Winter Arts Preview: A New Dialogue | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Winter Arts Preview: A New Dialogue

Photos by Nate Glenn

A young girl dressed in a floral tank top and gray biking shorts sways back and forth in a rocking chair as she sleeps. The room in which she sleeps is washed in a deep aqua blue, and a monotone ring ominously emits from large speakers behind her. Ten large figures dressed in tattered black uniform-like clothes and large dark masks emerge from all sides and slowly move in toward her with careful precision.

As she wakes, the figures retreat, then begin to hone in on her again. Frightened, she desperately tries to escape her would-be, creature-like captors, but they are relentless. When she garners enough courage to stop running, however, she realizes they are just as afraid of her as she is of them. She removes their masks one by one, as they gasp for air, rigorously beating their chests with open hands.

"The larger concept would be to encourage people to face their fears," choreographer and Belhaven College professor Stephen Wynne says after the performance of his 12-minute piece at the Belhaven Fall Dance Performance in early November. "Everyone can identify with a child having a nightmare."

Wynne, 52, says that dancers and choreographers have an artistic responsibility to not only create pieces that are visually pleasing, but that also stimulate thought and dialogue among audiences.

"Dance uses imagery, and imagery is a very powerful method of communication," Wynne said. "Words are often misinterpreted, or they go through your intellectual filter, and this word means something different to you than it means to me. Whereas with imagery, it's just very potent and powerful and just sort of passes through that filtering that happens when you hear words. … So I think you get quicker to the heart of the matter with dance, than with words."

The fine arts have the obligation to "interface with the culture," Wynne said. It should encapsulate viewers and tell their narratives. "I'm not a social worker, but I do think that I'm a socially responsible artist that wants to say something," Wynne said.

Breakdown Mode
Whisking off the busy sidewalk and into a side door, then-20-year-old Wynne arrived at the Joffrey Ballet in New York for 10 a.m. rehearsal. Passing the doorman, who was huddled in a small, box-like office, Wynne walked up the first flight of stairs, then the second, arriving at the men's locker room. The mustard and brown shag carpet was in stark contrast to the grayish-blue lockers, but somehow the combination added a distinct '70s characteristic to the otherwise dull room. He walked over to the oblong locker area, disengaged the padlock from his locker and took out his ballet shoes. Sliding his small feet into them with precision, he looked around the locker room, somehow removed from his surroundings.

After placing his bag into his locker, Wynne exited the locker room and started up the half-flight of stairs leading to the top floor. The walls lining the stairwell were lifeless and battered from the large stage props carried in and out of the building.

Reaching the top floor, Wynne walked toward the big studio, passing four small offices to his left. On the floor of the widening corridor, dancers sat warming up and chatting. The smell of coffee and cigarettes filled the air.

Wynne carefully tied a handkerchief around his head to avoid being blinded by his hair, which graced the middle of his neck. Placing his leg onto a barre to stretch, he listened to people talk. When he had arrived at Joffrey just a few months earlier, he was the "new kid," the most insignificant person in the group.

After a few months of being there, he wasn't much more. Most people who were in the corps had a sense that, although they weren't soloists, they were part of the bigger art. Wynne hadn't reached that point.

The company was rehearsing "Pineapple Paul," a holiday piece that the company performed at the City Center every year. With every rehearsal and every company class, Wynne began to realize that he had been running on empty the last six years. A danceaholic since the age of 12, Wynne pushed himself in every way possible to achieve recognition and credibility in the dance world. He had been accepted to numerous scholarship programs with prestigious ballet companies, and it was while he was at American Ballet Theatre that a scout from Joffrey offered him a job. At age 20, he had reached the peak of his career, and felt empty. He had no identity and no motivation.

"I went into breakdown mode," Wynne says now, 30 years later. He began skipping rehearsals and after the second performance of "Pineapple Paul," he didn't return to Joffrey—not even to clean out his locker. He disappeared from Joffrey and from New York, finding consolation and conversation with a friend studying in Boston. Through her, he met Lisa Brodski, who was taking classes at Boston Ballet and preparing for a European tour. Brodski told Wynne that he should come, and on a whim, he borrowed money from his parents and flew to London, where he took classes and looked for a job. Not sure when the European season started, Brodski and Wynne were "shooting from the hip," Wynne says. Most companies had already hired their dancers for the season. Just as Wynne was about to pack up and return home, a dancer did not show up for his contract at the State Theater in Bern, Switzerland. A stroke of luck landed him the contract, and in 1978, Wynne began his 16-year European adventure.

Inspired in Amsterdam
Wynne describes his experience in Europe as "a fog being lifted." He immediately connected to his work in Bern, and worked hard to develop his art. After a short time in Switzerland, Wynne took a job in Amsterdam with the Scapino Ballet. He began dancing as a soloist, which allowed him to work more closely with the technical and production sides of dance. Costume designers involved him in decisions on how to convey the concepts of a piece. He began to pay more attention to the choreographer and the intention behind movements to contribute to the greater concept.

