Life and Dance with Bill Evans

Don Halquist, Melody Gamba, and Amy Burns in rehearsal at Providence College for Isimería, choreographed by Bill Evans photos by Nikki Carrara
Don Halquist, Melody Gamba, and Amy Burns in rehearsal at Providence College for Isimería, choreographed by Bill Evans
photos by Nikki Carrara

Internationally renowned choreographer and dancer Bill Evans relocated to Providence in 2014 when his husband, Don Halquist, became dean of education at RIC’s Feinstein School of Education and Human Development. He will present a concert of his contemporary dance and rhythm tap dance choreography twice on Sunday, March 19, at 4 and 7 pm, at the Festival Ballet Providence Black Box Theatre.

In anticipation of the world premiere of Isimería, I watched a rehearsal at Providence College and sat down with William “Bill” Evans to discuss this upcoming event, a discussion that also revealed some of the the arc of his notable career, which has brought him to destinations across the US, sharing his passions for modern dance, tap dance and dance education. Evans shared with me some insights into his creative process and inspiration for the works on this upcoming program.

Nikki Carrara: I went to rehearsal yesterday and I saw they were working on Isimería. What does that word mean?


Bill Evans: It means “equinox” in Greek. At first I was going to call it Equinox, but that’s so trite, and then the costumes they were going to be wearing looked like they could be Greek; they were certainly of Greek influence. So when they put those costumes on, it started to transform for me to where I saw them in the piece as a Greek god and goddesses. So then I decided to look up the Greek word for equinox, which is Isimería. Anyhow, it’s a nice sounding word, and so that’s the title.

NC: In rehearsal, the dancers were discussing how they were developing their characters in the piece. “Well I think we are more than one character, and this changes throughout the work. Would my character hit the three?” And all these interesting things about character started coming up.

BE: I’m asking them to sort of decide for themselves. When I saw what I’d done, after I was just making movement that interested me to the music and I saw these things that were sort of like anger, or frustration (from time to time a shaking) and I was thinking of back in the day when I was an English major as an undergraduate and took comparative literature. When you read about the Greek and ancient gods, they were petulant, they were jealous, they weren’t noble and beneficent as we think of the Judeo-Christian god. There’s this idea of them being narcissistic at times and out of sorts and the piece changes moods several times. I’m anxious to see what they’ve done with it.

NC: When you consider this in the body of work that you already have, how is this work fitting in with what you’ve already done?

NIK_7207BE: There are passages in this piece that are about flow and lyricism, not many, but there are some. And particularly when you see Don perform, he has a lot of lyricism and flow. That’s our style. I prefer dance that has a lot of breath, a lot of free flow, momentum, a lot of expansive use of space, a lot of inner change within the body. But when I started to work with Amy and Melody, they come from such a different tradition, that isn’t really where they live. They live in a world of precision and clarity. So I thought, “Well, I’ll make a dance that shows some of the wonderful things that they do. Plus I’ll interject some of my lyrical style, so it fluctuates. The clarity of design and precision is fascinating. That’s unusual for me. I have made over 300 works over the years. Occasionally I’ve made something that has veered in that direction, but mostly not. This is an unusual piece. This is part one. My dear sister-in-law passed away in the middle of the creative process and I had to go out to Utah, so I didn’t get to finish the work. It’s going to be in two sections and in the second section, I’m going to enter and upset things a little bit. But I won’t be able to finish that for the March 19 performances. We are going to finish part 2 in April and May, and do this dance again in June at the Green Street Studios in Cambridge.

NC: So the other side of the coin is, how is this piece completely unlike anything you’ve ever made?

BE: (chuckles) Well, I think it’s the way they are so stunning and the way they move. Their quickness and their control is so stunning and I wouldn’t ordinarily put that in. I like to indulge in movement, to move freely and ride my breath and linger. At first I was going to ask them to go there with me. But then I became so fascinated with the way they interpreted the movement.

NC: So would you give them movement problems to solve and watch them attack it?

BE: No, I didn’t. First we were going to restage another piece, which is all about lyricism. The images float; there are angels romping and clouds tumbling and falling and ethereal beings. So I started to recreate that piece and then I couldn’t find the right music. I go through periods where I do lots of short works to one composer. I started making dances to Mendelssohn in December. The idea is I’ll make several short dances and then someday I’ll put them together and I’ll have this half an hour piece to Mendelssohn. Watching them interpret the other piece, seeing where they took it, which was so different from what I was giving them,  I thought, “Well I’ll go with this new work instead.”

