Creative homecoming

In the “choreographic laboratory:” Dancer’s Adam Still and Christopher Charles McDaniel are part of MOTION, a dance and theater residency that will culminate in public performances. Photo courtesy Nick Kepley
In the “choreographic laboratory:” Dancer’s Adam Still and Christopher Charles McDaniel are part of MOTION, a dance and theater residency that will culminate in public performances. Photo courtesy Nick Kepley

Call it a creative homecoming, or a visit in dance. New York City-based choreographer Nick Kepley is returning to his native Asheville with his MOTION Dance+Theatre residency program for a third year.

Drawing on talent from major ballet companies across the country, the three-week creative collaboration will culminate in special, one-night only performances at the Tryon Fine Arts Center and the Diana Wortham Theatre on June 21 and June 23.

Kepley refers to MOTION more as a “choreographic laboratory” than a traditional concert performance company. Dialogue with audiences regarding dance is part of the mission of MOTION, with moderated discussions after each performance. Kepley's work explores whether “something commonly linked to beauty and purity” can also “give voice to complicated world issues,” he says.

This year, a special June 15 panel discussion is being added at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center. “I like to have it here in Asheville because it feels like a retreat for them,” Kepley says of his fellow resident choreographers and dancers. “It’s nice to be away from the big city as far as creating. There’s less pressure.”

A graduate of West Henderson High School, Kepley launched his dance company in 2010 in New York City. Growing up, he studied at the Fletcher School of Dance, at Balance Pointe with Sandra Miller and at Flat Rock Playhouse’s YouTheatre with Betsy Bisson.

At 26, Kepley already has a healthy roster of freelance choreographic projects and commissions. Most recently, he is assisting with the choreography for a new production of Cinderella that will open on Broadway this fall. He has also worked professionally as a dancer with Ballet Austin and the Kansas City Ballet, and has appeared in more than 1,200 performances on Broadway as the statue Neleus in Mary Poppins.

Much of what he’s learning in that job is going directly into his work as a choreographic assistant for the upcoming Flat Rock Playhouse performance of Guys & Dolls.

Gaining momentum

For the last three summers, Kepley has selected six dancers and two guest choreographers for MOTION, giving the ensemble three weeks of unrestricted time to create. This year's group includes dancers from Ballet Austin, Colorado Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and Nashville Ballet.

Gabrielle Lamb and Brian Carey Chung will join Kepley as choreographers for MOTION. Each will create an original 15-minute dance for the scheduled performances.

Chung, founding artistic director and choreographer of Collective Body Dance Lab in New York, has created works for Cedar Lake II and Connecticut Ballet. Lamb, a New York-based dancer and choreographer, relishes the opportunity to spend time with a group of dancers she has never worked with before. “I find that, as a choreographer, one tends to fall into certain patterns, certain habitual choices of movement, musical styles,” she says. “I’m looking forward to keeping myself as open as possible. I really want to have the attitude of an explorer in uncharted territory.”

Direct collaboration with composers is a new aspect of this year's program. The Diana Wortham event includes a live performance of a newly commissioned score by Bruce Tippette, a University of North Carolina School of the Arts graduate student. “It’s exciting to make a ballet to music that no one has ever heard or danced to,” Kepley says. “Live music adds so much to a dance performance.”

Prior to the June 21 and June 23 performances, the choreographers will discuss their creative processes with audiences. “A big goal with the program is to get people to think about dance as something they can grasp,” says Kepley. “I want to show that ballet in particular doesn’t have to be tutus and tiaras — it can be complex and thought-provoking.”

The spontaneity and risk involved in an accelerated rehearsal schedule challenges Lamb's creative habits. “I usually take a lot of time to prepare a piece, so I’m going to have to work on efficiency in a big way and find creative ways of achieving a high standard in less time,” she says. 

Kepley acknowledges the program's brevity, and credits the pace for the urgency of the performances. “It’s more intensive than how they work during the year,” he says, adding that preparation for a new ballet is usually done in about six weeks.

Productive intensity

In the past, Kepley thrived on the intensity. “With each dancer Nick was able to push, motivate and inspire them in such a way that we all danced with more power, more expansiveness, more purpose,” says Angelina Sansone, a member of the Kansas City Ballet who is in her third season with MOTION. “Each year he has brought in a variety of choreographers, and I have personally taken something away from each of them.”

Sansone says she is happy to be returning to Asheville for the three-week intensive workshop, and is excited about dancing with her sister, Mollie, who is also performing this year with MOTION.

Colorado Ballet’s Adam Still is looking forward to the collaboration with Kepley and the other choreographers and dancers, in his second year with MOTION. “It’s more contemporary than what I normally get to do,” says Still. “Input is considered because it’s a little more relaxed. It’s more open minded than working with a big classical ballet.”

While with Colorado Ballet, Still has danced as the Green Man in Lila York’s Celts and the Prince in The Nutcracker, among other roles. “It makes you a better dancer seeing how other people move,” he says. “Any time you try new stuff you grow as an artist, as a dancer.”

Kepley agrees, saying that he thinks it’s exciting when dancers are willing to work with a choreographer and experiment. “Working with Nick again is going to be a blast,” Still says. “It’s great that the project is growing.”

— Beth Beasley is a Hendersonville-based freelance writer.

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