"That was just really eye-opening for me," Wynne says. "It was almost like going backstage is for some people. ... Being able to become involved with those conceptual talks was really important to me."

Amsterdam is a unique city where many styles of art converge. For Wynne, the artistic approach to dance was a world away from what he had experienced in the States, and the more dance performances he attended around the city, the more inspired he became to expand his artistic repertoire. After dancing with Scapino for a year and a half, Wynne took a year off from performing to study modern dance in Rotterdam, Holland. Shortly after completing a year of studies, he got a job in Freiburg, Germany, dancing with a modern dance company as the soloist.

"I was getting a large ego … because you're so pampered. … You don't even dress yourself," Wynne says, laughing. "It's just like, 'You're creating a monster, don't you know?'"

While in Freiburg, Wynne worked on "If I Knew The Answer," a documentary centered around a piece of choreography the dance company director, Kriztina Horvat, was creating. During filming, a young woman, Britta Haeermann, came to audition for the company, and Horvat put her through all the hoops to determine if she was worth hiring. She made Wynne Haeermann's overseer, and he was to recommend whether to hire her or not. At the end of her stay, Wynne wasn't impressed. He told Horvat not to hire Haeermann. Luckily for him, she didn't listen.

Wynne's eyes light up as he tells the story of how he and Haeermann, now his wife, were cast together in "Yellow Fairy Tale," where she portrayed a princess that has to kiss a troll (Wynne).

"I just had a totally different revelation of her, and I really began to fall in love with her," Wynne said.

Two years later, the two moved to Cologne, Germany, to dance with one of the highest-caliber companies, Tanz Forum, at the Metropolitan Opera House. They soon married and had a daughter, Scarlett. While in Freiburg, Wynne began to choreograph pieces on the side, and his director in Cologne gave him the dancers and company time to create pieces, one of which opened at the German Dance Festival. He had reached another peak in his career, and soon he found himself in a familiar place—a fog.

A Deal With God
A series of minor injuries over the years compounded to develop a herniated disk in Wynne's cervical spine. His doctor didn't seem to want to rehabilitate him, instead telling him he could end up in a wheelchair "any day now, maybe tomorrow."

Wynne was terrified. "I was afraid to fall asleep at night sometimes," he says. "Fear compounded with not sleeping, I really began to lose it."

One night while his wife and daughter were away, Wynne said that he became petrified. He made a deal with God, whom he wasn't even sure really existed, saying, "God, if you get me out of this, I'll serve you."

At that point, Wynne says, something happened to him. Nothing physically changed, but he said that he felt peace and a new assurance that everything would be OK. Wynne was vocal about his experience and newfound faith, much to the chagrin of his friends.

"They were very frightened for me; they thought I had fallen into a cult," Wynne said. "When I assured them that I didn't, they never spoke to us again."

Having reached an impasse with people that he had considered his "family," Wynne re-evaluated his life. He had a desire to explore and communicate what he was feeling, and in Europe's "paganistic" society, it seemed difficult. After 16 years overseas, he and Britta decided to return to the U.S.

They arrived in Wynne's hometown, Philadelphia, Pa., in 1994, and took a year off from working for Wynne to recover and to evaluate their surroundings. "I was just happy to walk," Wynne says. Confused about how to express his faith, he began to explore Christian art, but was dissatisfied. "I'm not a dance-in-church person," he says, "I am a dancer, and a choreographer and a Christian. … I don't have to broadcast that."

After observing the fine-art environment in Philadelphia, Wynne jumped in headfirst, seemingly by accident.

The Steaming Locomotive
Petite young dance students wearing black leotards and biking shorts enter the big studio of Belhaven's Bitsy Irby Visual Arts and Dance Center. They shed their sweatshirts and socks and toss their bags and garments into any free space they can find. Wynne sits on a raised platform facing the students, who are now stretching on the floor, and calls order to the advanced modern class with a prayer.

The dancers begin what looks to be a spastic tantrum on the dance floor, an exercise that Wynne uses to help dancers hone in on their "centers" and find muscular balance in their movements. Wynne developed the warm-up by combining elements of traditional modern dance with the neuro-physical techniques of Moshé Feldenkrais.

Wynne walks around the room, taking time to observe each dancer. With each step, he unconsciously turns out his feet as he removes his hands from his hips to fidget with his track jacket. His small lean stature commands the room with silent, yet overt prowess.

Wynne came to Belhaven in 2003, after department chairman Colin Harbinson repeatedly invited him to join the dance faculty. At the third request, Wynne surrendered. When Harbinson initially approached Wynne, he was riding a "steaming locomotive" called At Marah Dance Theater, which he and wife Britta founded in 1996. The company was the toast of Philadelphia fine art, and organizations like the Pew Foundation were eager to share their resources.

"I hadn't thought about making a company," Wynne says. "We just started getting really good press and things started hopping along."

