A major creative force in North Texas has died. The founder of the Bruce Wood Dance Project, perhaps the most esteemed choreographer in North Texas, died Wednesday of complications from pneumonia and heart failure. He was 53.
His death was unexpected — he had just finished work on a new piece, created a duet and was preparing a show in mid June.
Sometimes, an artist is bigger than his art — as significant as those works are. He comes to embody what other artists, even the city itself, sees as the future. They see that his achievements will define them.
Wood was one of those artists. Lily Weiss, who heads up the dance program at Booker T. Washington High School For the Performing and Visual Arts, said Wood was essential to the dance community.
“What Bruce did is he brought hope back for dance in Dallas,” she said.
On and off for nearly 20 years, Wood was North Texas’ most important figure in contemporary dance. He brought cutting-edge clarity, sophisticated style and humor to his work. He choreographed ambitious works to Maurice Ravel and Philip Glass but also tongue-in-cheek dances to Lyle Lovett songs. Wood toured his Texas dancers to acclaim in Los Angeles and New York.
But perhaps as important, he also got those dancers paid. In an area that saw the Dallas Ballet fold and the dance community struggle for decades to recover, Wood gave dancers a reason to stay in North Texas.
Over the years, he started two different troupes: the Bruce Wood Dance Company, which lasted for 10 years in Fort Worth, and the Bruce Wood Dance Project, which he formed in Dallas in 2011.
Weiss says what Wood meant for North Texas could be seen a month ago. Ninety dancers showed up for his auditions.
- KERA radio story:
“Queer as a three-dollar bill”
Wood grew up in Fort Worth and drew on those roots. His father was a high school principal and coach. Wood often told how hard it was to break away at 16, to accept a full scholarship to study dance at the School of American Ballet.
“I was obviously queer as a three-dollar bill: the son of a football coach, living in Texas and I’m going to be in the New York City Ballet,” he recalled with a laugh. “OK, that’s just so much strange in one sentence. So I had to tell my dad that I didn’t want to play football anymore. I was so distraught and so upset over it that – I was like bawling like a two-year old.”
For 12 years, Wood performed with the New York City Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company.
As exciting as that was, Wood was also living in New York during the AIDS crisis.
“You know, all my friends died,” Wood recalled in an interview. “All the guys that I hung out with that were dancers, they all died in a couple of years. And all the guys that I would hang out with that weren’t dancers, they all died. It was just that simple.”
So Wood returned to Texas and took on odd jobs; even managing a ranch, where he raised cattle, learned to ride a horse — a background that would come in handy when his day job was working at the Western-wear emporium, M.L. Leddy’s.
In Austin in 1996, he launched the Bruce Wood Dance Company — and then moved it to Fort Worth.
Killing his dream
In 10 years, he created more than 75 works — including Fort Worth’s first onstage treatment of gay romance in a ballet (For Buddy in 2000) and settings of cowboy songs by Michael Martin Murphey in 2003. Dallas dance critic Margaret Putnam wrote: “Even Mr. Wood’s minor works play like big deals, while his major works stand up to those of any choreographer in America.”
But Wood was his company’s sole choreographer, director, producer, everything. And the financial side was rocky — he lost one board president after only 31 months, and a capital campaign to raise $700,000 to convert a vacant office building into the company’s home failed. When the company hit bad financial waters in 2006 — with a $300,000 deficit — Wood shut it down because he could no longer pay his dancers.
Wood called it killing his dream.
Five years later, Gayle Halperin, who’d followed his work, managed to coax Wood back – to start the Bruce Wood Dance Project in Dallas. She was its president.
“He was gun-shy and weary of just everything,” Halperin says. “So I said to him, ‘All right, let’s just start with this commission.'”
The Dance Project proceeded one step at a time.
Wood was happiest when he was creating
What was different this time, Wood explained, was that he was no longer chasing after donors. The donors approached him to start the company. And no longer having to manage everything, Wood’s creativity was unleashed.
He developed new works, accepted commissions from TITAS and the Dallas Theater Center, where he was scheduled to choreograph next season’s football drama, Colossus. There was also the timing — now he had the Arts District to play in, to teach in, rehearsing at Dallas Black Dance Theater, performing at Booker T’s Montgomery Arts Theater and soon, at the City Performance Hall. Wood’s presence there made sure local dance rose with the district.
