Dance is an intensely social, labor-intensive art form, except when you’re a choreographer generating movement for yourself. Two’s a crowd when it comes to individual style. Yet this week at the Joyce Theater’s Altogether Different Festival, Peter Pucci and Margie Gillis offer solo programs midwived by longtime colleagues who know how to draw out these choreographer-performers’ idiosyncratic qualities.
Pucci, whose To Begin Again plays Friday night and Saturday afternoon, is the quintessential “company man,” a veteran of team sports from his youth in Baltimore. His talent was annealed in the collaborative crucible of Pilobolus, where he worked for nearly 10 years and where five or six names are likely to be affixed to a piece of choreography. He began making dances there, and struck out on his own in 1986; his troupe, Peter Pucci Plus Dancers, has played five times at the Joyce. Until Thanksgiving, he worked on the aborted Barry Manilow musical, Harmony. He’s done countless industrial shows, as well as commissioned works for other troupes, ice-skaters, the Muppets, and television commercials. For this rare solo effort he’s working with theater director Daniel Fish on a series of personal vignettes, to Chopin, that explore how a kid from a Baltimore housing project, contemplating a future as a gym teacher, turned into an accomplished dance artist.
“What drew me in is that it was Peter’s life story,” says Fish, a lean man with long hair and a beard. “I keep steering him back to those stories. Whenever we work on anything, I’m interested in it being very personal. If he has to change costumes onstage and be kind of naked, he’ll just do it.”
Introduced to Pucci a decade ago by lighting designer Howell Binkley, Fish has collaborated with the choreographer on productions of Shakespeare, Molière, Charles Mee, Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton, and David Rabe. “This is the mirror image of what we usually do,” says Fish. “Here, I’m the sounding board for him. Peter had stories he wanted to tell. I became a sort of filter.”
Pucci considered using spoken text. But Fish got a sense of the structure of the whole evening and, he says, “we made a decision to find another way to tell the stories.”
In his 24-year performing career, Pucci claims never to have missed a show because of injury. “I’ve never stopped performing; I’ve just done less of it,” he says. At the Joyce he shares the stage with six live musicians playing versions of Chopin nocturnes that his late mother, who was Polish, loved. He’s wanted to choreograph to the nocturnes for ages; his musical director, Brent Michael Davids, arranged them for toy piano, grand piano, Wurlitzer, accordion, bouzouki, flute, and the human voice. “It’s music-driven,” says Pucci of To Begin Again. “I don’t think I’d have attempted this as a younger man.”
Margie Gillis, celebrating her 30th year as a soloist, is another creature entirely. Although she’s guested with troupes in her native Canada and in New York, she’s basically always worked alone, developing a reputation as a dramatic dancer; the program she’ll show at the Joyce Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday brought audiences at Montreal’s Place des Arts to their feet last year.
The child of Olympic skiing stars, Gillis seemed destined for a movement profession. One brother was a pro hockey player, her sister a freestyle skier, and her late brother Christopher a featured member of the Paul Taylor company—and a promising choreographer—when he died in 1993. She has performed in her brother’s work, and in pieces by Martha Clarke, but she’s basically a loner. “I’m dyslexic and I do not count,” she asserts. “Dancers spend an enormous amount of time with numbers. My head’s got other things in it; my nervous system is busy with other things.”
So to make sure that the pieces she performs—including one by renowned neuromuscular trainer and anatomist (and sometime choreographer) Irene Dowd—look their best, she works with Daniel Jackson, her “artistic adviser.” Jackson, 66 and a native of Detroit, has been a dancer, artistic director, and rehearsal director in Montreal since 1961. He had finally retired—”I was in the mothballs for six months” is how he puts it—when Gillis invited him to design a duet program for her and Peggy Smith Baker, another Canadian solo dancer.
“I’ve worked with dozens of choreographers, hundreds of dancers,” says Jackson, whose ponytail is only slightly shorter than Gillis’s legendary mane. “But this was the first time I’d worked with a choreographer-dancer.” They’ve been together for seven years now; he rehearsed her in James Kudelka’s Dracula, in which she guested with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.
“I started out coaching her dance,” says Jackson, “and realized I was making a huge mistake. I entered a place of silence which enabled me to become as much a creator as Margie is. A good coach is also the dancer. Both of us are the student, and both the teacher. It has nothing to do with how I’m going to make it better the next day. It’s about the joy we share. We keep ourselves fresh. That’s why I’m in this business at this age.”
“Danny brings his expertise,” says Gillis, “and I bring mine. There’s an enormous amount of nonverbal communication that speaks volumes to both of us—it’s subtle, coded, entire situations implied by the tilt of a head. We each bring a wealth of experience. We generate humor, which is freeing, and we take risks. There’s also a generating of love.”
That love is evident as Jackson watches Gillis, a figure who might have slid off an Edwardian cameo or out of a Burne-Jones illustration, run through her solos. He sits rapt as she dances to a song by Leonard Cohen, a Bach piano sonata, a recording of tuning-fork tones calibrated to mobilize a frozen shoulder.
Just when dancers’ maturity crests, their bodies often begin to fail. The challenge is to keep a brilliant expressiveness alive on stage. Gillis dislocated her arm a couple of years ago, and while recuperating stepped into a rabbit hole in Scotland and broke her ankle. “Particularly with solo dancing, if you’re going to survive, you have to be keenly interested in health,” she says.
For Gillis, the psychology of a piece determines the architecture and method of creation. “If a piece is dreamlike, the process might be circular,” she says. “Or it might be unwieldy. The inner landscape—the vision, if you will—creates the method.”
How did working with Jackson change her process?
“I was suddenly in a room with someone else who had a similar desire for health, love, risk taking,” says Gillis. “When I was younger, it was appropriate to be wild, savage. Now the question is, how can I manipulate energy? There are dances you can’t do as a young person that I can do now. I’m interested in how my personal life can be a window to compassion, to a connection at a human level. The theater’s natural place is catharsis, transformation, renewal. That’s my business and my passion.”
As to her future with Jackson, all options are open. Says Gillis, “We’re not a recipe for anyone else, but we feel grateful to share it. We feel free to give in a very profound way.”