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In the early 1960s, a new foundation for the creation of music and dance came into being. While Ornette Coleman was making landmark albums like Free Jazz, choreographer Maida Withers was pioneering a new philosophy of movement.
“We were focused on dropping that old thing that dance had to be danced to music. [We were interested in dance that] could be danced to music but not controlled or cued by the music,” says Withers, who has taught dance at George Washington University since 1965. “[With] this liberation of time and space…even the look of dancing began to change, because we were not bound by technique. We were not bound by a music or an aesthetic.”
Withers and her husband moved to D.C. in 1963, the year of the March on Washington. She taught briefly at Howard University before becoming pregnant with her first child. The political intensity of the time wasn’t lost on Withers and like-minded artists, but it revealed itself through their art’s new forms rather than its content.
“[There] was a really, really important shift from us looking like the God-choreographer to us looking like ourselves that came into the aesthetic. That dancersof all shapes, of all dynamic, of all sensation, of all feeling, of all power[could] take their power in their body, accepting it and building on it.”
Like jazz musicians of the day, Washington artists were flocking to New York to “make it.” Withers, who soon was busy raising four children, wasn’t able to leave for long periods of time, so in 1967 she started a series of three-week summer dance programs that brought New York friends like Meredith Monk and Yvonne Rainer to where she was.
“I was sort of the Washington arm of the movement for, I guess you’d almost call it, pre-postmodern,” says Withers. “We were actually discovering those ideas. They didn’t even have a name. [We were] redefining everything. Who’s the audience? What is the audience? Who are the dancers? What is worth dancing about? [It was] a tremendous period of questioning and examination.”
“The subject of our work was really investigation of the art itselfof music, of dance, of paintingrather than expressing an idea or [being] attached to some autobiographical thing.”
Now some 30 years later, Withers, who continues to be a tremendous force in Washington as a teacher, choreographer, and performance artist, still attracts dance innovators from New York, Europe, and Asia to D.C. The Third International Dance Improvisation Plus+ Festival brings artists together to perform, teach, and question a form Withers helped pioneer.
The planning for the first festival began rather informally three years ago, when colleagues of Withers’ from Amsterdam were in New York for an improvisation festival.
“They said, ‘Well, why don’t you do something in Washington, and we’ll come down there and we can all dance together.’ I said, ‘Just come down.’ I had them do a performance with GW students with three rehearsals,” recalls Withers. “And then last year, the same thing happened. And we said, ‘OK, let’s expand this a bit. Let’s include a musician.’ So we started to formalize it…just a little bit.
“This year when [Katie Duck, a colleague from the Netherlands] called me, she said, ‘Well, what are you doing about the festival?’ And I said, ‘What festival?’ And she said, ‘The Third International Dance Improvisation Festival.’ I said, ‘Oh, that festival.’”
The call from Duck last May got Withers into high gear, looking for a space outside the university where she and her visitors could perform. “I am not one to repeat myself,” says Withers. “My first idea was to approach the Corcoran and see if we could dance the whole gallery. But I couldn’t get them to respond.” Then she tried the Smithsonian’s International Gallery, which, unbeknownst to Withers, was pulling together work by artists and writers from around the world for its “Seeing Jazz” exhibition. With the show’s emphasis on improvisation, call-and-response, and rhythm, a dance performance struck the Smithsonian as the perfect complement. The dance performance concept may even become a national component once the exhibit goes on tour.
“Now, one of the confusing things, of course, is that we are not jazz dancers,” says Withers, who does confess that the first dance money she ever made was for tap dancing. “Our work is more of a very contemporary improvisational response to the environment of the exhibition. Our approach will definitely not be descriptive, but it will be more of a physical response.”
“Seeing JAZZ MOVE,” Friday’s 6:30 p.m. performance, will include 12 dancers interacting with a jazz vocalist and musicians throughout the gallery. No rehearsal. No script.
Withers’ instinct for improvisation has become one of the hallmarks of her work. “If you were looking at my work in the ’60s, you’d say, ‘Oh she’s that woman who does all that experimental work at all these different sites with all these different artists,’” she says. “For me, the improvisation became part of my whole creative process and wasn’t a separate thing that I was known for anymore.”
“Now, of course, in the process of choreography, we take it for granted that members of the performing group participate in contributing movement, working through improvisational structures to determine the meaning. It’s a collective endeavor now in most companies,” Withers explains. “But that wasn’t the case at the time when we began this…sort of, defiance of what was occurring. We were willing to sacrifice almost everything personal because we knew something profoundly important was happening. We were making a new history, so to speak.”
Of the 35 major works Withers has choreographed, half have been evening-length performances, a form she says has allowed her to explore the social and artistic issues important to her, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, sexuality, family, futurism, and dadaism.
The ’70s and ’80s saw Withers incorporating technology into her improvisational structures. “Not only were the dancers in a very experimental place, but the music was redefining itself totally, and the definition of noise and sound [was being reworked],” she says. “The ideas of electronics were so fresh.”
In 1981, Washington Performing Arts Society mounted the first avant-garde performance festival in D.C., which put Withers on a bill with Phillip Glass, Lucinda Childs, and a young Laurie Anderson. With her Dance Construction Company, she performed Stall. Its main feature was a “sound sculpture,” a huge rotating loudspeaker above the stage that created a constantly changing sound environment for the dancers.
Withers had worked with local laser artist Rockne Krebs as early as 1963. In 1985, they collaborated to make Laser Dance, which used 50 mirrors to send argon beams ricocheting across the stage and above the audience. The dancers, dressed in protective clothing and goggles, could interrupt the beams with their bodies, altering the atmosphere of the performance space.
