"If you bump, you bump. I like things to be a little dangerous."
Choreographer Wendy Woodson stands in the center of a long, windowless studio, watching Cynthia Berkshire and Mary Sing make sneaky little turns around each other. Soon she joins the duo and the dance accelerates, growing ever more slippery and paranoid. One falls flat on her back; the remaining two whisper, then throw their heads back as if laughing at her collapse. Seconds later they regroup, unscathed, and a new and equally unsettling stage picture takes shape. The aural accompaniment to these maneuvers is a pulsing score of bleeps and spoken phrases: "Go ahead," "After you," "Wait for me," "Are you sure?," "I'm staying," "Which way?," "No, no."
"This is one in a series of what I call my 'driven' pieces," Woodson says of "Getting Ahead," the new trio. "I wanted to dedicate it to the junior high girls I teach at Filmore Art Center. One day they love you, the next day they hate you. One day class is fantastic and full of passion, and the next it's total chaos. After I get through with them I have to go home and shut the door and sit in the bathtub for 45 minutes."
Grappling with those students constitutes only one corner of Woodson's existence, which seems, at various times, to define the word "driven." After her performances Friday and Saturday at the Dance Place (she appears in four of five dances), she is off to Martha's Vineyard to begin a six-week residency at the Yard, a performing arts colony that will provide Woodson, her frequent collaborator Achim Nowak and eight dancer-actors room, board, studio space and, best of all, time to create a new work.
"It makes such a difference," Woodson sighs, referring to this opportunity and to choreography fellowships she has received of late from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the D.C. Commission on the Arts. "Certainly the money helps, but it's also the time, the way you start feeling about yourself and your work. At first I was really worried that these honors would result in people laying certain expectations on me -- minimize the risky elements in my work, etcetera -- but now I realize that I've just got to do what I've got to do."
For the past seven years Woodson has been creating works that raze the boundaries between dance and theater, combining long verbal monologues, stylized gestures, a mobile set, improvised passages and only a modicum of "plot." The open-ended nature of her work has led her to collaborate with the likes of actor Nowak, composer Robin Rose and sculptor Nade Haley, and to search incessantly for performers who can both move and speak fluently and simultaneously.
Despite her recent success, Woodson finds it difficult to live, let alone prosper, as an artist in Washington. "The treatment of dance in this city is really adolescent," she declares. "Sometimes I feel like a rat in a cage. There's a definite ceiling on expectations, facilities and motivation here. Try to rise above a certain level, and there's no push, no support."
She blames these problems on both the artists and the "supporting structures" -- the public, producers and critics.
"Why is it always assumed that we are imitating other people's work?" she asks. "Why doesn't anybody believe that my work, for instance, could be influencing someone else?" She sighs. "There's one thing I'm sure of -- my work is clearly my work. Whether you like it or not is another question."