Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.
Choreographer Joshua Peugh may have thoroughly wrecked his right knee two months ago — leaving his leg in a geared-and-strapped, black plastic rig. But that doesn’t mean Dark Circles isn’t in the last days of rehearsal for its new fall show next week. It does mean, though, that Peugh just has tweaks and reminders for them as he stands, gingerly, in front of the dancers.
“Be very clear about the gestures in the finale,” he says about a brassy blow-out number called ‘The Bugler’s Holiday.’ “They have to be right on the music because — because it’s a show.“
The 32-year-old Peugh should know from shows. He’s been making them since he grew up in small-town New Mexico.
“When I was a little kid,” he says, “I mean, my mom would have to tell me every morning, ‘No show today, Josh. No show today.’ But I would have the kids in the neighborhood on contracts, and I would have them on rehearsal schedule, and they could occasionally take a break and go swimming. But I was always interested in putting on a show.
And – not much has changed.”
Peugh first gained attention in North Texas with the late Bruce Wood’s Dance Project. After graduating from SMU, Peugh had gone to South Korea to dance with Universal Ballet Company. But in 2011, Wood helped lure him back to North Texas — SMU had approached alumni for its 100th anniversary celebrations and Wood helped choose Peugh’s submission. It turns out, as a student, Peugh had worshipped Wood’s first dance company, but by the time he graduated, that troupe had folded. Now here he was — with Wood sensing a kindred spirit in him, especially when it came to precision, invention and humor. And one thing that’s distinguished Peugh’s work has been his fresh, whimsical takes on retro musical numbers like “Gopher Mambo” and Perry Como’s cover of ‘The Best of Times.”
As Peugh says, it’s too easy for modern dance to be solemn. Little wonder people often find it off-putting. Let’s show ’em how much fun it can be.
“I love to use novelty music and comedy and familiar music,” he says, “stuff from the ‘40s, ‘50s and sometimes the ‘60s – because I think that’s another way into people’s hearts. My grandfather was a musician and when I went to their house, there was always music playing, or my grandfather’s band was playing, and my dad was the drummer and my mom was the singer, and you know, we just grew up with all of that stuff.”
Klezmer music, Smokey Robinson, Bing Crosby, Glenn Gould’s ‘Goldberg Variations,’ but especially female singers: the Lennon Sisters, Lesley Gore, Nina Simone, Judy Garland, Julie London. If it weren’t for the engaging, super-sharp, super-smart dancing going on, you’d swear Peugh’s jukebox was stuck in a vinyl-record time loop.
Dark Circles Contemporary Dance rehearsing to Leroy Anderson’s ‘The Typewriter’ and ‘Pineapple Princess’ by the Sherman Brothers. Video: Jerome Weeks
After two seasons as associate choreographer with Wood, Peugh established Dark Circles Contemporary Dance in Dallas. He’d started it in Seoul, South Korea, in 2010, but then re-established it here. It’s called Dark Circles, he explains, because while preparing for an international festival in Korea, Peugh and his dancers would rehearse all day, then go to dinner, then drink coffee and talk about art for hours.
“For months, we were just zombies,” he says. When they needed to come up with a name for the troupe, someone jokingly suggested the Panda Dance Company because of their haggard, sleepy look. It was only later that the name Dark Circles Contemporary Dance struck Peugh.
“So yeah, the name definitely refers to a lack of sleep,” he admits with a laugh. “Unless somebody really fancy’s asking me, and then I’ll talk about, you know, ‘undercurves’ and momentum and the movement of the body.”
Lily Weiss is executive director of Dallas Arts District – and the former chair of the dance department at Booker T. Washington High School. She’s been watching Peugh’s work since his return to Dallas.
“What I love about Josh,” she says, “is he’s not afraid to take on subject matters that other choreographers may steer away from. But he does it in a very clever style that audiences can relate to.”
Peugh’s most ambitious and daring project came with Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ (above) at Dallas City Performance Hall. He set it at a 1950s high school prom. It was still Stravinsky’s ritual of sexuality and sacrifice — only with nervous boys in tuxedos and giggly girls in crinoline skirts, making the entire mirror-balled gymnasium stage seem both innocent and wildly threatening.
“The 1950s are so interesting to me,” he says, “because they were all about ‘being a man means this’ and ‘being a woman means that.‘ Yet they also began a real shift in how we interact, what courtship looks like, what dating looks like. So using the ‘50s as a mask to dance about teen sex or violence makes it easier to digest.”
The classic Peugh ploy.
That was Dark Circles’ spring show this year. Next week is their fall performance. But in between, Peugh choreographed a favorite musical — ‘Oklahoma’ — at Booker T. Washington in September. “And we were in rehearsal one day and — you know,” he laughs, “stuff went wrong.”
Your knee isn’t a ball-and-socket joint. It basically has four major ligaments or tendons holding your thigh to your calf. Peugh tore three of the four tendons in his right knee as well as the meniscus, the cartilage that cushions the joint.
