Last year saw choreographer Bruce Wood’s foray into his long-aborning, all-male dance project, My Brother’s Keeper. Such an approach is no longer such a novelty. Just this week, The New York Times reported on London’s BalletBoyz, an entirely male troupe. But what still distinguishes My Brother’s Keeper is its multi-generational theme. Inevitably, having nothing but men pairing and dancing gives a work a gay aesthetic/sexuality. But Wood may be unique in also working with older male dancers, exploring issues of fathers and sons. In this case, he’s even cast the 78-year-old Jac Alder, executive producer-director of Theatre Three.
So, with Bruce Wood Dance Project’s new season opening this weekend with the premiere of his new, expanded version of My Brother’s Keeper, we decided to re-post my story about it from last year, a personal favorite of mine.
- KERA radio story:
- Expanded online story:
[sounds of Wood rehearsing dancers to Philip Glass music starts and continues under]
Bruce Wood hadn’t planned on working with older dancers. For two decades now, groups like Paradigm and the Nederlands Dans Theater 3 have developed works for older dancers. Such works are still relatively unusual, but some say the growing trend is partly a response to the aging boomer audience, so we probably are going to be seeing more of them. But Wood actually wanted to create something almost as unusual as a dance work for performers in their 40s and above: a major, all-male dance work. Wood was investigating how onstage, men dance differently when they’re with men than with women.
Wood: “Guys can be a little rougher with each other. They’re obviously heavier, you know. Like, it’s virtually impossible to lift another guy over your head. So all the stuff that you see guys doing with girls is out the window.”
Traditionally, the image of a female dancer is lighter than air, a bird in flight, the swan, the firebird. Even the ballerina’s basic stance en pointe suggests lifting off, transcending muscle and bone and gravity. Male dancers, meanwhile, are all about muscle and bone and gravity.
Wood: “So I had to come up with a whole new way of guys partnering each other. Interesting thing about that was I found out guys don’t like to be partnered. [laughs] I think it’s a power thing [laughs].”
He needed a concept, he says, to hold together all of these explorations in grunting and weight and force. So Wood shaped his new piece – called I’m My Brother’s Keeper – around male family relationships: brother to brother, fathers and sons. And that meant Wood needed older dancers.
They’re not that many. In fact, he brought in one dancer — Fort Worth native Tom Fowler, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer — from New York, while another, Larry Lane, hadn’t danced in years when Wood contacted him. Lane is a graduate of SMU’s actor-training program, although he also danced in his school days. He’s had a musical theater career on and off-Broadway.
Like Wood, Lane [below, with associate choreographer Joshua Peugh] is in his fifties, but these days, he’s a leading yoga instructor in Dallas. He’s in good shape.
Lane: “I know my body better now, I know how to take care of it better now. So I don’t do anything stupid.”
Still, older dancers have limitations. The muscle and bone don’t recover as quickly, for instance. For his part, Wood attends pilates and yoga classes, works out in a gym and sees a chiropractor – every week. Just to keep up.
Wood: “As you can see, I will try anything [laughs].”
What’s more, Wood has to keep up — to a degree. In the ballet world, dance movements are pre-set. A choreographer can sit back and tell a dancer a string of differently combined terms — fourth pirouette, glissande, pas de chat — and the dancer will know what to do. But contemporary dance works are invented from the ground up, step by step. Wood has to demonstrate the moves he envisions; he has to hit the dance floor.
Even so, Wood says, the physical limitations of age have actually helped him get creative.
Wood: “At my age, you just stop doing stuff that hurts because it’s just silly after a certain point, like, what are you trying to prove? But as a result of that, you have to completely re-think your vocabulary. And so you have to create new ways of doing stuff.”
With older dancers, movements become less grand but also more intimate. Practicing those intimate movements – holding, lowering, letting go – triggered memories for Wood and Lane. Memories of their late fathers.
Lane: “I told Bruce, every time I go home after doing this piece, I just fall apart because it’s bringing up all this stuff, you know, that I had with my father. And my father was a professional football player and a general in the Army. So he was about as male as you can get, you know. [laughs] It was hard to compete with that.”
Wood’s father was another highly masculine and competitive figure: a Texas football coach. Wood recalled the moment in high school he told his father he wasn’t going to play football anymore. At five foot eight, he was too small; out on the field, he was getting crushed.
Wood: “I was going to dance instead [laughs]. Oh my God. I was so distraught that I was bawling like a two-year-old.”
Wood says he knows his father loved him. But he also knows he presented his father — and the assistant coaches — with something completely out of their ordinary experience.
Wood: “I was obviously queer as a three dollar bill, right? The son of a football coach, living in Texas, it’s the mid-70s. And I’m going to the School of American Ballet because I’m going to be in the New York City Ballet. That’s so much strange in one sentence [laughs].”
Both men are talking about the feeling of not fulfilling their father’s expectations. Lane says Wood gave the dancers a lengthy questionnaire addressing just such issues.
Lane: “Questions like, ‘Who told you how to be a man? Where did you learn how to be a man?’And a lot of really very serious questions like ‘What was your relationship with your father? What did you learn from your father?’”
I’m My Brother’s Keeper may have begun with physical explorations: How does a male dancer handle someone who’s not an “80-pound ballerina”? But Wood says, it was always about something deeper and more personal.
[music starts under] Wood: “What I’ve been doing is trying to figure out – now that I’m older – what it was like to have been my dad? Throughout this entire process, I just keep asking myself basically one question: ‘What would it feel like if your dad knew who you really were – and that was OK?’ “