new way. The greatest joy of performing is the feeling of total presence and immersion in the “now”, the complete trust in the moment and in my body, my partners, and the musicians. It’s a great privilege to have live music in performance, and I’m very excited to begin working with the musicians and to see how my appreciation of the music may change. The energy of an audience also adds an element of communication to the work, particularly in an intimate theater like ODC. 10527325_10152162190551954_7023030529856162662_n The theme of SKETCH 4: Music Mirror is that we are dancing two ballets to the same piece of music. When Amy proposed this idea to the dancers months ago, I was intrigued. I am an attentively musical dancer, and have found few challenges in this process. I’ve been getting to know the music the way I would any piece of music I dance to, and I’ve been learning choreography the same way I would approach any new movement. If anything, dancing (and watching others dance) to the same music in very different ways has made me appreciate a broader idea of what dance and music can be in relation to one another. I feel that I’ve learned the music more instinctively with a depth of perspective informed by two very different approaches. Another way to explain it is with a language analogy. I’m fluent in both English and Spanish. I know that when I speak Spanish, different parts of my brain are working; my thoughts are in Spanish, my inflections and tone of voice change, I use my mouth and tongue differently, and even my body language changes. Movement language is very similar. Both Amy and Adam have very distinct movement languages, and the two ballets they’ve created couldn’t be more different for me. I dance en pointe in Amy’s work, defying gravity and stretching phrases in long, curvy, precise balletic fashion. Her choreography requires a flexible posture and highly articulate feet, and the partnering work is intricately cooperative. Amy relates to the music as a musician (something I’ve always liked about her), carrying around her score and helping the dancers hear the music as it’s written. In Adam’s ballet, I dance in socks, which radically changes my connection to the floor and the way I articulate my feet and legs. His movement feels more weighted, and has a fluid, almost relaxed muscularity, with release and a sense of surrender to gravity underlying moments of tension or stillness. Adam approaches music with the mind and ear of a dancer, so there are some unison sections that we count and others where timing can develop naturally with the movement and may vary slightly with each performance. In these ways, it’s nearly impossible for me to confuse the two ballets simply because they use the same music; my body feels so completely different, and the way I process the music intimately reflects how my body feels. I’m sure a fancy brain scan would show different parts of my brain working for each ballet, much like synaptic patterns with multiple spoken languages. I’m so grateful to have been a part of SKETCH from the beginning, and I look forward to the future. The opportunity to learn and grow in an open and encouraging environment is a blessing that few people enjoy in any career. The creative skills and invaluable lessons I’ve learned from the dancers and choreographers through the past four summers have made me a better, stronger, smarter, more joyful dancer. I’m moving to Portland to join Oregon Ballet Theatre just a few days after we return from Walla Walla, and I feel that SKETCH has given me a great advantage in approaching new work and repertory work in the context of a larger company. Thank you, dancers, choreographers, audiences, and supporters. And thank you, Amy, for taking a chance on me.

            Show Comments (3)
              Wes Krukow (aka the Puppy) on SKETCH 4

              Week three!!! (Little known fact about Amy: if she reads three exclamation points, she imagines the writer wagging their respective tail.)

              What a journey so far! Having now spent a week with Adam’s creation it’s safe to say the dancers have a feel for the challenge of two dances to one song. Here are some of the benefits that I have experienced so far:

              + The musicality is more developed. Because we have been listening to one score for over 100 hours, we are beginning to understand its’ nuances and how we can incorporate our dancing to fit different stylistic elements within each segment. Because of the complexities Kevin has composed, every time I listen to the score, I discover new things about either the rhythm, dynamic, or melody. This makes the process all the more artistically satisfying:there is always more to learn!

              + The voice, style, and intention of the choreographers are so developed that it’s almost impossible to confuse the two. This helps prevent confusion when we run each dance. It is rare when we accidentally switch dances midway through the song because Amy and Adam have structured their pieces so well that we have no room to second guess our actions. There will be days that because the movement is so different, it sounds like another score entirely.

              The challenge that this has provided has given everyone a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. When friends and family of mine come to see a show they usually comment on the amount of memorization needed to accomplish a piece. “So much movement, How do you remember what goes where and when?!” This added challenge is a gift to push ourselves and answer the question “can we do it?”. Like bob the builder, Imagery says “Yes we can!”

              Although I’m usually one to say “Come and Play, Everything’s A-Okay,” there are some challenges to this process that are hard to ignore:

              – Musicality is hard to switch between pieces. This is most challenging for synchronized sections where the musicality is spoon-fed to us. Ironically enough those are my most challenging moments but they have turned into my favorite moments because I then get to watch Ben and Katherine and see all the details that I strive to achieve.

              – Finding a different atmosphere in the same music. Amy and Adam has different intentions and therefore the mood is unique for each piece. Finding the individual voice is difficult when your inspiration is from the same music. It is making me realize that there is so much influence to be had through the development of a personal story. I love making the story relevant to my life making it a personal experience and therefore offering a realistic presentation to the audience. This has been fun finding motivation in the music and then having to go away from it to find another shade to the spectrum.

              I am looking forward to the process and finding new discoveries this week in myself and from those I am dancing with and for. What a joy to be in a place that is motivating, challenging, and inspiring all in one little bundle of sunshine (tail wagging)!!!

              Wes Krukow

              July 15, 2014



              Show Comments (1)
                Ben Needham-Wood on SKETCH 4

                Sketch 4: Music Mirror is underway and I could not be more excited. I have been a part of Imagery’s Sketch series since it’s inception in 2011 and every year it continues to exceed my expectations. The dancers get stronger, the work gets more innovative, and the atmosphere continues to exude confidence and joy in every artist that shares in the collaboration.

