On the town with Larry Keigwin


Choreographer and artistic director of Keigwin + Company, Larry Keigwin in the studio. (Whitney Browne)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic May 2

In some ways, Larry Keigwin is living out the themes of “If/Then,” the Broadway show that he choreographed, which had a tryout here last fall and recently opened in New York.

The show stars Idina Menzel as a recent divorcee faced with too many new opportunities. How to choose among them? Well, she doesn’t. She gets it all: In a bit of musical-theater dreamweaving, we watch her future unfold along two different paths.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

Since his profile-raising work on “If/Then,” Keigwin has had plenty of choices of his own to sort through, and his life has grown complicated. The director of the respected but small-scale modern-dance troupe Keigwin + Company has swiftly gone from under the radar to sought-after. Opportunities now knock in a way he couldn’t have imagined in the past. One of them brings his company to the Kennedy Center this week to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra.

But unlike Menzel’s nearly 40 neurotic worrywart, Keigwin, 42, is calm. He’s okay with uncertainty and do-overs. His life is more “If/Zen.”

In a recent phone interview, Keigwin spoke about the big lessons of his first Broadway experience: “That nothing was ever settled, and how to be comfortable and detached, so you could allow for many drafts.”

Keigwin on how he makes dances for his company: “Collaboration, then editing, editing, editing, and creating it together. . . . But I’d say 75 percent gets chucked.”

A Keigwin koan (or at least it sounds like one): “If someone gives you a problem, it doesn’t limit you. It makes you find the answer.”

He drops that offhand philosophy into his remarks about the NSO project. Keigwin + Company performs on the first two nights of the “New Moves: Symphony + Dance” festival. Each of the three different programs of music by American composers also includes a world-premiere dance by an American company.

Keigwin, however, gets two premieres, which he’ll unveil Wednesday and Thursday. He choreographed them to selections from Leonard Bernstein’s scores for the musical “On the Town” and the film “On the Waterfront.” (The other troupes in the festival are the New Ballet Ensemble of Memphis dancing to Duke Ellington’s “Harlem” suite May 10 and 13, and Jessica Lang Dance, performing to John Adams’s Violin Concerto, May 16 and 17.)

The Bernstein estate had rules for the dances: No references to either of the existing works. No sailors, no mobsters. Keigwin saw that as a silver lining.

“That frees me up,” he says. “I like projects like this, with certain parameters.” For “On the Waterfront,” a musical composition by turns lyrical and dissonant, he’s evoking the natural setting of the title. “On the Town” has a peppier vibe, prompting a vision of “my dancers going to a funky Lower East Side wedding . . . jeans, suspenders, funky, edgy type of clothing, like what 25-year-olds would wear to a bohemian wedding.”

The wide, shallow Concert Hall stage also presents a challenge for dance — or does it? “It’s an unusual space, but that can be the mother of invention,” says Keigwin. “I like that. All these variables I’ve been given, the space, the music, no narrative — it’s just fun.”

As local audiences learned on his company’s past engagements here, most recently in 2012, a light heart is Keigwin’s trademark. His dances can be silly and cheeky, featuring flight attendants chiding passengers to keep their hands off one another, or men clad in bath towels and pumps, or bedroom exertions in underpants. With opera music.

“He has a young, smart, sexy American energy.”says Meg Booth, the Kennedy Center’s director of dance programming. She believes he’s the perfect match for Bernstein’s scores with “his playfulness, his sense of humor, how he embraces contemporary culture.”

Keigwin, a native New Yorker, danced with the experimental choreographers Mark Dendy, Doug Varone and John Jasperse before founding his own troupe 10 years ago. He has also worked with the Rockettes and with fashion models, choreographing a giant public fashion show at Lincoln Center in 2010 with 150 models. He gets his best ideas from the street, watching people go by.

“Oh, my God, I love it,” he says. “Humans move at different tempos, and they have different body language if they’re in traffic, or having an argument. And the speed at which they move, who they move with, if they’re in a group or alone, how they navigate the subway: It’s like we’re animals running around the city.”

You see his eye for everyday moves and the telling gesture in “If/Then.” The first dance begins in a meditative moment in a park, as one of the cast members wafts her arms in a slow ballet of the upper body. Someone does a little yoga, someone else walks by with a bike. Then everyone takes a big breath together, and it’s simple and lovely, as if the universe were slowing down and all the randomness had jelled into one shared impulse. Later there’s a surprisingly dynamic number in the narrow space of a subway car, with airborne twists, scampering on the seats and a moonwalk.

“When I go to a musical I’m constantly just waiting for the ensemble to dance,” Keigwin says. “And I don’t think I’m alone. I think there’s a large part of the audience that whether they know it or not, they want to see them dance.”

Keigwin heads to New Zealand after the NSO gig to stage some of his works for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. Come fall, Keigwin + Company will be touring the American South. In between, he has a few other jaunts lined up. With his star rising, what is his dream project?

“Something that mixes the voice, singers, dancers, actors and is along the lines of a musical theater piece,” he says. Like a Twyla Tharp “Movin’ Out”-style dance-ical? “Yes,” he acknowledges, with a laugh. “I didn’t want to say it, but yes. I’m hoping it’s something completely new.”

“All these things are really about generating,” he says. “In a weird way, it’s dreaming, editing the dream and having a deadline. And collaborating. So much collaborating. Tossing around ideas, ideas, ideas, and listening to other people. I love it. It’s social. It makes me think outside my own mind.”

He offers up another bit of casual philosophy. “One of the things I say when I’m working with new people is be quick to say yes. And try things. You’re not going to lose anything by saying yes and trying something. It opens a lot of doors to creative possibilities.”

Keigwin + Company in “New Moves: Symphony + Dance: From Schuman to Bernstein” with the National Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Wilkins, conductor. Wednesday and Thursday. Kennedy Center Concert Hall. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org. $10-$85.

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