When Bill Evans tap dances he appears to hover above the stage. In the tradition of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, he is charming, debonair and full of that 1940s film era grace. But take another look at Evans as he shuffles and flaps and you'll see something else. His movement is earthbound and grounded, as if honoring the pioneers of 20th-century American modern dance—Graham, Limón, Cunningham and others. As a teacher, performer and choreographer of this remarkable fusion of modern and tap dance, Evans has found his dancing soul and raison d'être.
A tenured professor of dance at the University of New Mexico and artistic director of the Albuquerque-based Bill Evans Dance Company (BEDCO), Evans has devoted his life to developing his own dance technique. Students from all over the country flock to Evans to understand his way of moving, which integrates his intensive study of kinesiology and anatomy with his training in ballet, jazz, tap and modern. His work has found its most expressive outlet at BEDCO, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, but also lives and breathes at the literally hundreds of schools, studios, universities, colleges, high schools and companies where Evans has taught, performed and choreographed.
His life-long passion for movement began at age three when he, and later, his sister Marcia, would tap dance on a square of linoleum, sandwiched between the carpeted living and dining rooms of his home in Lehi, Utah. It was difficult for Evans, who grew up in a traditional Mormon household, to convince his father to let him pursue dance. (Not allowed to buy tap shoes, Evans put marbles under his toes to make sounds on the floor.) At age eight his father finally relented, allowing him to study tap with Charles Purrington, a retired Vaudevillian hoofer in Salt Lake City. He later studied ballet, tap and jazz with Charles' daughter, June Purrington Park. “It is to them I owe my love of dance. They taught me to move for the sake and pleasure of moving without the sole emphasis being on shape and line.”
Evans continued his dance training at the University of Utah where he received a degree in English and majored in ballet under the tutelage of Willam Christenson. After graduating, his career took him to New
York, where he learned Cunningham, Nikolais, Limón and Graham styles, soon realizing that he had a strong kinesthetic affinity for modern dance. Evans performed with several companies, including the Harkness Ballet, Ruth Page's Chicago Opera Ballet and the Repertory Dance Theatre at the University of Utah.
The many years of hard dancing had already taken a toll on Evans' body by he time he was in his late 20s. As he began to battle injuries in his cervical spine and knee, he soon realized that his body was actually restricting his growth as a dancer, rather than enabling him to progress. “I became consumed by my body's limitations, trying to overcome perceived deficiencies. I wanted to start over, to figure out from the inside what movement patterns would be safe, healthful and regenerative to repattern into my neuromuscular system." So, beginning in 1968, at age 29, Evans began to develop his technique, which by 1976 was very similar to its current form.
Since the mid-’70s, Evans says his work has evolved according to the inclusion of the theoretical concepts of Rudolf Laban, Irmgard Bartenieff and Bonnie Banibridge-Cohen. His intense studies of dance medicine, dance science and Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analysis (which promotes re-education of the body) by focusing on movement integration, harmony and freeing of the body, has helped him to refine and redirect his teaching methods. “I teach students to explore their own bodies and selves through movement—to dance from the inside out, rather than teaching them to mimic shapes of codified dance styles.”
“The longer I teach, the more I base my work on fundamental movement patterns that we all follow,” says Evans. Clarifying this, Evans explains that he teaches his students to work with their patterns of total body connectivity, beginning with breath, followed by movement radiating out from a central NAVEL core, to movement initiated by the spine and limbs. "I find that this simplifies their dancing,” says Evans. "The world is so complex that I like to give my students a way to deal with the complexity and ultimately find a certain freedom through dance."
“A dancer who trains to make his or her body look a certain way is less useful to a choreographer than a dancer who integrates the movement with his or her own body patterns,” says Evans, adding that if you give a dancer permission to reveal themselves, they will dance in a way that is more healthful and ultimately more beautiful.