“And so I ended up with a robo-knee,” he says, tapping what looks like an exoskeleton strapped around his entire leg. “And now I’m in rehab until March.” That is, after he finishes a second round of surgery. The doctors aren’t happy with how far his knee is bending now.
“But according to my doctor, my right knee is going to be way better than my left knee when I’m done. So there’s that to look forward to.”
Hobbling around with a tightly braced leg has changed Peugh’s directing methods. He has to articulate his ideas through words now; he can’t simply show his dancers what he wants. “And the reason I choose dance over words is sometimes I can’t explain what I want to say. And so I’d rather show it. So that’s been a challenge. But a good one.”
SMU’s Bob Hope Theatre, where the fall show will be performed, is the fourth venue Dark Circles has used in North Texas — a perambulation that cuts down on their public profile in the area. In practical terms, many people in either city may see them only once a year. But like so many performing companies locked out by our real estate boom, Dark Circles simply hasn’t been able to find the right, affordable space. Something like a 200-300 seat black box, Peugh says, but unlike most theater troupes, his company needs one with a good dance floor.
Yet the fact that Peugh keeps Dark Circles alternating between Dallas and Fort Worth, keeps taking his dancers to places like the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts, keeps juggling multiple commissions for new works from all over the country and keeps earning accolades as one of our finest contemporary choreographers — all this speaks to the extent of his ambitions for his company.
“I have all the dreams for Dark Circles to be an international dance company,” he says. “Of course, I’d love for us to have our own home and to be able to tour without any struggle or stress, and I would love for all of those things to be happening. But I’m also really just interested in creating and sharing work that’s interesting and entertaining and that, most importantly, is accessible.
“So if we are in Northpark Center, sharing the work with people that are just passing by and they’re touched – I’m all in.”
Can’t stop the showman. Not even with a busted-up knee.
Are you creatively satisfied with your work — not the level of success or attention it’s received but with the work itself?
I don’t know if I can ever be creatively satisfied. I’m always going to want to do the next thing. There’s a period immediately after a work — after I’ve created a work and finished it — a period that I imagine must feel like postpartum depression where you’re letting go of this thing that you’ve been completely consumed with for a period of time. Then eventually you’re ready to move on and create something new; I am anyway.
I’m always satisfied when I’m working. But otherwise … afterwards?
Did you ever have a day job you needed to support your art? If you did, when did you give it up?
There was a period in South Korea when I wasn’t dancing with Universal Ballet, and I needed a job to stay there. So I took a job teaching English to Korean kids – which was really strange. I mean, some of the kids were as young as two. So I was actually supposed to teach them English or American culture before they even had fully learned Korean.
So yeah, I had a really interesting day job where I taught Korean children about American culture, although I would try to speak to them in Korean whenever the other teachers weren’t around because I felt really strongly they should be speaking in their own language [laughs]. So I was probably a really terrible teacher for that school.
What inspires a dance for you — is it the music first or the movement?
Almost anything can trigger it. Eventually I get to the point when something just sparks me. I was driving in the car a couple of days ago and suddenly my brain just started clicking and I got a page and a half of notes of just — just stuff that I’m going to have to sift through. And some of it will stick and some of it won’t.
This year, for instance, I have some really impressive women in the company, and I really wanted to showcase how smart and strong and powerful they are (see rehearsal video, above). I mean that’s what we were trying to show the girls at Girls Inc. Girls Inc. is a non-profit organization that encourages young girls to be strong and bold and smart. And we spent time with them to develop a piece, and I used Leroy Anderson’s number, ‘The Typewriter,’ because my original idea was to take the 1940s nostalgia, and that idea of the ‘working woman’ back then, and just blow it up.
Listening to it, you can imagine all those rows and rows and rows of women at office typewriters just typing and typing and typing away with a big pasted-on smile on their face.
How has your return to North Texas affected your career or your artistry?
I’m not sure how North Texas has affected my career and my outlook yet. I suppose it’ll be apparent down the road. I’m only now — after I’ve been back in North Texas for five years — I’m only now beginning to understand how things that happened to me in Korea when I was there for six years, you know. And that was a really big change. I went there and I didn’t even know the language.
So I imagine I’ll keep piecing together what it means and what North Texas has done to my work as we move forward. But right now, I don’t think I can say. I don’t think I have an understanding of what being here is doing for my work yet.
What have you given up or lost because of pursuing your career as a dancer/choreographer?
The things that I’ve given up to pursue dance are simply not important enough to negate the fact that I’ve been able to travel all over the world and spend time moving with an incredible group of people. And that we’ve been able to share our stories and be intimate in a meaningful way that I think only dance people can understand because we’re in a studio together and we’re working with our bodies but in an inner landscape we’re sharing. Every time I come and create a work for the company, I’m giving them my inner landscape and I’m saying, ‘Here, this is all of my thoughts and my feelings; let’s live in it together.’
And they’re generous enough to do that. That’s what dance has given me. So frankly, I haven’t thought much about the things that I’ve lost because of dance. I’ve received so many more important things.