Wes Veldink

How I teach contemporary

Wes Veldink draws the shades and switches off the fluorescent lights to create a mood of contemplation during the warm-up of his intermediate/advanced contemporary class at Broadway Dance Center in Manhattan. As the teens and young adults flow through his dance-y version of a yoga sun salutation in the near dark, he encourages them to breathe, to find energy radiating from their tails through their heads and to explore a small spiral of the spine during a deep lunge where the arm traces an arc back, out, up and forward. “Find the corner with energy in your fingers and reach to get over the hump,” says Veldink. As for the spiral, “It’s a small movement, but it is still work.”

Using quirky musicality and shapes that alternately swoop and thrash, Veldink is known for his off-kilter movement quality. It has earned him the devotion of his dancers. But his goal for students goes beyond mastering cool choreography. He wants them to dance with specificity, not to move out of habit. “For a lot of the younger generation, the contemporary style has become a free-for-all,” he says. His minutely detailed directions and attention to the initiation and intention of each movement are designed to shape versatile dancers. Students may come to his class for the cutting-edge combinations, but they return for the precision training.

The lights come on briefly after warm-up, then Veldink switches them off again to create ambience during the center combination. The room regains the feeling of a sacred space. Because he doesn’t count music, he lays out a phrase to the first eight words of the song. The sharp punctuations and quick transitions of Veldink’s vocabulary—set to a melancholic cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love” by Antony and The Johnsons—produce a gritty take on contemporary or lyrical. Veldink’s movement is based in jazz and modern technique. He describes it as a hybrid that “involves human posture and gesture with special attention to musicality and detail.” Indeed, movements of the hands and arms are particular and deliberate.

As soon as he gets the names of the steps out of his mouth, he details, almost reverently, the how and why of each movement. “Instead of throwing the arms out, try to press down on your lats as you stretch your arms up in the air,” he says. He coaches each nanosecond of port de bras to tame overly decorative arms that veer away from authenticity and a gesture’s necessary mechanics. “We are turning very geriatric in the roll back to the floor,” he says with sly, understated humor. “Don’t hold your breath and fight the ground; exhale into it.” As the students struggle to marry the demands of the breath with the lightning speed of the floor work, it is clear that the lessons of his holistic teaching style will continue to resonate beyond this room and this phrase. DT

Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow at Columbia University.

Wes Veldink grew up in Los Angeles and developed his technique, passion and work ethic under jazz choreographers Jackie Sleight and Cindy Montoya. He also studied butoh, the Japanese theater artform characterized by painted white faces, dark stages and dark subject matter. He was featured as a dancer in the film Newsies (1992) and taught at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles before moving to New York City and starting his own company, The Wes Veldink Movement (2000–2005). His commercial choreography credits run the gamut from Paula Abdul to Ani DiFranco to Alicia Keys. Recently, he has set work on concert dance companies around the world, from Oslo Dance Ensemble to K-Broadway in Japan, in addition to conceiving, directing and choreographing two dance films. He teaches regularly at Broadway Dance Center.

Jess Hendricks is a choreographer and on faculty at 24 Seven Dance Convention. She was a member of Veldink’s former company for five years.

Photography by Kyle Froman

 

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