Dancing Through Uncharted Territory

Choreographic explorers Sharir & Bustamante and their 20-year expedition of discovery

Bustamante's<i> Rain Drops</i>, with the choreographer (l)
Bustamante's Rain Drops, with the choreographer (l)

On Sept. 23, 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned to St. Louis after more than 20 months of leading an expedition through the uncharted wilderness of the Louisiana Purchase. The boldness with which they headed into unknown lands, the courage they showed along the way, and the wealth of knowledge they brought back were such that from that time forward, their names have been linked as explorers.

On May 13 and 14, 2005, a couple of Austin explorers bring to a close their 22nd season of pushing through uncharted territory. Like Lewis and Clark, they've led a Corps of Discovery that's shown bravery and daring on their journey, they've shared much that has enriched the lives of their countrymen, and what they've done has caused their names to be bound together in the public mind. Choreographers Yacov Sharir and José Luis Bustamante have had their names joined in the name of the company for seven seasons, but their expedition through the frontiers of modern dance has been going on for more than two decades. During that time, these men have taken us into new realms regarding site-specific performance, video and dance, performance in cyberspace, and computerized choreography. Our city has been blessed with many pioneering modern dance artists – Deborah Hay, Sally Jacques, Heloise Gold, Diana Prechter, Andrea Ariel, Darla Johnson and Andrew Long, Ellen Bartel, to name a few – but none who have done so much for so long at the head of one company as Sharir and Bustamante. With Sharir receiving recognition for his achievements – the 2005 University Cooperative Society Fine Arts Award in March, induction into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame on June 6 – and Bustamante closing Sharir+Bustamante Danceworks' current season with a look back at some of his previous work in addition to the premiere of a new dance, it seems fitting to take note of their journey of exploration.


Sharir's <i>The Egg</i>
Sharir's The Egg

In some ways, the partnership of Yacov Sharir and José Luis Bustamante seems almost fated; their lives have run on parallel tracks. Both men are emigrés who came to the United States as adults. Both also came to dance as adults, after years of study in other fields – Sharir in ceramics and sculpture, Bustamante in biochemical engineering and marine biology. That may help explain why they haven't been content to stay within the boundaries of modern dance as they'd been defined; they were both accustomed to venturing into unfamiliar territory.

It was Sharir who brought Bustamante into the Austin fold. In the early Eighties, the Israeli native had just launched his second dance troupe in the city – his first, the American Deaf Dance Company, had helped pave the way for deaf artists to dance professionally in the late Seventies – and here was this talented young dancer from Monterrey who had been driving up to Austin whenever some great American dance company appeared at the UT Performing Arts Center and taking the occasional class here. Impressed with his talent, Sharir offered Bustamante a position with the then new Sharir Dance Company. Bustamante declined, saying he needed to finish his degree at the Tecnológico de Monterrey. But the two stayed in touch and a year later, with his studies completed and the offer still open, the younger man said yes and moved to Austin.

Bustamante characterizes the company as always being a place for seeking out the new, the untried, the experimental. "There's always been a sense of discovery: 'What if we do this? What if we try this?'" he says. "There was always something stimulating. Yacov was always bringing these really important choreographers into Austin. When you think about the modern choreographers that have come into this town" – Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Margaret Jenkins, Doug Varone, David Dorfman, Bella Lewitzky, et al. – "there aren't that many cities in the United States that have had that kind of exposure. Then Yacov got into technology, and I was like, 'Oh, I don't know about this,' but maybe because of that I found my way of relating to that through video. It's kept me very interested and comfortable with the idea that it's important as a human being to question, to look for alternatives."

One of the questions that Sharir began asking in the 1980s was "What kind of dance can be made in a world without physical limitations?" As computers became more and more a part of our everyday lives, the choreographer grew fascinated with the new frontier of cyberspace. No laws of gravity or biological constraints to hold a dancer in check. A dancer could stretch her leg 12 feet or spin at 120 miles per hour. What were the implications for choreography? He set about to investigate, collaborating with artists in other disciplines who were similarly intrigued by this new territory and computer scientists, software designers, and technicians. By the time most of us were just catching wind of this newfangled thing called "e-mail," Sharir was already an internationally recognized leader in the field of virtual reality and interactive technologies. In 1992, he scored a two-year fellowship from the Banff Centre for the Arts and was able to produce Virtual Bodies: Travels Within, a collaborative work involving live dance and a virtual reality environment. Two years later, he was a featured speaker at Art 21: Art Reaches Into the 21st Century, a conference sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, then it was on to ACARTE 97 in Lisbon, Portugal, and the Man, Technology, and Society conference in Stockholm, Sweden. He's hardly stopped traveling since, in meatspace or cyberspace. And his work with wearable computers continues to keep him on the vanguard of art/technology exploration.

