That Better Place

Choreographer Kate Warren and Her Crystal Eyes

"A dancer spends his life learning because he finds the process of dance to be like life itself, continually in process."Merce Cunningham

Kate Warren
photograph by Bret Brookshire

Kate Warren is finallytelling her own story. For her first choreographic showcase, Crystal Eyes, opening this weekend at Cafe Dance, the longtime local choreographer has drawn inspirations from within, from her own life and from the traditions she inherited. In doing so, Warren has not only taken important steps forward personally and creatively, she has closed the gap between our own experiences and those of the artist.

To view Kate Warren's dances is to see her history in motion. In her appetite for movement and motion, her use of weight, and her dramatic gestures, you can see the training in the technique of Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, and José Limon that she received as a student at Texas Tech University. Warren explains, "Basically, our basis was Graham. And to me it was like learning Latin to learn English. You just kind of get the root of what modern dance is all about."

Warren's analogy of dance to language wisely illustrates that modern dance is about finding one's own voice and expressing one's own language. Martha Graham's manifesto was self-expression. Called the Mother of Psychodrama, Graham thought it most important that her dances "reveal the inner landscape." She was famous for creating narratives, and her stories always had a moral. Graham's movement technique, "contraction and release," located the seat of human emotions in the central torso. Her movements – generated from breath coupled with contraction and release of the torso – were ideally suited to depict extreme emotional states; they were intense and spasmodic. Merce Cunningham danced in Graham's company, but eventually said no to psychological narratives and created his own company. "Martha had too much on her mind," he said. Cunningham earned the title the Father of Postmodern Dance by deconstructing modern dance. Think of taking apart a puzzle and trying putting it back together so the pieces don't fit. That is what Cunningham did; in his pieces, the music and the movement are independent of each other. The dancers are expressionless. His dances don't tell a story; movement for movement's sake is his purpose. The process is more important than the product. José Limon, a protege of Doris Humphrey, espoused the use of fall and recovery. As you take a step, that is fall. As your foot touches the ground, that is recovery. With the use of breath, it enhances that movement.

The legacy of these famous choreographers continued to be passed down to Warren after she left Texas Tech, through Austin choreographers Kay Braden, Sharon Vasquez, and Yacov Sharir. After college, Warren recalls, "I studied with Kay Braden, who learned Graham and Cunningham technique. Sharon taught me Graham, Limon, Cunningham, and the Lewitzky technique. Kay taught me how to refine the use of gesture, and Yacov taught me more about the use of breath."

Warren's mosaic of movement continued to expand as she shifted from student to working artist. She created her own company, Austin Repertory Dancers,in 1980. After disbanding the troupe in 1982, she became a dancer with and associate artistic director for Sharir Dance Company (SDC). During her eight years with SDC, Warren also directed the Sharir Company School. She moved to the Johnson/Long Dance Company in 1990 and spent five years dancing with them. She recalls, "I got to choreograph when I was with them, too. I liked working with them because it was very different; it was creative theatre and dance. I really enjoyed being introduced to that part of dance. There was text, lots of props, and costume changes." In 1995, she founded Cafe Dance, a classroom, art gallery, and performance space for dance.

Although Warren has years of experience choreographing dances,Crystal Eyes is her first showcase. She explains, "I've always been fascinated by observing people. I feel like this is like writing. I'm writing about observations of people. The concert is my observations of people. And the other reason I am doing this showcase is that I am finally proud of who I am. I'm not afraid if people don't like it because I am proud of who I am doing it.
Kate Warren
"What is influencing me right now the most is Cunningham. The interesting weight shifts of being very, very still, then all of a sudden moving the feet as fast as you can, then becoming still again. I would say that is predominant in this concert." Warren's first piece, Isolation in Three Movements, reflects the strong influence of Cunningham. In three sections – a group of dancers and a solo in the first, a duet in the second, and the group again in the third – Warren tries to visually express the effect of isolation on movement. She poses the question, "What do you see when you have one person on stage and three people on the stage? One person separated from four people?" But from her choreographic toolbox, Warren has taken a psychological query to tweak Cunningham's approach: "During rehearsal, we talked quite a bit in the piece about what isolation means emotionally, its good and bad points, what it does to energy when you make the choice to isolate yourself from the group or a group isolates itself from you."