In the late ’80s, funding began to dry up, and Withers found that sustaining a dance company, not to mention producing the large projects she favors, was becoming next to impossible. Frustrated and unsure of what to do next, she returned to her Utah roots, living in the desert with the idea that she was going to quit dancing.
“Fortunately, I have such a stamina for movement. Maybe I’m cursed…with this dynamic capacity to dance,” says Withers. “I’m 60 years old, and I never stop doing it. People say, ‘Well, how do you do this?’ I say, ‘Every day.’ I find I don’t know how I can live without it.”
In the desert, she began to strengthen and repair what she calls the “ecology of myself.” She also began making dances and video projects about the environment. Her most recent, Tukuhnikivatz, named for a perfectly triangular mountain in Utah that figures heavily in Ute mythology, premiered last year at the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors festival.
“My movement returned to being very primal. Squatting and dancing on the rocks in the sunwith the birds, with the windmakes you get really basic,” says Withers. “My teaching, my technique, the training of dancers just got more and more clear.
“The really profound and important thing, which we still all take for granted now, is the very natural presence [in contemporary dance]: I walk, I sit, I stand, I fall, I eat, I swear, I laughthe more full realization of the connection of all movement to the dancing part of movement.”
Withers herself hadn’t given much thought to this way of working until the changing political and financial climate of the late 1980s led her to do most of her performances overseas.
“In Europe, people started to say, ‘We want you to do improvisation. Can you be in our improvisation festival?’ For me, it was like revisiting a very old historyexclusively improvisation events. I began looking at improvisation as a viable performance form because of my international travel. It’s been sort of a resurgence of interest for me.
“Now, it’s not inventing movement onstage,” she cautions. “But it’s inventing movement within a defined range of movement material.”
“I prefer to work with dancers who are creating artworks themselves, because they bring their choreographic abilities to the improvisation,” says Withers. “Generally speaking, people see improvisation as a tool for choreography, and I see them as mutually helpful. Choreography is a tool for improvisation.”
In an ideal situation, the dancers have some sort of familiarity with each other’s work before they improv together. As a choreographer, Withers prefers to work with highly intuitive, highly individual dancers.
“I’m not interested in people looking like me, but I’m interested in them being able to comprehend the ideas that I have physically,” says Withers. “I’m still a little old-fashioned in that way. I’m just not interested in how they move technically, but I’m interested in the contribution they’re going to make to the evolution of the field.”
One of the dancers Withers often tours and performs with, Sarah Slifer, was born the year that Withers founded the Dance Construction Company. The choreographer recently composed a duet for the two of them that includes three improv sections. “She has my history in her,” Withers says. “It’s a synchronicity, a way of working together to find your harmony…what you shareand yet keep your differences.”
Slifer will be performing this weekend, along with Reggie Crump, another dancer barely out of diapers when Withers started her company. In all of her work, Withers is committed to providing opportunities for young performers and giving Washington artists the same high regard as those from New York or overseas.
“I keep feeling like in Washington there’s this glass ceiling. We have the Kennedy Center, but we’re not really there unless the artist has money. We don’t have a place like the Joyce, [an important midlevel theater in New York], where people can come and do a one-week season and so forth.” There’s also a dearth of artistic institutions and training grounds, felt most recently with the discontinuance of GW’s graduate dance program.
“In my opinion, Washington’s a viable place that has its own style and its own work and its own philosophy and its own artists,” says Withers. “It has traditionally had difficulty giving them respect. But I think that’s up to the artists to a certain extent to reclaim.”
Other Washington artists on the bill include Sharon Mansur and Daniel Burkholder of the Quiescence company, and GW faculty member Joseph Mills. Rob Kitsos and Cyrus Khambatta, of Phffft! Dance Theatre Company, are D.C. natives who worked in France for many years before their recent move to New York. Joining them will be Gloria McLean from New York and Wen Hui from Beijing, as well as three artists from the Netherlands, Duck, Vincent Cacalano, and Michael Vatcher.
This year the improv festival has expanded even further, offering, in addition to Friday night’s performance, all-day workshops open to the community at large. Various performers will lead classes on movement investigation, partnering, spontaneous choreography, and merging dance and theater. The festival culminates in a Saturday-evening performance.
“It is a free forum,” laughs Withers. “That’s why we call it ‘Expect the Unexpected.’ And then we’re going to ask the audience if they want to participate in two or three structures. So we’re gonna jam at the end. Everybody gasps when we say that out loud.
“It’s a very interesting idea that instead of discovering something in the studio and then presenting it to an audience…the audience participates in the discovery process. A lot of audiences want to be part of that.
“There’s an intensity in performance and a demand for clarity in performance that you can’t fabricate in the studio or rehearsal, when you have that pressure,” says Withers. “That visceral consciousness and…drawing on all of your power in that moment as you do in performance. You’re there, you’re present, and you’re willing. And you’re going to make something happen.”
“The interesting thing about working out of improvisation is you can only dance what you know. And what you know is sometimes confusing,” says Withers. “Through the exploration of that you come to understand better what you know, or at least, as [John] Cage said, ‘what is the question.’
“The nature of revolution is to challenge yourself and ask hard questions and present hard things, sometimes even to audiences.
“I’ve always felt so grateful that I was bornthat I was 20 in that period of time when that was what was expected. And it was perfect for me, because that was my nature anywayexperimentation and probing, questioning…and daring.”CP
For information about the Third International Dance Improvisation Plus+ Festival, call Maida Withers at (202) 994-0739.