<i>Court 6</i>
Court 6

Meanwhile, Bustamante was developing his own career as a choreographer. Just a year after he joined Sharir's company, Bustamante was one of five finalists in a Dance Umbrella choreography competition, which prompted Sharir to have him start setting his work on the company and name him resident choreographer. Within five years, he was one of 10 young American choreographers chosen to go to France as part of an exchange program sponsored by the American Dance Festival. By the early Nineties, Bustamante was landing in the finals of national competitions and winning prestigious residencies here and by the end of the decade he was achieving the same abroad, as evidenced by his selection for the Suzanne Dellal International Dance Competition in Tel Aviv, the International Computer Music Festival in Greece, and ACARTE 97. His exploration of dance in nontraditional performance spaces won the support of the National Endowment for the Arts through a New Forms Regional Initiative Grant awarded to him and performance artist Sally Jacques. Works such as Court 6, his dance performed inside a racquetball court with two glass walls revealed an uncommon ingenuity in translating choreographed movement to unusual environments. And he's made his own investigations into the use of technology with dance, though less with virtual reality and more with video and computerized lighting.

The retrospective of Bustamante's work in this week's S+B Danceworks production revisits some of his technological adventures, what the choreographer calls "pieces in the past that were important to me for a particular discovery – that changed my way of thinking or opened my mind to other possibilities." One involving interaction between a live dancer and animation was, he says, the seed for all his work with video; another involves the use of a single source of light to illuminate the piece, with the pattern and design of the light images determining the spacing of the dancers.

Bustamante likens the process of making some of these pieces to solving puzzles and offers that the discoveries that come through these kinds of explorations may have more to do with formal concerns of movement than the artistic content. That isn't always the case, he says, and one of the challenges in creating new work is finding that balance in the relationship between content and formal aspects. Another is to push yourself beyond what you've done before, what's comfortable and familiar. The new work, Snake Rock, builds on Bustamante's recent exploration of Indian Kathak dance and its complicated rhythms and gestures, but he doesn't want the piece to run back over the territory he explored in a work such as Rain Dance. "When you're trying to look for something deliberately new, something that you have not done before, you set it to your mind that as you look for solutions, you don't want to fall into familiar solutions. What are you going to do to make it feel like we haven't been there before? Or there is this set of movements that are part of another vocabulary, and how are we going to marry them there?"

Part of the responsibility of being an explorer is to keep pushing forward and finding new ground to cover, and that weighs on Bustamante. But to look at the men at the helm of Sharir+Bustamante Danceworks, that doesn't appear to be an issue. Sharir has left the artistic direction of the company to Bustamante, giving him more time to continue to explore cyberspace. And Bustamante himself talks about being "pulled in different areas. The dancing is still very exciting to me, but I see it in connection with other elements. I'm intrigued by formats for the presentation of dance in combination with something else, and I don't know what that means. Is there something like a choreographic installation? What is that? What elements are involved in it? Who designs those elements? Those are the kinds of questions I want to answer, but you kind of have to start from scratch." That sounds a lot like someone with new territory staked out to explore. Snake Rock is based on a poem about a curious being that combines characteristics of different kingdoms and is constantly shifting in form: snake rock, flower with feet, animal with fruit, and so on. That could easily describe the modern dance company that is premiering it: still evolving, still creating something new.

Bustamante is pleased and proud that that's the case, though he feels it's not about the explorers so much as the expedition they're on. "I think it provides a very vital service in the community still," he says. "Yacov always said it's really not about him, it's really not about me, it's about an organization that believes in new works and the importance of that process." end story


Past and Present Work by José Luis Bustamante will be performed May 13 and 14, Friday and Saturday, 8pm, in the McCullough Theatre on the UT campus. For more information, call 477-6060 or visit www.utpac.org.
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