Retracing Their Steps

Two choreographers explain why it's tough to get old dances back on their feet

Kathy Dunn Hamrick
Kathy Dunn Hamrick (Photo by John Anderson)

"When you're creating, the studio just throbs with energy," says dance company director and choreographer Kathy Dunn Hamrick. "But when you're trying to bring a piece back, it's like doing math homework." If her tone sounds a little spent, that's because Hamrick is smack-dab in the middle of a yearlong effort to restage samples from a decade of her work, and a quadruple bill of excerpts is scheduled to open on Feb. 7. Add to this month's dance calendar Ballet Austin's Valentine's Day weekend revival of Stephen Mills' Hamlet from 2000, and we've got a month heavy on recycled works. Recession-style programming? Possibly. But the opportunity to see a work for the second or third time, rare in a modest-sized city like Austin, affords a chance for dance attendees and choreographers to look at works from new angles, via fresh interpretations and additional notches of wisdom.

Hamrick's unenthusiastic take on reacquainting herself with old works stems partially from the lack of an effective method of recording them. Our experience of, say, an old painting is renewed when it's hung in a different time and place. For a play's revival, actors learn the script and follow the stage directions, according to the insights of the director. Musicians decipher the notes and, maybe aided by the conductor, interpret the dynamics indicated by the score to bring a piece of music to new fruition. But a dance, arguably, is extinguished each time the curtain falls. It lingers, dormant and parasitic, in the muscle memory and brain chemicals of the dancers and choreographer, but to re-create it is almost to develop a thing from scratch.

It's true that context, direction, and interpretation are at play in the revival of a dance, but there is rarely a good enough picture or description of the dance itself to start from. Sure, there are systems of dance notation, cryptic collections of shapes and symbols that only specialists can understand. But despite the complexity of such notes, they tell little about what the actual movement should look like, let alone its quality, mood, and motivation. And, of course, there is video, indispensable but often regarded as an inefficient and superficial way to revive a dance. Because dancers learning choreography from video do so by watching others, they may inadvertently mimic those interpretations instead of developing their own. Subtle motivations – the unison breath taken by back rows of the ensemble, a soloist's dart of the eyes that precedes the rest of the body to a new place – are lost. Plus, it's bewildering and tedious to translate the reversed image on the TV screen into the correct steps and formations in the studio.

TV used to occupy kids is sometimes called the "free babysitter"; TV for teaching dancers could be called the "free répétiteur" (that's dance-stager, in this context, if you don't speak French). Neither is a comparable substitute for the real thing. Most reputable companies, though, use video only to jog the memory of whomever is leading the rehearsal: choreographer, director, or répétiteur. Then, the steps are painstakingly described, demonstrated, and corrected, human to human, pretty much the same way they were developed in the first place.

When Mills created Hamlet, he was in his first full season as artistic director of Ballet Austin (though he'd been with the company for several years as resident choreographer and then interim director). This month's production will be Hamlet's eighth incarnation – since the premiere, it has been set on five other companies, and Ballet Austin brought it back in 2004. It's a luxury to stage the work at home, Mills says, where the rehearsal period is measured in weeks instead of, yikes, days. In the interest of economy, the evening-length ballet has been staged elsewhere in as few as 10 days, and "in a story like Hamlet, there's so much complexity of character and layers of metaphor that you just can't get to when you have to do it in such a short period of time." Working with dancers whose aptitudes and personalities he already knows helps, too, and facilitates more thoughtful casting. All the Hamlets and Ophelias in this month's double-cast production are new to their roles, with the exception of Paul Michael Bloodgood, who learned Hamlet as an understudy in 2004.

Stephen Mills
Stephen Mills (Photo by John Anderson)

Of the seven dancers in Hamrick's mixed program, two performed in previous stagings of "Slammed" (2002) and "Blurred" (2004), which are excerpted along with "Spin" (2005) and "Woman Smiling" (2002). Hamrick herself danced in all four of the premieres, but she's not doing that this time around. Instead, she's spending her time ensuring that the dances make sense as excerpts and adjusting them for a new type of venue – while all the works premiered at the State Theatre, the excerpts will be shown at Cafe Dance, a studio space where the audience surrounds the performers on all sides. For her, rebuilding the choreography from video is the real bugaboo. "When you are making up a dance on the spot, it makes sense to you. The way you're interacting with the music and the dancers and the space itself, it's organic. But when you're learning it on video, trying to relearn it, it seems so arbitrary," she explains. "It's like wearing someone else's clothes for a while, and you just have to do it over and over again until you can make it your own."

For Hamrick, the work can evolve in this process, especially considering that she sees her current aesthetic as somewhat changed. "Sometimes I'll have to say [to the dancers]: 'Stop looking at the videotape. This is the way I'm moving now. Maybe I was so focused on counts and unison and the idea of perfection. Now I'm looser, and I want a little more flow in the spine.'" Other times, the reasons for edits are more practical. If a piece involves lifts – and in Hamrick's work, that means women lifting women – they might have to be changed to suit different body types. Or a few extra years of firsthand experience with kinesiology might prompt her to rethink a decision: "Sometimes now I'll go back and say: 'That was really bad for the knees; that was not a good choice. Let's do it differently.'"

Mills sees any change that's occurred over Hamlet's eight years as more evolutionary, and he doesn't take changing the steps lightly. "Maybe some dancer doesn't like to turn so much or turns to the left easier that to the right. I make alterations like that, but there are certainly no major shifts, because the choreography is very tight and very polyphonic, so the groups relate to one another in a very musically specific way." (The ballet is set to a recorded score of Philip Glass works.) That said, some subtle changes occur, under even Mills' own sensitive radar. His understanding of the characters has been enriched, largely through working with different dancers' interpretations of them. "In 2000, I really didn't know the characters," he admits. "I was making steps and making relationships with people and doing all the things you do when you're making a new ballet, but it's interesting in that each time you work with dancers, you give them information, but they give you information back. So in each production that I've had the opportunity to mount, the production has changed based upon my relationship with the dancers, what they gave me and how I interpreted it. When I stage this work with my company now, they get the benefit of all that experience with all those other dancers."

The question that neither Mills nor Hamrick seems to be able to answer is how audiences' expectations and receptiveness have changed. Certainly, even first-tier subscribers are coming to the theatre with different social and financial baggage than they carried in 2000 or 2002. Mills sees his streamlined version of Hamlet – his take isn't housed in a Danish castle – as key to its continued relevance. "I think in 2000, America was economically at a really high place – you could talk about the gluttony of consumerism and all that – and that's really where this Hamlet started. If you take away the kings and queens, what do you have? You have corporate America. So while we're not specific about that, it's kind of the ideal of these characters."

Hamrick, whose loyal following generally sells out her limited-seating shows, views her work's pertinence through a more personal lens. "If I feel it isn't relevant, I'm not bringing it back. There are some pieces like that. When I went back to them, they didn't speak to me right now. I can look back at them and appreciate what I was trying back then, but it's not relevant to me now. And I am a person in this world."

Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company presents its second program of works from its first 10 years Saturdays, Feb. 7-21, 6 & 8pm, at Cafe Dance, 3307-B Hancock. For more information, call 934-1082 or visit

Ballet Austin presents Hamlet Feb. 13-15, Friday and Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, call 476-2163 or visit

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