Besides Cunningham, Feldenkrais has had a huge influence on Warren's work during the last five years. "Feldenkrais teaches you the most efficient way to move," she states. "Whether it is just turning your head or lifting your hand. It brings you back to the discovery of turning the head." Wanting to be able teach dance technique free of injury, Warren had to rethink the execution of dance movements using the Feldenkrais method. "It influenced my choreography tremendously," she continues. "Every piece of movement is choreographed. If the head is supposed to be turned, it is turned. Nothing is there without a reason. It has been hard for some of the dancers. I think it is very rich. A lot of time we move through space and we are unaware. Feldenkrais teaches you to be aware, to just notice."

Warren not only draws inspirations from her portfolio of dance mentors, but also from other life experiences. Walk Me Through This Life is her tribute to the wisdom of age. Using the music of Arvo Part and featuring a chorus of four women at various stages of life, 22 to 81 years old, this piece cleverly entices the audience to sneak a peek at the effect of life's aging rhythms on one unique movement. The idea for this piece evolved from her experiences teaching a retired faculty and staff exercise class at UT since 1983. Referring to teaching the class as a gift, Warren recalls, "I remember them asking me, 'How do you know what we want?' I said, 'Because I feel like you. I just hurt all the time.'" Warren initially taught the class modern dance stretches, but after mastering yoga herself, she began teaching it to her class. She exclaims, "Their response came alive. There was a huge leap in them, how they moved through their lives. That was a big jump for me, too. I probably wouldn't be dancing had I not started that class, because I would be hurting so much." The title of the dance clearly defines Warren's tribute to them. "I wanted to make a piece about how these people walked me through my life. For example, when I first started teaching this class, I only made $8.50 per hour. Each year they took up a collection and gave me almost $300. They came to all my performances." She adds fondly, "I never have to tell them what the movement is about. Somehow they know. When they do the gestural material, it just has years of stories behind it."

Just as we have to come to terms with who we are in hopes of living a fulfilling life, great choreographers come to terms with their own heritage. Trying to attain a sense of self, we learn to pick and choose from certain behaviors modeled from our parents, teachers, mentors, or other life experiences. In the process of finding creative freedom, choreographers also try to innovate, pick, and choose from their own tradition to capture their own moment of creative balance. Kate Warren found that balance through choreographing Fugue State, a solo featuring Kathy Dunn Hamrick. This solo was inspired by the book Daughter of the Queen of Sheba: A Memoir, Jacki Lyden's account of living with a mother who was manic-depressive. During her manic phases, Lyden's mother became a woman with power, Marie Antoinette or the Queen of Sheba; in real life, she was trapped in a destructive marriage. Explaining to me why she was drawn to the book, Warren comments, "I am fascinated by the mind and how it takes care of us. Just for an instant, wouldn't it be great to be able to check out like that and not have any responsibilities? To be who we really want to be without having to worry about what you think of me? Not to know enough to worry about judgments?"

When I ask her how the name of the piece came about, Warren replies, "I wanted to do a duet which had some mystery in it. About the same time, I was listening to John Aielli on the radio; he had a woman on the show who was talking about intuition. Aielli began telling his story about the time he fell off his bike and couldn't remember who he was. She said, 'In psychology, we call that a fugue state.' I loved it. I thought what a great name for a dance. I went and looked up the word 'fugue,' and 'fugue state' was in that definition. Fugue is the recurrence of a theme; fugue state is that state of amnesia. I went into the studio and I started choreographing."