Evans' quest to disseminate the principles of his technique keeps him traveling regularly. (At the time of this interview, he was at the University of Central Oklahoma, choreographing a tap piece for the student company.) He has taught dance at Indiana University, the University of Washington, Seattle and the University of Utah. He has been a guest teacher at some 60 schools nationwide as well as having received commissions from dozens of modern and ballet companies, such as Ballet West, the Chicago Ballet, Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. His own company, BEDCO, has the distinction of having been for several years the most booked company in the United States, touring up to 40 weeks per year under the auspices of the NEA. Evans has also directed the Bill Evans School of Dance in Lehi, Utah, the Bill Evans Summer Institutes of Dance, the Bill Evans Teacher Intensives and been the artistic coordinator of the Repertory Dance Theatre and artistic director of Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers in Canada.
Today, Evans’ passion to teach continues to be boundless. “I need to be in a studio every day to move with other dancers,” he says. For Evans, teaching as well as choreographing are collaborative processes, and for the collaboration to be successful, Evans must get to know all his students. Each dancer has their own story to tell about working with Evans, yet they all share a belief that he has mentored them in powerful ways.
Joab Maestas, a student of Evans at UNM, first studied with Evans at his 1999 Summer Institute. “Working with Bill helps you find a balance between your emotional and physical selves,” he says. “I want to continue to dance and this will be the way to do so in a healthy way.”
Over the years, many BEDCO members started out as students of Evans. “I met Bill when I was 15 when he came to teach dance in El Paso, TX. I went to UNM just to study with him and joined the company about five years ago,” says Denise Herrera, a current dancer with BEDCO. “Bill has pushed me beyond what I thought were my limits as a dancer and has done it with the utmost respect for me as a person.”
Evans' generosity as a teacher is extraordinary. Not only does he try to understand his students on multiple levels, he in fact tries to become them metaphorically. “Once I pretended to be Debbie Poulsen,” says Evans about a former student in the Virginia Tanner Institute Of Dance in Salt Lake City, UT, who later joined his company. “I supposed that her body was my body and then tried to feel and think like her, allowing me to create movement that would perfectly suit her.” Out of this exercise, Evans re-choreographed a solo called Sarabande (the third section of Bach Dances) originally choreographed in 1975. “Bill and I had a non-verbal way of communicating about dance,” says Poulsen, as she reminisced about the Sarabande experience. "I depended on Bill to provide the structure through which I could fully express myself. In turn, I could fully embody what he wanted to express through his choreography.”
This academic exercise of thinking and feeling like his dancers helps Evans keep his choreography for class and performance dynamic, fresh and utterly appropriate. "I get out of myself and try to look like them, rather than asking them to look like me. Taking his choreographic cue from his students, Evans might look at a dancer and say, 'What would I like to see on her body? What movement would I like to see her explore today?'"
Another tool Evans uses to get to know his students is to ask them to write weekly letters to him raising questions or concerns about the movement they're learning in class. “I then address their comments,” says Evans. “It helps me guide and understand them and, consequently, they trust me more."
“When I teach, I look at my students as whole human beings,” says Evans. “Each student is an individual who processes information differently, relying on multiple intelligences (verbal-linguistic, visual-spatial, kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, mathematical-analytical, naturalist) in various combinations. I address my teaching to each student in a different way—making the information available through all of the above intelligences as the need arises.”
Evans contributes his enormous success as a teacher/choreographer to the joy he derives from working. “If you love what you're doing, hard work can be as joyful as anything else in life,” says Evans, an attitude that would explain why Evans has done it all. He simply likes it all.
“I’m one of the last of a generation of dancers who perform, teach, choreograph and administer,” says Evans. "Today, these functions are largely independent, but each role feeds a different part of me, and I really can't imagine giving up any of those parts of myself. I have also loved being an administrator, but that is the role I could give up if I had to give up one.”
Evans has no intention of slowing down as he approaches his 60th birthday in April. In fact, he is busy planning his next move, which is to document all he has done through videotapes, Labanotation and eventually writing a textbook on his technique. For now, he's on the road, going where he can to choreograph, teach and inspire dancers to learn about themselves—body, mind and soul. DT