                This is the first time where the Sketch dancers have remained the same from one year to the next, and after only one week of work we can already feel that same, magic bond that grew over five weeks last summer. It is rare to find a company where there are no egos or personal agendas that inhibit the overall progress of the work, but Imagery is exactly that; every artist in the company shares a mutual respect and admiration for everyone else in the studio, allowing us to continue bettering ourselves with confidence knowing that our colleagues are supporting us through every step. Looking around the room and absorbing Private’s incredible partnering, Sarah’s long lines, “The Puppy” Wes’s strength, Katherine’s clarity, Annali’s technique, James’s fluid articulation of movement, and Rachel’s flexibility, it leaves me in awe and inspires me to push my own limits and strive for more.

                All eight of us are very different dancers from one another, and it takes an amazing choreographer to successfully highlight those individual strengths within the context of a single, cohesive work. Amy Seiwert and Adam Hougland are two such choreographers. I first worked with both choreographers while I was a Company Artist with Louisville Ballet. I can honestly say that I would not be the dancer I am today without their influence. They are both nurturing and invest completely in their work and their dancers. Each day in the studio with them brings new ideas and insight that helps us dancers to push our boundaries and rediscover our own limitations.

                Amy Seiwert's Imagery, Rachel Furst and Ben Needham Wood copy Photo David DeSilva

                This amazing combination of Amy, Adam, and the eight dancers in the company have become my summer family and I love every opportunity I have to work with them. We are having such a great time already and the work we have accomplished thus far in the process is truly remarkable. I can’t wait to see how this project resolves and I can’t edit to share it with the audience.

                –Ben Needham-Wood

                Pictured – Ben Needham-Wood and Rachel Furst in 2013′s SKETCH 3: Expectations. Photo by David DeSilva. Rehearsal shot of Mr. Needham-Wood by Andrea Basile.



                Leave a reply
                  A thank you to Ms. Perry and Ms. Mansfield

                  Last week I had the honor and pleasure of spending a week in log cabin up near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. My neighbors were some horses, deer, elk and a bear. And every day, this was my studio.

                  I was in Residence at Perry-Mansfield, the 100+year old performing arts camp founded by Smith College alumni Charlotte Perry and Portia Mansfield. Agnes de Mille was here, and legend has it a square dance in town inspired Rodeo. Merce was here too, as well as Jose Limon, Hanya Holm, and Doris Humphrey. Walking through this idyllic environment, with the knowledge of the incredible creative minds who had been there before, the sense of isolation that comes with being a dance creator washed away. At any given meal time, just sit at any communal table. Not only would you be enjoying the most delicious food ever served at a camp, seriously challenging the notion of “camp food,” you could count on a random conversation about art, process, and teaching to inspire.

                  Working with dancers from the “PPI” – Pre-Professional Intensive, I crafted a new work. These dancers were open, eager, and soaked up theories on technique, movement and creation. They pushed themselves hard, and their love of dance was a reminder of why I do what I do. Dancers from all over the country with diverse backgrounds come together in almost instant community, that’s what a common goal and love can do.

                  An added bonus of this week was having Ilana Goldman and Gabe Williams to assist me in the process. Both danced in Imagery projects for years, Gabe and I actually performed together in one of my early works. Accomplished artists and wonderful teachers, it was lovely to connect with them again artistically and to see the integrity with which they coached the PPIs.

                  This week was special in ways I never imagined. If you don’t know this camp, check it out. For more of the history, click here. You can even adopt-a-cabin at the camp, helping to support the camp’s infrastructure so this fantastic resource can energize artists for another 100 years.

                  To Ms. Perry and Ms. Mansfield, true visionaries, I owe you a debt. Thank you for what you created.



                  Leave a reply
                    Gazing into the Music Mirror

                    Guest blog by SKETCH 4 composer Kevin Keller

                    “How should we get started?” was the question that Amy Seiwert and I both pondered on the day that we found out about our New Music USA grant. The project was titled “Sketch 4 | Music Mirror”, and the idea was to see how two different choreographers (Amy Seiwert and Adam Hougland) would react to the same piece of music.

                    I suggested that, since there was no narrative concept or “story” that we were trying to tell, perhaps we should start with photographic images. My most recent project had been a collection of piano pieces (“Nocturnes”) inspired by photographs, and it had gone very well. Since this new work was to be about 30 minutes in length, I thought 6 images would be enough. They should be images that inspired Amy and Adam, and that could be seen as “challenging” to interpret.

                    Riffing off this idea, Amy suggested that she and Adam could each choose 3 images, and send them to me without showing them to each other. This way, only I would know what the images were. To make things even more fun, we decided that I wouldn’t tell Amy and Adam which musical piece corresponded with which image, nor would I tell them what the titles of the pieces were. This way, they could react to the 6 sections of music without being influenced by me, nor by each other.

                    With this plan in place, off we went!

                    A couple days later, I received e-mails from Amy and Adam with images attached. What I found most interesting was that the 6 images had a similar aesthetic when viewed as a set, which I would describe as “spooky”. Each photograph was visually compelling, and definitely inspiring. In fact, I could almost immediately “hear” the music coming from each one.

                    The music, scored for piano and cello (my favorite combination), was composed in about 5 weeks. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but the project felt easy. Each time I started on a new image, the music just flowed effortlessly. I think this is because the images that Amy and Adam gave to me were so inspiring.

                    I can’t wait to show the images to Amy and Adam, and tell them how each one inspired the music. But until the premier in July, that’s my secret!

                    Leave a reply