Face to Face: Mistakes Are Your Best Teachers

A conversation with Doug Elkins

Doug Elkins challenges the conventional boundaries of style and  mixes genres and movements to create witty and compelling contemporary work. From hip hop and ballet to capoeira, jazz and modern, it’s all there. “I’m a real movement geek,” he says.

The scope of Elkins’ work comes from his varied dance background: While studying at SUNY Purchase, he explored the hip-hop club scene in New York City and worked with several crews. He also performed with American Break Dance and apprenticed with Elizabeth Streb and Bill T. Jones before founding his own company in 1988. Doug Elkins Dance Company disbanded in 2003, though he continues to teach and set work on companies worldwide.

Fräulein Maria (2006), which explores the classic Sound of Music story using hip hop, ballet and modern dance, received a Bessie Award in 2008. Elkins and his collaborators performed it most recently at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in August. His latest work, Mo(or)town/Redux makes its New York City debut in December.

This month, the 2012 Guggenheim Fellow heads to Maryland to lead technique classes and to create a new work with Goucher College students.

Dance Teacher: Do you have specific goals in mind for the students?

Doug Elkins: When I head to Goucher, I’ll have to find out what kind of culture is there. What are those teachers working with? Once I find out where to start, I can see if the students will hopefully go where I want to.

I prefer playing around with material rather than making someone nervous about doing it well. In rehearsals I often say, “It’s good, but I think there’s something more interesting than good. Let’s tear it up—and even if it disintegrates, that decay is part of the creative process.” That’s a really weird idea for students, especially high school dancers or first-year freshmen, because they’re trying to get an “A.” But your mistakes are your best teachers.

DT: Parts of your work are very funny. Do you plan for those moments?

DE: I don’t set out to build something extremely funny. I just notice the juxtaposition of things happening. A joke is about structure. It sets up a premise, and then in a surprising way, it follows the premise and then disappoints it.

I think you can teach dancers to be funny, but it takes feeling safe, first. You have to be brave with your sense of foolishness. It’s saying, “I don’t care if you think I’m an idiot.”

DT: Fräulein Maria has been touring since 2009. How do you keep it fresh?

DE: I re-edit and play around with it. I’m not very precious about keeping the work what it was originally. The structure is still there, but sometimes I’ll change the steps.

My friend who’s an African drummer describes this idea best: You want just enough structure to barely contain the force of what’s going on. Too much structure, and you’ll choke it and decimate all the energy. Too little structure, and it has a point in every direction, which is like saying no point at all. I love looking for that balance.

DT: What teachers have influenced you the most?

DE: My composition teachers Mel Wong and Bessie Schönberg. Mel was a Cunningham dancer and a yo-yo champion—that’s what got me into his class in the first place. They both tenaciously encouraged inquiry and curiosity. I later realized they were essentially asking three questions that I use today. First: What was your objective when making the dance? Second: Did you feel it was successful, and why? And the third question—which is my favorite: Was it worth doing? Did it pique your curiosity, or were you just here for the grade?

That’s something I ask my students all the time. Why are you here? It can’t be for the money. I used to joke when people asked why I became a choreographer: “The money, definitely. It was either that or neuroscience. So I went where the money is.” DT

 

Photo by Christopher Duggan

 

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