Embracing the past—and pushing it away, too
It’s almost too easy to compare choreographer John Heginbotham to his former boss Mark Morris, in whose company he danced for well over a decade. Both have an intimate and formidable knowledge of music, and both have a gift for sly humor in their work—rare traits to find working in tandem in modern dance. But where many choreographers might chafe at such a comparison, Heginbotham has embraced it, simultaneously freeing himself to honor his choreographic roots and upend them where he sees fit.
His newest project is a collaboration with fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, who is directing Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis this month. Heginbotham, who is choreographing the imaginative and quest-filled opera, doesn’t want to give away too many details, but he promises typical Mizrahi glamour and a Hollywood influence. He’ll get to stretch his choreographic legs a bit, too, because this production is being conceived as something akin to a story ballet, with plenty of dance.
Creating new work: “I usually walk in with several dance phrases ready to go, something that I’ve choreographed by myself in my apartment. It’s actually really important to me to be alone, at least to create the initial movements. It’s uncomfortable for me to have people standing around watching me while I try to make something up.”
John versus Mark: “I don’t want to be a poor man’s Mark Morris. I’m trying to be the best John Heginbotham. Sometimes I’ll ask the dancers to do a phrase, and I’ll think, ‘Does that feel familiar to me?’ Maile Okamura [Heginbotham’s costume designer and Mark Morris Dance Group member] is a good source of reality. I’ll invite her to a rehearsal, knowing that I want her to look at a specific part of the dance. Homage I love. Plagiarism I want to avoid like the plague.”
Challenges as an artistic director: “Running my own company, I definitely feel responsible for a lot of other people. It’s a welcome pressure, but I do want everybody to have what they need for what they’re going to do onstage. It’s keeping things interesting for the dancers so they’re not bored, making sure that they’re paid well enough that it’s feasible for them to be a part of this and making sure there are enough performance opportunities.” DT
Training: BFA from The Juilliard School
Performance: Susan Marshall & Company 1995–1998; Mark Morris Dance Group 1998–2012
Choreography: Founded Dance Heginbotham in 2011
Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Heginbotham