Today is the first day of spring. It’s bright and sunny but cold, and I am meditating on the movement style and choreography of dance artist and BodyVox artist-in-residence Katie Scherman. Scherman’s company, Katie Scherman + Artists, an all female cast collected from Portland, Seattle, New York City, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco, will debut three works this week at BodyVox—Assez, Complicated Women, and To Have it All (a world premiere in collaboration with composer and pianist Michael Wall). The works show Scherman’s evolution as a choreographer and explore the complexities of what it means to be female, including what it means “to have it all.”
When I watch Katie Scherman dance I see a fern delicately but forcefully unfurling its fronds in every direction. When Scherman dances, she is a container of contradictory/opposing forces and I can see her “working it out” in real time. Her movements are smooth and silky, but powerful, heavy and large. They can also be small, detailed, and delicate, and she seamlessly/effortlessly transitions between highs and lows, sometimes appearing to move in all directions at once. Strong technique is present, but it doesn’t overshadow the movement. These are the forces present in her choreography as well.
As part of my rumination on Scherman’s work, I did a google search for poems on spring and I discovered a beautiful poem by California poet Ada Limón, “Instructions on Not Giving Up,” that perfectly sums up the essence of the season and the feelings I got from watching Scherman’s work when I sat in on rehearsals last week. After noting the “almost obscene” blossoming of spring, Limón decides “it’s the greening of the trees/that really gets to me.”
The poem ends this way:
Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
Scherman, who is originally from California, performed with Houston Ballet II, The Washington Ballet Studio Company, Trey McIntyre, Hubbard Street 2, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, Central California Ballet, Terpsicorps Dance Theatre and BodyVox, just to name a few, graduated from Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet/Dominican University with a BFA in Dance and received her MFA in Dance from the University of Oregon. In 2008 she was nominated for an Isadora Duncan Award for Best Ensemble, and in 2009, she was honored with a Princess Grace Award in Dance. Her choreography has been presented in Oregon, California, Colorado, Montana, Washington, Utah, Chicago, and New York City.
Scherman now lives in Portland, where she teaches, choreographs and performs. The interview below combines a conversation I had with Scherman via email in 2016, when she was just finishing up a residency at Performance Works NW, and one this past week, which focused on her life in dance and creating this new body of work focusing on the female experience.
What artistically were you interested in exploring during the making of these three dances?
As I envisioned curating this performance, I wanted to offer a chronological journey of my creative work. Each piece features the original cast, bringing light to the female experience, through wonder, depth, and complexity.
The first work, Assez, was created in 2014 as a pilot study for my thesis at the University of Oregon while I was a graduate student, and features Alyssa Puleo and myself. The work explores vulnerability—a shared human experience—and empowerment. I was interested in using the voice, because for so long, I felt like I just had a body, a body that had to be perfect, a body that had to mimic, and I wanted to hear my voice, out loud…which was terrifying and vulnerable, but has become a pivotal part of my creative process.
The spoken word section in Assez features both of the dancers’ individual stories, which, at the time, were what we were dealing with. Assez was awarded GALA selection at the 2015 American College Dance Association in Colorado. And recently, Assez was one of 14 pieces selected out of 750 submissions for the Women in Dance Conference in NYC. We had the honor of performing in the closing night of the conference at Danspace Project in Manhattan in January 2018.
I have been exploring Complicated Women from an autobiographical approach. Each dancer— Jess Zoller, Faith Morrison and myself—is investigating themes of vulnerability, ego, power, self-sabotage, self-hate and grace. I am interested in the never-ending self-dialogue and how this can be translated through movement. The work is collaborative, self-reflective and full of questions. This is my first work collaborating with multiple artists, including filmmaker, Rob Uehlin of Lens and Compass. The film work adds another layer to the work, which I believe is especially vital in investigating the depth and inner complexities of women.
To Have it All was created over nine weeks, however I began researching and creating movement in January 2017. The work is inspired by the lives and stories of the courageous women in my life, whom I look to for advice, support, and encouragement. Their reflections and the moments they have shared, fill me with hope. I wanted to create a lifespan on stage. I was questioning the reflections that we see in others. I wanted to see life in a work. The defeat, the triumph, and the in-betweens.
I was keen on working with composer Michael Wall. I first met Mike when I was a guest resident at the University of Utah in January 2016. We eventually collaborated on a work I set there, and I have been wanting to create with him again, ever since. This was also my first time collaborating with a composer from afar, and throughout the creative process. We had many phone calls, texts back and forth, and he was very patient with me. The piano is my favorite instrument: it’s timeless, its romantic, it’s magical. And having Mike play live, felt so important to the work.
This piece has been incredibly challenging. I had many sleepless nights contemplating how to create a work that tackles the statement “to have it all” from a female’s perspective. However, I believe the work is exactly how it should be. I’m so proud of the work and I am so proud of each artist who is involved. I’m honored to share and celebrate these artists. I’m also honored to share the stage with 11 strong and courageous women.
What is your choreographic process like?