NC: Is this something you figured out after the first rehearsal? Or did it take some time to see that?

BE: Well, I started to make this dance, which is about precision, in the second rehearsal. But I was doing it to a Bach lute suite. And then I thought, I had such a good time working in December with Mendelssohn, why don’t I try that?  So I went back. It was the end of the third rehearsal before we really got this piece started. It took me a while to figure out where to go. But I’m happy and I’m looking forward to seeing it grow in performance. It think it’s lighthearted in ways and when they really find themselves it will be fun and beautiful. I always am inspired by the dancers. I love working with people. I always let who they are influence the work. But usually when I’m working in a professional setting, it’s with people who have studied with me for years and years and are fluent in my style. And then because they are fluent in my style, there is an unspoken understanding about the world this piece is going to be in. But I only worked with Melody and Amy once previously. I wanted to work with some people based in Providence. When I set my piece, Colony, on Fusionworks, they expressed an interest in working with me again in the future, and so I took them up on their offer. Colony was all about the fighting. It was influenced by my time with the Maori community in New Zealand. And that was totally unlike anything else I had ever done in my life. I’m not interested in fighting. But that’s what that piece had to be.

NC: What are the other works like in your upcoming concert?

BE: There will be a variety. It will show different aspects of the kind of work that interests me. I’m setting a work on students from Dean College [titled Rhythms of the Earth]. There are 9 modern dancers, each of whom has a tap dance partner and the tap dancers accompany the modern dancers. The tap dancers create the music with their feet. It is inspired by the 16 years we were living New Mexico, and the reason I wanted to live there was because I wanted to be near the Pueblo community; there are 19 Pueblo communities surrounding Albuquerque and dance is fundamental to their culture. I wanted to be in a place where whole communities dance together, where people celebrate the most sacred events of their lives through dance. I haven’t appropriated any of the movement, but I’m dancing in that spirit that dance is sacred.

And then Suite Cava is kind of that lyrical style that I’m mostly known for. I first met Michael Cava at the five colleges years ago, then he moved to Seattle and he became THE dance musician in Seattle. He really devoted himself to making music for dances for a number of years, and he would come to New Mexico when I lived there and played my summer program and I fell in love with his music. He sadly died of AIDS. As he was dying he was in his bed and in his head he composed Climbing to the Moon. It’s based on a William Blake poem. He composed it in his head and then came out to his living room and he had a grand piano and a little tape recorder. He played it and recorded it, he only played it once. And I made the solo, which Don performs as his signature piece. Shortly before that he made Albuquerque Love Song, my love letter to New Mexico. I fell in love with the sunrise over the mountains in New Mexico. It comes from a deep place in my heart. I last performed it when I was 70, but I can’t do it anymore. So I taught it to a woman who  has danced with us for years, Jenny Dalzell, who now lives in Chicago. I made a new duet part of the suite and I called it Enfolding Spheres. I’m making a lyrical tap waltz to also be part of that suite.

I met [musician] Greg Woodsbie at Dean, and he wanted to work with me and he had never worked with tap dancers. So last April I brought two members from my tap ensemble to AS220 and we performed with Greg. When my father died in 1985 I made a piece to honor him called Dances for my Father. It’s three sections, two of which are set to recordings by Count Basie and the third was a blues, but I performed it a cappella. I excerpted the blues and Greg improvises blues music. He will play a chorus and I will play a chorus without him. In some of my tap dances, I fuse my modern style and my tap styles together, moving my body in a very lyrical way while I’m tap dancing.

When I turned 70, I invited Claire Porter to come and stay with us and to make a dance that was about something that she perceived in our relationship. So she made this dance that is very whimsical and kind of poetic. We haven’t done it for years. It’s called In Gloves. It’s very uplifting and optimistic, but it still has a dark side. All relationships have different sides.

Then to cover a costume change, there is going to be a little excerpt from Yes Indeed. It’s really about rhythm and body percussion, vocal percussion, scatting and things like that. Fusionworks is going to perform Colony as my guest. The program will show a variety of different types of dance.

Sunday, March 19, 4 and 7pm; Festival Ballet Providence, Black Box Theatre, 825 Hope St, PVD,