Braving the 'Elements' with Larry Keigwin

January 14, 2011

Larry Nichols
Philadelphia Gay News
January 14, 2011

Out choreographer Larry Keigwin is bringing his dance company to town for its Philadelphia debut Jan. 20-22 at Zellerbach Theater.

Keigwin is known around the world for his choreography, which often displays a strong pop sensibility — fitting, considering he got his start 20-some years ago as a teen dancer on the “Downtown” Julie Brown-hosted “Club MTV.”

Since then, he has choreographed for high-profile dance companies such as Martha Graham and the Rockettes. His work has also been seen in musicals like “The Wild Party.”

Keigwin formed his own dance troupe, Keigwin + Company, in 2003, more out of desire to put on a show than any ambition to be in charge, he said.

“I never really set out to have a company. I just titled the performance ‘Keigwin + Company.’ But it was more that I had created enough dances to put on my own show. So I think about maintaining the company as a series of putting on the next show. Through that desire to put on shows, we’ve also built the infrastructure of a company, nonprofit status and a board of directors. Now, eight years later, I’m more comfortable with the fact of really maintaining a company and maintaining a body of work and a creative and touring schedule that is not just about putting on the next show, but about being a professional thriving company. I’m currently more aware of the larger picture, not just the dances I’m creating.”

Based in New York City, where there’s two Starbucks for every dance company, Keigwin attributes his company’s success in a crowded and competitive field to “just having the faith and the confidence.”

“I feel very supported by the dance community in New York and internationally,” he said. “I think if you’re really following your own voice and being authentic that you will naturally stand out. Art is really an extension of our personality and we all have such unique personalities, so it’s just about trying to be very authentic and not trying to stand out because of competitiveness but because you’re being genuine.”

For the Philadelphia performance, Keigwin and his seven-member dance troupe are scheduled to perform a full-length piece entitled “Elements,” comprised of four works, each inspired by one of the four elements: earth, water, fire and air. Each segment promises to showcase Keigwin’s provocative and entertaining sense of spectacle and showmanship.

“To me, it’s a unique look at each element in hopefully a witty, physical and slightly campy way,” he said about “Elements.” “I was creating a work about water and I was really liking the direction of it, particularly [the inspiration of] the East River in New York. I was living on the East River at the time. And after the success of creating ‘Water,’ I decided let’s just make a whole evening of the elements in a twisted way. ‘Air’ is [inspired by] flight attendants. There’s inspiration in each of them. In ‘Water,’ obviously the inspiration is H2O, but there’s also this whole bathhouse aesthetic where everyone is just wrapped in towels. There’s a juxtaposition of upper and lower classes. In ‘Fire,’ I come from the MTV generation and I find a lot of contemporary pop culture very entertaining. So that’s where fire’s influence comes in. For ‘Earth,’ I was inspired by my parents’ retirement community. It’s all lizard-like.”

Keigwin added that “Elements” shares the exuberant tone found in most of his works.

“I think the larger body of my work, which is up to 35-40 dances, is all very different,” he said. “But this particular program is on the lighthearted side.”

Lighthearted, modern and pop-oriented might be the so-called norm for Keigwin and his company, but don’t get too comfortable with that label. He has said his works have a solid foundation in classic dance training.

“All my dancers, including me, have been trained in ballet,” he said. “We just choose to be more contemporary artists. I love the structure of classical music and ballet. They have a great influence on me and my work. There’s so much to learn about composition and craft.”

He added that he is currently putting the finishing touches on a new piece that definitely can’t be described as lighthearted.

“I’m working on a dance that will premiere in March in New York; it’s called ‘Dark Habits,’” he said. “It’s a much darker work and very physical. It’s a collaboration with two new composers. It is sort of a night out on the town that parallels the sequence of addiction. So there’s dependency, more dependency, escape, a heightened escape, withdrawal and recovery. I’m constantly interested in excavating and evaluating the human condition.”

Another upcoming project Keigwin is working on is the stage adaptation of some classic LGBT literature.

“I’m currently working with two members of the Scissor Sisters and the writer and director of ‘Avenue Q.’ They’re making a new musical based on the gay iconic book series ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin,” he said.

He added that for that project he’s serving as a choreographer.

“I’m not driving that ship, so it’s about a lot of give and take and a lot of sitting and listening to the creative process and watching things unfold and hopefully having an influence where I’m needed. All of us have been mutual fans of each other’s work and we’ve swam in similar circles. So I think we share a similar aesthetic, so in a way it feels very intuitive.”

Keigwin’s ability to bounce in and out of the traditional realms of choreography have served him well, as he occasionally finds himself collaborating with artists, performers and personalities outside the world of dance. He’s choreographed routines for the pop band Fischerspooner and comedian Murray Hill, as well as events such as Fashion Week’s “Fashion’s Night Out: The Show,” which Vogue produced.

While not the highly skilled group of dancers he is accustomed to working with, Keigwin said that wrangling 150 of the industry’s top models into a coherent show for Fashion Week was something new and different. Plus he got the personal thrill of working with all-powerful Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

“It’s the job of the choreographer to access the abilities of the performers, and choreography isn’t about being the best dancer,” he said. “It’s about saying something with the talent you have. I find sometimes it’s really refreshing to work with performers with no dance ability. It’s the job of the choreographer to excavate what they do best. It could be very minimal.”

When asked if he was bringing these artists and individuals into the world of dance or if he was being brought into their worlds, Keigwin said the collaborations were “an exchange.”

“It’s a quiet exchange. We’re definitely bringing the art of choreography. Sometimes a project I’m involved with isn’t necessarily a physical dance but bringing the idea of choreography and orchestrating human traffic into people’s worlds has definitely happened. And then vice versa: I’m influenced by how specific the fashion world can be and the process of how a musical-theater show happens. It’s a two-way street.”

As if all those projects weren’t enough, Keigwin has also created “Keigwin Kabaret,” which fuses modern dance, vaudeville and burlesque. He said audience members who catch one of the performances of “Elements” will get an idea of what his “Kabaret” shows are like.

“‘Elements’ is more similar to the ‘Kabaret’ than any of my other works,” he said. “The ‘Kabaret’ is nightlife — what happens after 10 o’clock. It’s more of a party in terms of drinks are served. It’s a vaudeville-curated show that I string together with dance. So it includes other art forms like burlesque and comedy, whereas the dance company is a little more balls-out dance.”

There’s a good chance Keigwin might have been talking literally when he said “balls out,” so be forewarned.