The Artist Formerly Known As: Will Rawls

Will Rawls has danced with the Williams College Dance Company for eight semesters and has choreographed for the Company since the spring of 1997. In Dec. 1999, he presented a paper in Los Angeles at the Congress on Research and Dance. His most recent work, Gentle Pressure, was performed at the American College Dance Festival at Bates College. Two new works of his will be premiered this spring, one on the Dance Company Concert on April 28 and 29, and the other on an independent study presentation on May 11 and 12.

Could you tell me about your recent choreographic work? Do you feel now, as a senior, that the work you’re doing is a culmination of all the work you’ve done up to this point at Williams?

Every summer I do a dance program. The summer before my freshman year I did the Alvin Ailey dance program in New York, so I was informed by a really intensely classical modern style which was based on Graham and Horton technique, and a lot of ballet and jazz. So I came here and choreographed a piece that looked very much like what I had been studying. The next summer I did something else, and my dances changed a lot.

The summer before my junior year, my whole dance world exploded, and I went to the American Dance Festival at Duke, and also the Bates Dance Festival, and met all these amazing choreographers who were doing work combining hip hop and release technique – which is a very fluid technique – did a lot of yoga, started treating my body in different ways.

Now that I’m choreographing, I’m assimilating ideas that I’ve been playing with throughout my years here and taking movements that I really like and putting them in new contexts. Whereas before my dancing was a lot about looking like a particular type of dancer – like an Alvin Ailey dancer, like a Graham dancer – now it’s more about looking like Will Rawls who has studied these kinds of techniques. So when I choreograph it’s really about what feels comfortable with my body.

So what is it about Will Rawls that has come through, that you’ve discovered?

A real sense of playfulness and spontaneity. [laughs] When choreographing, I’m thinking a lot about the way that choreography looks so easy when it’s performed – not necessarily easy, but people take it at face value and say, “Here is this work, and I’m watching this dancer,” and that’s the surface level of performance and audience. But I like to break that up with moments where the dancer collapses, where there are bleeps and bloops and collapses and things like that in the piece, which make one more aware of the dancer’s body as something that is very human, and is under a lot of stress, a lot of performance stress. I’m working a lot with of physical comedy aspects, mixed in with that kind of performance.

How do your recent works embody that?

My last work was a piece that developed over last semester. It first started as movement for movement’s sake – it was movement that had just been stirring around in my head, whenever I had free time in my room or something I’d just jump around and finally I decided to set that on stage. Later, after I’d chosen a cast, I tried to explain to the dancers what kind of feeling I wanted them to have as they were dancing. We talked about adolescence and that awkward energy people have – that weird, uncanny relationship that people have towards their bodies, where their hands can freak out. There are all sorts of crazy things going on, so there can be moments of extreme awkwardness and also moments of extreme grace and beauty and clarity of movement and intention.

And then my grandmother passed away, so there was this whole new layer of trying to deal with death, and pouring that into my piece, and using the piece as a cathartic mood. And I again tried to invest the movement and structure the piece around singling out one character that has this evolution throughout the piece and this final death. It went through a lot of different changes and ended up being a very psychological piece.

The intention behind the piece, the energy and focus, I explained it to my dancers – I said, feel like you’re under a petri dish where you feel very magnified up against the audience and there’s this real awkward closeness to the audience and to yourself that you didn’t realize and that you feel like your vulnerable spots are exposed to each other and to yourself and to the audience, and that should come about. What I thought I was dealing with at first in this piece was the breakdown of religion and death and all this crap, and it ended up just being about the way that emotional stress and social pressures inform the body and beat the body up.

Gentle Pressure was shown at the American College Dance Festival, and the word on the street is that it was received quite well. What was the nature of their criticism and their complements, and what did you take from it, or learn from it?

To start out, my Winter Study class was on contemporary dance theater, and we were learning about Pina Bausch, who’s a German choreographer, and she has this technique that she developed in the late ’70s and early ’80s where she began to ask these classically trained ballet dancers questions, about “What’s your idea of happiness?” or “Why do you think it’s the beach and being underneath the sun?” Lots and lots of questions and things like that, giving them problems to solve, and different ways to use their body, and props to explain and deal with these questions that she was asking them.