My choreographic process is deeply rooted in vulnerability, clarity, abandon and collaboration. I show movement with my body, I ask for the dancers’ uniqueness, I give verbal prompts, I ask them to respond with their movement to my questions, I try a lot of different things, as well as repetition. I’m always interested in who the artists are…I genuinely want to get to know them. Each creative process goes through the same bumps: It looks interesting, this is exciting, they are interesting, this looks horrible, I’m horrible, wait there’s hope, wow, this is beautiful. The choreographic process feels like a life span. I’m also very interested in detail, but I want to give room for the artists to continue to make choices and mess with the material. The artists evolve each day, so if the work stays how it was four weeks ago, the work isn’t doing its growth process, and vice versa. And lastly, I’ve noticed that my creative process is based in the foundation of technique, especially when you are celebrating the technique you have worked for so long on…and then expanding it, pushing it, finding humanness in it, celebrating your greatness within it, celebrating your flaws within it…..I want to see the artists move the way they want to live.
What attracted you to Portland?
I feel enlivened when I’m in a city at the brink of blossoming….Portland has a potential that I am drawn to. It’s thrilling to be a part of a community that you are optimistic about. There is room to say something, which for me, felt essential.
Why did you decide to leave dance company life to pursue your degrees and choreography?
There have been many times I’ve left dance company life to pursue a degree and/or choreography. At first glance, it might seem as if I jump around a lot, but each jump is getting me closer to figuring out what I need and want to do. I left home at 15 to start my career at Houston Ballet II, and at 20, in my second season with Washington Ballet Studio Company, I was struggling with multiple ankle injuries and didn’t know who I was dancing for anymore. I was completely depressed. Dance was the only thing that defined me. I was not dancing for myself. I was dancing to be admired by everyone but myself. In recognizing this, I realized I needed to look deeply into who I was.
I stumbled upon a LINES Ballet professional workshop, which led me into the inaugural class of the LINES Ballet/Dominican University BFA program in 2006. The LINES program incites a way of thinking that says, “anything is possible.” Alonzo [King]’s philosophy broke down my preconceived notions that came with early training and shifted my mindset from “you aren’t good enough” to “I am good enough.” My time at LINES BFA and dancing with the company will forever fill me with gratitude.
Unfortunately, on a darker note, as I shifted into my first season with Hubbard Street II in 2010, I was struggling with a severe eating disorder, as well as depression and anxiety. It was crippling, frightening, and yet I was addicted to it. At the end of my first season with Hubbard Street 2, having just been promoted to the main company, I chose to enter a rehabilitation center for anorexia. Therefore, I decided I could not dance in a company anymore. It was too risky and there were too many triggers.
After my time in rehab, I took some time to be Katie, sans dance, but quickly realized: “Who am I without dance?” I didn’t have any other life skills. Or at least I thought I was incapable of doing anything else…and frankly it was too hard to not have dance in my life. So, I transitioned into teaching, slowly working that muscle. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was in love with something other than just being a performer. This self-investigation led me to apply to grad school, and there I was, leaving Chicago for Eugene, Oregon.
Grad school was quite possibly the most challenging and fulfilling work I have ever done. I always say that the LINES BFA program trained my body and soul, and grad school trained my brain and strengthened my voice. At the end of grad school, I realized I had a deep passion for working with students and creating collaborative work. Sadly, the position I had planned to step into after grad school fell short (Moxie Contemporary Ballet). Which meant, “I don’t have a job?” Luckily, BodyVox was having auditions, I went to the open call, and got the job.
I danced with BodyVox for one season, and was fortunate enough to dance my dream role Juliet, a role I had dreamt about as a little girl. I decided to leave BodyVox because I missed dancing in my own work and having the time and space to work with other universities. So I guess to answer your question after my long backstory, I will say that I am a very curious and hungry artist. I am always looking for opportunities to better understand this art form, but mostly, to better understand myself.
What was it like to leave home at 15?
As a young girl I would read the bios of all the ballerinas I admired—Julie Kent, Abi Stafford, Muriel Maffre—and leaving home at a young age was just how it was done. I felt it was the necessary path to get the right training. So leaving home at that age was in a way, magical for me. I felt like I was on my way. However it was also very challenging—I was separated from my family, my relationships turned into long distance, and I had to mature very quickly. In some ways I feel like I missed out on childhood, but in other ways I feel like I had the adventure I dreamed about.
What’s next for you?
Well, I am moving to Tokyo on March 31. Hahahah. My husband was relocated to Tokyo in December 2017, and we have been living apart for 4 months. I will be joining him as we embark on a three-year assignment in Japan, where I look forward to creating and collaborating with Japanese artists, and continuing to research and color my work. I have some upcoming commissions that I can’t publicly announce as of yet, however, I am excited to keep challenging myself, learning, and sharing art with audiences. I’m also looking forward to enjoying the simple moments with my husband—drinking coffee side by side, walking our dog, and laughing. Because really, what I’ve learned from creating “To Have It All,” is that it’s moment by moment. It’s cherishing the moments.
Performances This Week!
BodyVox Resident Artist: Katie Scherman + Artists
Dancers: Ellie van Bever, Molly Levy, Hayley Bowman, Erin Kraemer, Miranda Curro, Jillian Hobbs, Annie O’Neill, Jessica Zoller, Faith Morrison, Alyssa Puleo, and Katie Scherman
BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave.
DanceWatch Weekly will be on hiatus for spring break. See you back on April 4.