The idea was to review SFDanceworks Season 4, but as I left the Cowell Theater that sits on the dock of the San Francisco Bay, a wave of equivocation eclipsed that plan. It was as if my hopes for this company lingered too close to the eye of an impending cultural storm, threatening to redact or realign them. To regain my footing, I opted for a strategic retreat, and requested an interview with SFDanceworks dancer-turned-choreographer, Brett Conway, whose fortunes I have followed for two decades. His work, “The Bedroom,” a world premiere in the program, featured a show-stopping solo danced by Babatunji Johnson. Johnson possesses an extraordinary gift for shaping and firing movement, as well as for penetrating insights into art. Originally, Conway had set the solo on himself, but reworked it, tailoring it to draw on all that he admires in Johnson’s gleaming skill set.
Conway recapped SFDanceworks’ short history, zeroing in on its trajectory. “It’s a young company, trying to figure out its voice, but bringing contemporary repertoire to audiences here.” Then he added, “Jim [Artistic Director James Sofranko] is making a conscious effort to give younger choreographers a platform in an environment where colleagues are your friends, you can try things out free of the pressures that come with large-company expectations.”
By bringing in repertoire from outside San Francisco, SFDanceworks not only collaborates with choreographers and stagers of renown but signals the directions in which Sofranko wants to grow repertoire much larger. “Jim has great respect for older contemporary works that have stood the test of time. He also does work that’s current in larger companies. Though we didn’t see much of the past in this last production, Jim is committed to the past, present, and future.” Conway predicts that the ten-member company will soon increase in size and do larger works with more permanent members than pick-up dancers. “It’s exciting that though young, we have made big strides over a short period!”
At first glance, the company can look a bit incestuous, appearing to adhere to a “James Sofranko and Friends” schema. I ask whether at this conjuncture there is also space for dance artists with more degrees of separation from the current cohort, and by the same token, whether there are liabilities to working with dancers who can handily finish each other’s artistic sentences. Brett doesn’t hesitate to set me straight!
“Laura (O’Malley) and I danced together at LINES; I was dancing in The Hague with Nederlands Dans Theater while she was with Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. It feels natural when she comes to me with a question about her piece [‘Room for Error’] because that exchange comes out of trust and candor forged by a common history. I’m close with Dani [Danielle Rowe, Associate Artistic Director], from our NDT days, and whose work and work style I admire. SFDanceworks feels safe, without being overly comfortable.”
We turn to the ideation that inspired “The Bedroom,” and the process that brought it to life. It opens piecing together a bed chamber’s rudimentary elements and décor. I ask Conway what story his childhood bedroom told him about his own relationship to the world outside its walls. He describes how he filled the space with content that spans a lifetime of fabulist thinking, projections into the future, yearnings, needs recognition, immense joy, and grievous loss:
“It was great to create a solo work on myself and then, aware
that my schedule would prevent me from performing it, say ‘OK, now I have an
opportunity rework it on another dancer, and be on the outside of what I had
only been on the inside of.’” Conway took advantage of the switch to play with
other concepts, which he slowly integrated into the new version. “I liked that
I could separate from it enough to not be immersed in what had been all consuming
when I set it on myself.” His having cast Johnson in the role revealed touches
of genius in both Conway and Johnson. Conway mused, “He has a raw physicality
and at the same time, great sensibility. I knew it would be physically different,
and was eager to take advantage of the distal view to see how it read in the
context of the poem by local poet Cristina García, whose work I love. So I
tailored the solo for ‘Tunji, confident that the text and spoken word would
confer maximum imagery.”
Conway recorded himself reciting the poem, and for this program, lay down new music tracks by Sufjian Stevens, Keynvor, and Luke Howard over the original classical piece by Ezio Bosso. “On adding these elements,” he says, “I saw that it could extend itself to a panorama of bedroom experiences relating to the personal space a bedroom represents, memories of caring for my dying father and his eventual passing away in my childhood bedroom. I knew at a young age that I wanted to perform, dreaming of what that would look like, wondering what was in store. Anywhere you sleep is your personal space, and a very personal story develops there.”
What gave rise to Brett’s bedroom story was shaping up to be intriguing to put on stage. “I saw it through the lens of a film, something universally relatable, since we all face death, dream, imagine what the future holds, and experience yearnings for love, each of us in our individual bedrooms, and then in adolescence, daydreaming about a crush, and the joy that could take place in our private space when we invite that crush—real or imagined—in.”
For Conway, experiencing a spectrum of emotions from the kind of loss “that makes you want to hide in your bed”—to the kind of joy “you experience there with your lover.” For Conway, it all starts with the freedom that a primal bedroom sparks to create and imagine, when as a child you try on the roles that impel you to dance out your fantasies by yourself in that very space.
While Conway arrived at this creative epiphany on his own, he places great value on others who were profoundly influential. I ask him about the impact of working with three outstanding choreographers: Mats Ek, Jiri Kylian, and Alonzo King.
“In working with Mats, repetiteurs would set or stage the work first, and once it was in place, Mats came to give us the story, the inspiration, the ‘juice,’ and it was fascinating. I loved his sense of the theatrical, but also the minimalism, modernity, and the energy he brought–coming in and doing double tours, gravitating to the gym area of the studio, chinning on the bars. I discovered that I was working with a creator putting out so much positive energy, who had such a grasp of history, art, theater, and storytelling. As a contemporary dancer, it was great fun to do a classic like his “Swan Lake,” but in a style that I wanted to do it.
“In Jiri Kylian, there was an undercurrent of fire. You would catch it in the building of a work that was magical but effortless in its aspect.” Conway recalls an encouraging Kylian, who “worked away to bring out the beauty in the movement, where underneath a surface calm, the audience would discover—not the ‘You’re so beautiful!’—but beauty in the grittiness, clever tricks, and sly humor.”
He says that what distinguished his works was that “while performing them, you could feel the weight and complexity he carries. He’s kind, and gives you so much about the ideas, texture, and simplicity in the movement. It was more than just working with him; it was the fullness of an experience, more than we ever expected, as if life had schooled him to be generous, and not only with his time.”
Conway likens Alonzo King to Kylian. “How people felt about
Kylian is how I feel about Alonzo, my first boss. He shaped me, and provided
the model of a safe, small, intimate space, where you felt encouraged to
experiment even at the risk of making mistakes, because he would guide you back
on track.” With the freedom came responsibility. “It made me grow up as a human
being, with a zest for quality and care, attention to how you put yourself into
the movement and by extension, into the world.”
Like so many who have worked with King, Conway found him encouraging, respectful, and inspiring. “He urged us to bring out who we were. I was just out of school, and didn’t yet have a sense of who I was as an artist, still unrefined. He lit a path to refinement, to taking risks that didn’t always turn out for the best, but gave us the gift of trust that must be there. His generosity allowed us to be generous too. Having that early on helped me develop as an artist.” I ask Conway what it felt like to leave LINES and work in Europe.” He is scheduled to teach class in five minutes, but searches for the exact words to capture that transition: “I left LINES because I wanted to work with others, but with a strong sense of who I was bringing to that work: an artist who had become open to learning and growing.”