“At 21 years old, it had been decided for me the roles I was capable of dancing for the rest of my life,” says choreographer Nick Kepley. “That was kind of silly.” It’s also, at least in part, the reason he created MOTION Dance Theatre, a choreographic laboratory and three-week residency. From that comes a world-premiere dance performance. MOTION returns to Asheville this summer, with a production at Diana Wortham Theatre on Friday and Saturday, July 11 and 12.
The program, which this year invites eight dancers and two choreographers to Asheville, pushes the boundaries of everyone involved. “It’s always fun as a dancer when you find something you haven’t done before,” says Kepley. “There might be a dancer who, during the year, tends to do fast roles. At MOTION, a choreographer might select them to do an adagio [a slow piece]. It’s good for them to stretch themselves.”
It’s the choreography, though, where the real risks happen, because the final show depends upon what comes out of a couple of weeks of rehearsal among artists who may not have ever worked together before. “I did have a choreographer work for four days on material and then scrap it all and start again,” says Kepley. “What I liked about what he did was that he was working in a way he’d never worked before. That’s what this is about.”
An Asheville native, Kepley studied at the Fletcher School of Dance and Balance Pointe with Sandra Miller. He spent summers at the School of American Ballet and The Juilliard School. These days, he says, “The quality of training that is available here has strengthened. Ballet Conservatory of Asheville is a great ballet studio. I teach there a lot, and I think, ‘If I’d taken [dance] here, my life could have been really different.’”
Kepley is currently ballet master at Ballet Austin, but it was while he was in New York, performing in Mary Poppins on Broadway, that he conceived of MOTION as a one-time event. “Right off the bat I knew I wanted to involve more than just my own work,” he says. “Unless you’re George Balanchine or William Forsythe, asking an audience to sit through an entire night of just you is asking a lot.” He enlisted a fellow choreographer to create material, and they produced two sold-out performances. The next year, friends from Asheville reached out, suggesting Kepley bring the project to his hometown. “Since the program was really meant to be about nurturing the choreographic process, I liked the idea of making it feel like a retreat for the artists,” he says.
That focus on process has only increased. Now in its fifth season, MOTION’s performances include behind-the-scenes videos and short, documentary-style interviews with the choreographers as well as an opportunity for the audience to ask questions and provide feedback. “I feel like with dance, especially ballet, there’s a veil over it,” says Kepley. “It looks easy, everyone looks happy. I’m trying to show that dance can be a contemporary art form. Just as you’d go to a museum and contemplate art, you can do the same with dance. It has many layers of meaning you can decipher.”
Is he concerned that the backstage reveal detracts from the mystique? “For me, it deepens the understanding,” Kepley says. “Choreographing is an art. There are methods to it, and it takes time to develop. It’s not just, ‘Hey, let’s put together a little dance! Kick-ball-change!’”
This year, the music for Kepley’s piece — inspired by ’40s jazz — is being composed by one of the dancers. Live music, an addition to this year’s program, changes the experience for the audience, he says, while an original score is special for the choreographer and the dancers. “This is the first time this music has ever been heard and anyone’s ever danced to it,” Kepley says. “It gives you total freedom.”
Another collaboration this year is with local fashion designer Liz White, who is creating costumes for the performance. Instead of crafting new apparel, White is working with vintage clothing to make it danceable. Though it’s her first foray into ballet-wear, it won’t be her last: Kepley has already enlisted White to create costumes for Ballet Austin.
Other plans for MOTION include an additional week of rehearsal time and a tour around North and South Carolina. “But I really just want to get better at what we do now,” says Kepley. “There’s something cool for me, having grown up here, bringing all that I’ve learned back here.”
WHAT MOTION Dance Theatre
WHERE Diana Wortham Theatre, dwtheatre.com
WHEN Friday and Saturday, July 11 and 12, at 8 p.m. $35 adults, $30 seniors, $18 students, $10 children