By happenstance, Wynne and his wife met a young dancer who had just graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and was finishing an apprenticeship with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. She had a group of friends from UAP who were also looking for work as dancers, and the couple began toss around ideas of how they could re-enter the arts scene. With a small group of seven or eight dancers and a small savings account to support their salaries, creating a company seemed like a good idea. At Marah Dance Theatre was born.

There were virtually no start-up costs—they rehearsed and took class at a dance school's studio during the day when students were at school, UAP let them use theater space for free and the board of directors put up money for Web design and costumes.

"We sort of had this European flair that wasn't around," Wynne says. "There was a lot of (grunge) going on in Philly, and we were just something different."

Former Belhaven student Michael Morris had become familiar with Wynne's work with At Marah before he ever met him at Belhaven. Morris worked with a dance theater in Baton Rouge that had collaborated with At Marah, and Morris had been able to see some of their performances when they toured through the city.

"He was very contemporary, very conceptual, very thought-driven and very intentional too, because a lot of dance can be very haphazard," Morris says of Wynne.

"He's very bold, and at the same time he's willing to admit uncertainty—and that's bold."

The company toured the U.S, Canada, the Caribbean and Europe, garnering recognition and becoming a strong presence in the international dance world. From April 1996 to June 2003, Wynne worked tirelessly touring the company every season and writing grant proposals. "It was a very daunting experience," he says.

By 2003, Wynne was growing tired of his exhausting life, and as someone who always wants to be on the "upswing in life," when Belhaven beckoned him, he heeded the call.

In August 2003, Wynne arrived in Jackson.

Coming from a large metropolitan area to the heart of the South was a major adjustment, and he laid low for a while to assess the area trends. He hired an associate artistic director to oversee At Marah, but after a year, he found it too much to reside here and continue to run the company in Philadelphia. He patiently waited for Jackson to present him with an opportunity to build up another dance company.

In light of the host of planned downtown development projects, Wynne thinks Jackson is ready.

"I've been waiting and watching for the last four years, and I see downtown really having the potential to sustain a dance company," Wynne says.

"I think it's going to be an exciting new experience for Jackson."

Greater Jackson Arts Council Executive Director Janet Scott says that in the next three to five years, people won't be able to recognize Jackson's downtown.

"The cultural part of (downtown) is blossoming and taking off," Scott says. "It's going to grow, and the facilities and the venues are going to even grow more in the next several years."

In the past year, Wynne has been developing community contacts and sponsorships for the company, Talk DANCE. The intention of Talk DANCE is to foster dialogue through the presentation of fine art. He plans to host discussion forums after each show to give people an outlet to express their concepts and learn what the art means to others. "With my company in Philadelphia, people would end up standing around in the lobby for hours after the show just talking," he says.

As Wynne has been writing grant applications, he said that the reoccurring theme is "serving the underserved." He says that Talk DANCE will not only serve the community by giving them a fine-art experience, but by also translating their stories into art. "One of the things that I think is going to be really, really beautiful about Talk is that … the best way that I can think of serving the underserved is by honoring these people, and at the same time creating art," Wynne says.

Wynne plans to launch Talk DANCE with a contest to which people in the community can submit their stories. He will pick one of the stories, without knowing the author, and set it to movement. Mississippi, which is rich in Civil Rights-era stories, is the perfect place to collect and retell stories, Wynne says.

"This is part of Mississippi's past and as a culture, we need to work through them. … I think that the fine arts … can be a source of that affirmation that's going to be able to go past the clichés, how people interpret words."

After Morris graduated in 2007, Wynne invited him onto the board of directors as the communication director for Talk DANCE. Having performed and designed costumes for eight or nine of Wynne's performances, Morris had become a major "conceptual sounding board" for Wynne.

As communications director, Morris seeks to convey the communities' needs to Wynne and potential funders. Morris said it's not going to be easy to bring a modern dance company to Mississippi, adding that he knows of two that have tried and failed.

"In a lot of the grants and things we've been writing, there's a huge concern … that the underserved are served," Morris says. "I think what most people don't realize is that Mississippi almost as a whole is under-served when it comes to the idea of artistic expression."

Janet Scott says the major challenge that Wynne will face is conveying his concept to the people in Jackson.

"It's something that has not been done here before. It's unique and will definitely bring wonderful publicity to Jackson once it's established," she says. "But establishing a following for it will take a lot of one-on-one education."

Wynne plans to launch Talk DANCE's first season in 2009. The company is still in the forming stages as Wynne seeks out corporate sponsorships, grant money and members to serve on the board of directors. He knows that it will be difficult to bring the company into fruition, but said that it will be a positive landmark for Jackson and its citizens.

"I'm excited about what he's trying to do," Scott says. "I think that it will be a wonderful asset to Jackson. … We welcome artists here, and we'll go out our way to help support them in their endeavors."

Wynne hopes that Talk DANCE will fill a void with Jacksonians who thirst for more fine-art experiences, and in the city as a whole. "We're going to make something really neat," Wynne says. "If you want to make progress as a culture, you have to support the fine arts."

For more information on Talk DANCE, visit their Web site, or e-mail Stephen Wynne at [e-mail unavailable].

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