In the same way that we come to terms with our lives through our past, Warren came to terms with her artistic expression through her dance heritage as she worked on the piece. "Well, I couldn't think of anything 'cause I didn't know how I moved," she remarks. "I wanted to make a dance strictly about how I moved, not how Merce Cunningham influenced me or Yacov Sharir or anyone else. I wanted to make movement without judgment. I couldn't do it 'cause I didn't know who I was. I put on music and I would be having a great time moving. Then I'd look in the mirror and think that is the stupidest thing I've ever seen. All of a sudden, I got into the judgment of it and I became very frustrated. Because I realized I didn't know who I was as a mover.

"I really did want to make this piece, so the first thing I did was take myself out of it and start reading the book. The author is very descriptive in her writing. For example, her mother would go into such a rage that she was like a 'bubbling Molotov cocktail.'" Warren's creative process consisted of improvising to music which evoked a particular emotion, videotaping herself moving, and teaching the movements to Kathy Dunn Hamrick. To summon the power of rage, Warren danced to music that made her angry. Capturing her rage on videotape, she painstakingly taught the phrase of fury to the dancer. In Lyden's book, the mother's manic states were subdued with drugs, and she is slowly stripped of her identity. Warren found music that would put her in that numb, lifeless state, she moved to the music, videotaped it, and taught it to Dunn Hamrick. Elaborating on her creative process, Warren says, "The piece is disjointed purposefully in order to create that sense of amnesia. If you have a thought here and a thought there, it has to cross over a bridge to link the two. I tried to do the same with movement. You have a movement phrase here and a movement phrase there. How do you get from one to the other? Here is the Molotov cocktail; here is the Queen of Sheba. With movement and intent of movement, I had to create the state of amnesia in order get us there. Again, using stillness and walking, Kathy walks to one place and turns her back."

Commenting on the rewards of creating this piece, Warren asserts, "It has been extraordinary; I loved doing it all. I think it is the essence of who I am as a mover. I came to a place in revealing a little bit more of myself as I learned who I was." And, what about the difficulties? She answers, "As soon as I wanted to do something I knew, I'd go back to Sister Wendy Beckett's quotes: 'All great art is a visual form of prayer. Real art makes demands. Art will never let you be supine.' I can't tell you how many times I reread those quotes. So, I'd make myself again try and figure out a new way to move for me and a new way for Kathy."

Warren hopes that her dedication to challenging herself artistically will set an example for dancers as future choreographers. She says, "I think part of my job as a choreographer is to create something new, to think about what dancers do know and try to give them something they don't know. I have to give that much to them. That is what happened in Fugue State. Kathy also wanted to go to that place and wanted to be better and different than she had been since the last time she performed."

Both choreographer and dancer went to that better place. The choreographer creates the movement, but the dancer brings it to life. Kathy Dunn Hamrick does an amazing job of accomplishing the creation of dance illusion which not only exists for her but also for the audience. Her mastery of the bombastic, off-balance, idiosyncratic eruptions which are sliced with dramatic, almost regal stillness is a testament to the multiple talents of this dancer.

Striving to create from the present moment not encumbered by the past nor the future, Kate Warren courageously and diligently found the freedom to express her own voice. A composition of kinesthetic energy which is developed into a continuous interweaving of movement, stillness, and passionate gestures reflects Kate Warren's artistic tapestry. Fugue State is a metaphor for Warren's hard work as a gifted choreographer. By seeing through Warren's Crystal Eyes, she expands the viewer's capacity of peering through the artist's glasses.

Warren achieved the difficult task of interpreting travels of the mind through travels of movement. Fugue State conjures its own play of virtual powers, the power of kinesthetic energy and the power of a kinesthetic center to which we keep coming back. Don't we all aspire to return to our center, to that better place when life's vignettes become too much for us?

Crystal Eyes runs August 15-30, Saturday, 7:30pm, Sunday, 2pm, at Cafe Dance, 3307-B Hancock. Call 451-8066.

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