“Bruce was the happiest because he was creating now,” Weiss said.
Wood had been HIV-positive for 30 years, but because of it, he remained very fit and extremely health-conscious. Halperin says, two weeks ago, he felt he might be catching a virus, so he went to Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth.
“He wanted to make sure he could be at the rehearsal on Monday, to be strong for his dancers,” she said. “So he just stopped in to the ER. He just wanted to double-check.”
He did not expect to be admitted. But the doctors said he had pneumonia and bronchitis. Halperin says the infections did not respond to treatment. On Tuesday, Wood was intubated; Wednesday, his systems began to fail. He died at 6:45 p.m. His mother, Colleen, and his siblings, Tanna and Trent, were with him.
June show will go on without Wood
In two weeks, the Bruce Wood Dance Project is scheduled to present his latest works at the City Performance Hall. Halperin says the show will go on as scheduled. But she says she’s not sure what will happen after that. His family has asked that donations be made to the Bruce Wood Dance Project in lieu of flowers.
On Tuesday — the last full day Wood was alive — Halperin and Wood were originally scheduled to look for a Dallas apartment for him. And to continue their search for a suitable rehearsal studio, something his company had never had before.
A real home.
The North Texas arts community reacts
The news of Wood’s death shocked the local arts community on Thursday. Leaders reacted to losing a friend and collaborator.
Kevin Moriarty, artistic director, Dallas Theater Center
“All of us at Dallas Theater Center are heartbroken by the news of Bruce Wood’s passing. Bruce was one of North Texas’ leading creative artists. The depth of emotion he brought to his choreographic work was matched by his immense technical skill and compositional brilliance. He was a great source of inspiration for audiences and artists alike and he elevated the artistic life of our community.
“DTC audiences were greatly looking forward to Bruce’s debut at Dallas Theater Center next season, when he was scheduled to choreograph Colossal. Personally, I am devastated by this loss to our community and filled with deep sorrow that I will not be able to enter into a rehearsal room with Bruce to learn from him and be inspired by his intensity, passion, artistry and vision. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Bruce’s family and many friends in this time of mourning.”
Charles Santos, executive director, TITAS Presents
“The art world has lost a bright light and an extraordinary artist. Bruce Wood leaves a legacy of great creativity and talent. I am so happy to have known and worked with Bruce since the ’90s. We’ve lost a great artist and a great friend.”
Doug Curtis, AT&T Performing Arts Center president and CEO
“Anyone who saw Bruce’s company perform knew they were witnessing something unexpected and special. Our city has lost a talented choreographer, teacher and artist.”
Art&Seek coverage of Bruce Wood:
- “Mistletoe Magic” From The Bruce Wood Dance Project
- Bruce Wood’s All-Male Dance Work, Revised, Expanded — And Premiering
- Bruce Wood Dance Project’s Going to South Korea
- New Dance Work From Bruce Wood: Exploring The Male Side
- Awesome Photo Gallery Of Bruce Wood’s Dance Work
- Bruce Wood Comes Back For Season 2
- Projecting Forward: The Bruce Wood Dance Project
- Q&A: Bruce Wood Returns To The Local Dance Scene
- DTC’s Next Season: Bigger, New, Older And Football-Related
- Gathering Again: The Largest Performing-Arts Collaboration In North Texas
The press release from Bruce Wood Dance Project
In Memoriam of Bruce Wood – 1961-2014
Esteemed choreographer, friend, and master teacher; Bruce Wood experienced complications from pneumonia and died of heart failure, with his family by his side, on Wednesday, May 28. His death was sudden and unexpected. He was 53.
Wood was a maker of dances that had tremendous impact on thousands of lives. As artistic director and sole choreographer of Bruce Wood Dance Company from 1996-2007 and Bruce Wood Dance Project from 2010 – current, the work lives on. The next BWDP performance carries-on at the Dallas City Performance Hall on June 12-13, 2014.
He is survived by his mother and two siblings. The family has asked that donations be made Bruce Wood Dance Project (www.brucewoodance.org) in lieu of flowers.