And so over Winter Study, I had two new dancers, and the piece had to go from eighteen minutes to twelve minutes. So I had this huge overarching problem, and then in dealing with that, there was also reworking the material to make it more intense and more compact. I was always telling my dancers, “You have this intention now, I don’t care what happens in the end, I want to have a real sense of your face, and the intention of this piece – and intention for intention’s sake, not intention to be really sad, or intention to be really joyful, but just look like what you’re doing means something – and the audience will do the rest.”

After performing the piece, it was really nice to hear that the judges really got that. One woman said, “This piece was extraordinary,” and she said that there was a way of dealing with male-female interactions and childhood interactions that was very visceral to her, and there were this interesting metaphors set up. She had this very emotional response to it. She said, “I am incapacitated after watching this piece,” and basically couldn’t talk about it, which was really nice to me. Definitely, one ideal response to a piece is have someone not be able to talk about it. She was dredging up all this childhood memories, being that kid who was left out – there’s a moment in the piece where a bunch of girls are walking in a line, circling the stage, and myself and this other dancer run across the stage and take them down and run off. So by the end, they’re all laying on the ground, and she thought that the piece was about being accepted into this community – you’re fighting your way into a community of people that doesn’t really want you, so you’re fighting your way into the position of being the underdog the whole time.

One of the other judges said, “The level of commitment of your dancers was up here,” and he held his hand above his head. He said, “It seems like there was such intention in the piece,” and “It didn’t really matter what you were doing because the movement was so full of intention that that was where the real power was, and there was such a clarity to your focus.” And I felt like he had been listening in on rehearsals. It was just a real nice feeling to feel like what you were trying to do came through. This other guy, he started off by saying, “My reaction was totally the opposite,” and we were like, “Uh oh, he didn’t like it, crap!” And he said, “This piece was really strange, I didn’t understand it.”

This is a man who’s been doing dance criticism for a really long time, so I was like, “Oh, he didn’t understand it, it was this weird esoteric thing.” And he said, “I didn’t think of my childhood, my childhood wasn’t like that at all, and the two men, they looked like these 18th century servants, and I couldn’t figure out why you chose two parts of the Bach cello suite, I assume some thought went into that.” And he was like, “It was so strange, I didn’t understand it.” But he said, “Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t hate it, I loved it.” So there was this whole other way of approaching the piece, which was not understanding it, but feeling that awkwardness, and that charged atmosphere.

Did all this encourage you?

Very encouraging, very encouraging. I was really nervous because my dancers had put so much time into it that I wanted them to be recognized. And of course, things feel so very intense and so very clear to you, what’s going on inside the piece, when you’re making work and rehearsing work, and then of course there’s that whole response element. So it was nice to sense that there was definitely a correlation in communication. It was good, it was really heartening, because audiences at Williams College aren’t used to working so hard to figure out a piece and engage a piece. So it was nice to go to an audience of dancers and choreographers and dance historians, and have them understand the canon and understand where we were coming from in a different way.

Williams is a very “mental” place. I’m curious how you see the relationship between the mental and the physical, as someone who is involved in an art form which really combines the two. Is there a constant sense that your mind and your body are interacting?

It’s different for everyone – I wouldn’t say that everyone achieves this “blue sky” mental state where nothing is clouding your vision and you’re just this dancing body, because you are still a thinking body, and you are trying not to crash into other people or whatever. For me, because of Williams College, it’s about understanding what I’m doing rather than doing it and then understanding later, as a dancer. I’m constantly interpreting my rehearsal process, in terms of “What does this mean, what could this mean, how does this look, what if I were to turn it one degree here?” I feel like I’m rigorously thinking through the process rather than just being a body that’s being moved here and there. I’m too caught in this mode of switching from student to dancer right now to understand what my process as a dancer is, because it’s a split focus. Maybe when I graduate and I’m dancing eight hours a day, I’ll have more of a sense of what my process is.

As a choreographer, it’s thinking a lot, and loving my dancers, and loving unexpected surprises. One of the really nice things about the rehearsal process is when you’re saying, “Okay, everyone, let’s go – five, six, seven, eight,” and then someone forgets, and trips, and then catches up, and there’s a really nice moment where this person has been thinking about something else and they’ve been somewhere else, and that informs their body, it’s like an absent-minded body within this rehearsal process, and that works really well.

Again, the body is something that’s not this machine, but is something that has a mind that is taking it elsewhere, and the body becomes inactive, and then has to react to that, which I think is a really interesting thing. So working with other people is my favorite thing to do, because it really informs how work gets made. It takes it out of my hands for a little bit.

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