The person that you are is a sum of all your experiences – good, bad, ugly and everything in between. If you happen to be Deeply Rooted Dance Theater Co-Founder and Associate Artistic Director Gary Abbott, then those experiences also inform the choreographic works that have and continue to receive praise from critics and audiences alike.
Gary was first inspired to choreograph after seeing late dance legend Donald McKayle’s choreography on Alvin Ailey in 1978. Mr. McKayle was an instant, constant hero and later a mentor to Gary; during Gary’s ten years in Denver with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, he had the privilege of working with his hero on many choreographic projects. Gary’s creative talents were also nurtured by Ms. Parker-Robinson, and with this amount and quality of creative support it is no wonder that several of Gary’s works are still part of the CPRDE repertoire today. It was also during his time in Denver that Gary began choreographing for the theater and dove into a yearlong choreographic project which resulted in the creation of the musical theater summer program, Performance Artists Workshop (PAW, now in its 29th year of serving the community in Gilette, WY).
…it seems that [Gary] had been collecting the pieces of this creative puzzle for some time without realizing what the final picture would be.
This was all prior to co-founding Deeply Rooted Dance Theater with Kevin Iega Jeff, Linda Spriggs, Diane Shober and LaVerne Alaphaire Jeff in 1995. Having a company of his own never stopped Gary from continuing to choreograph works for dance, theater, and musical theater across the country, presenting works all over the world, and holding a position as Associate Professor of Dance at the University of Missouri Kansas City. In fact, he and the DRDT founders built the company and formed its mission in such a way that it would continue to support Gary’s artistic abilities as well as those of any artist who came through the studio doors.
What does all of this experience have to do with Gary’s latest choreographic work, “Parallel Lives,” for Deeply Rooted Dance Theater? Well, when we got to talking with Gary, it seems that he had been collecting the pieces of this creative puzzle for some time without realizing what the final picture would be. From deep within his past came the memories of an upbringing in a house of strong women. From his experience choreographing for theater and from his mentors, a deeper understanding of how to use drama and staging effectively to convey his ideas. And from teaching at the university, an unexpected connection with the ballet class pianist that would lead to an original score for the piece.
DancerMusic’s Kristi Licera caught up with Gary to see how all of these pieces came together to form “Parallel Lives” and to learn more about what’s on the program for An Inspired Past, A Jubilant Future. Here’s what Gary told us:
I believe it’s important to be able to bring all of my experiences to my art whether it is perceived as male or female, right or wrong, good or bad, pretty or ugly. It must find its way into my work.
Kristi: Act 2 of An Inspired Past, A Jubilant Future features the world premiere of your latest choreographic work, “Parallel Lives,” which we learned from DRDT’s press release is “inspired by poor, working women who have shared life-changing events, both beautiful and tragic.” Can you tell our readers more about the familial seeds of your inspiration, as well as give some insight into the creative process for both the movement and your original score?
Gary: I was raised in a house that included my grandmother, my mother, and my two sisters, and my aunt and her three daughters. My other closest relatives in Atlanta were mostly women as well. Two of grandmother’s sisters were constant visitors and hosts. My great grandmother and I were especially close. Although she lived in South Carolina I managed to spend a fair and consequential amount of time with her. We shared a close bond that was nurturing and incredibly strong. I don’t mean to give the impression that there were no male family members in my life, but they were not the ones who guided me or were present on a daily basis.
In addition, my most influential dance teachers and artistic directors are women. These women possess a certain dignity and elegance in their movements both on and off the studio dance floor. Luckily, I could not help but be influenced by their movement. I believe it’s important to be able to bring all of my experiences to my art whether it is perceived as male or female, right or wrong, good or bad, pretty or ugly. It must find its way into my work.
By the time we got to the end of the process, both the music and the choreography felt to me as though it was one experience, that always existed together.
Evangelos Spanos is the composer of the music for the dance. He is a brilliant pianist who plays for the ballet classes at the University of Missouri Kansas City, where I serve as Associate Professor of Modern Dance. Listening to him is akin to being in the audience at a piano concert. When he plays, passion blazes from the piano. He and I struck up a conversation and he offered to let me hear some of his compositions. At that time, I was looking for music to use for choreography for our faculty show. When he presented me with this piece, I instantly knew it was special. Once I began to work with it and with the dancers, both the music and the choreography informed each other’s process. Evangelos was quite open to making changes to his work. By the time we got to the end of the process, both the music and the choreography felt to me as though it was one experience, that always existed together.
Out of necessity, creating art can be a lonely and selfish process. During the creative process, it’s important that I take time and space alone to gather the images, emotion, and energy it takes to make a dance.
Having a piece of music created specifically for a work that is being created is a blessing and a bit of a miracle. It speaks to the deep importance of collaboration and how collaboration not only allows new art to come into existence, but also forces the artists to create new ways of working through their personal processes. Out of necessity, creating art can be a lonely and selfish process. During the creative process, it’s important that I take time and space alone to gather the images, emotion, and energy it takes to make a dance. Collaborating with Evangelos provided the light and companionship that was needed to bring this piece to life.
Kristi: The remainder of the evening’s program features five additional works that include contributions from DRDT Co-Founder and Artistic Director Kevin Iega Jeff and Dance Education Director Nicole Clarke-Springer. To get a feel for the other works, let’s do a quickfire round. In a few words, can you tell us about what the audience may experience for each piece?
Let’s start with Kevin Iega Jeff’s “Nia Keii-A Gift of Life” (1982).
Gary: A joyful expression of the appreciation for life.
Kristi: What about Iega’s “Flack” (1984)?
Gary: The complexity of community and the importance of acknowledging each member’s value.
Kristi: And your work, “Somewhere”?
Gary: Love is always searching for a way to grow.
Kristi: Give us a few words about “Heaven,” which you and Iega choreographed together.
Gary: Celebration, togetherness, and love.
Kristi: And last but not least, Nicole Clarke-Springer’s “Forces.”
Gary: Exploring the spiritual influences on our daily consciousness.
Deeply Rooted Dance Theater presents An Inspired Past, A Jubilant Future on Saturday, December 15 at 7:30PM and Sunday, December 16 at 2PM at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts (915 East 60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637).
Tickets and more information are available online at deeplyrooteddancetheater.org/#upcoming-events.
A limited quantity of tickets are free for University of Chicago students on a first come, first serve basis and are subject to availability. University of Chicago students can learn more about ticketing at arts.uchicago.edu.