Four dancers moved around and on top of wooden chairs at the corners of a Casper College dance studio to low, pulsing musical tones. A dancer in the back turned and kicked in fluid movements and then moved along the floor through newspapers strewn between the chairs. One dancer, Anthony Gamroth, brought a chair to the front, where he lowered it to one side and continued turns, reaches and kicks high off the chair, springing off his hands in a dance sequence that ended with him lying on the floor.
Choreographer Aaron Wood asked Gamroth to perform the material in a piece called “Collated Memory” toward the center.
“So the energy sets inward…” Wood said, motioning toward the crumpled papers.
Gamroth danced for 13 years in Washington and had planned to retire last May with Ballet Northwest’s “Swan Lake.” But Gamroth broke his foot days before opening night.
“I just didn’t want to finish my dancing career like that,” he said.
But Gamroth found another opportunity in Casper, where he spent his teenage years.
In the fall, Gamroth joined Wyoming Dance Arts, which Wood and Rising Star Tumbling & Dance Studio teacher Rebecca Hebert began in July.
“So this is really good, because it gives me motivation to still dance,” said Gamroth, whose wife is also from Casper.
The dancers’ rehearsal was in preparation for Wyoming Dance Arts’ full-length premiere, a concert set for April 23 at the Nicolaysen Art Museum.
“New Dances” features pieces by Wood, including “The Other Echoes,” with music composed by duo Leave it to Shiva, who will perform live. Casper College dance students as guest artists will perform Wood’s work inspired by modern dancer Michio Ito, which they premiered in February at the Humanities Festival.
Wood, a Casper College instructor of dance, and Hebert also grew up in Casper before beginning their professional dance careers.
“Our mission statement is Wyoming Dance Arts believes the expression of humanity through dance and the arts is invaluable and essential to community identity,” Wood said.
The company aims to use the power of dance for human beings to connect and create works that both entertain and evoke reactions across the emotional spectrum, Hebert said.
“And the expression of truths,” Wood said. “My perspective of the world might be completely different than someone else’s, but within that difference there’s actually, I feel, that there is similarity. And that’s because we are both human. We both live, we both breathe, we both move.”
Small dance company, big vision
The time seemed right for a professional dance company in Casper with something of a renaissance of arts happening, Wood said. Recent years have brought new galleries, the Art Walk and even a new opera company along with David Street Station and downtown businesses hosting live performances. Longstanding arts institutions support the movement, including the Nicolaysen Art Museum, which Wyoming Dance Arts has a fiscal sponsorship with as the company attains its nonprofit status.
“I find for myself that the artists that live within Casper, we celebrate each other’s successes,” Wood said. “It’s that kind of a community. And we support one another. And I think that is a really a beautiful thing to be a part of and we’re excited to be a part of.”
The founders started the small dance company with a big vision. Their goals include being able to pay dancers, who’ve invested in their education and give their expertise, training and numerous hours to create performances.
Hebert’s younger students often have expressed surprise that people can be paid to dance.
“And this is a whole other perspective of art,” she said, “that it’s something that is valuable enough that people get paid to do it versus you have to pay yourself to do it.”
Plans include community classes for adults taught by company members. Wood hopes to start a class by summer for people age 35 and older similar to one he taught in Salt Lake City for movers age 40 and over, he said.
“And it was one of the most joyous experiences,” he said, “because we just came together and we celebrated each other through dance and through movement.”
The company plans to grow collaborations with other artists of all types. For the current show, they’ve worked with filmmaker Jaime Cruz for a filmed dance performance and Leave it to Shiva, comprised of local musicians Sean Wallace and Gary DePaolo — principal violist in the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra and Kelly Walsh High School orchestra teacher. The dance company recently performed in Colorado with the Lakewood Dance Academy.
The founders plan to bring artists from around the region to work with the company and share knowledge with the community and local students, Wood said.
The company is committed to high artistic standards, Hebert said.
“A lot of times in smaller towns, and especially being so remote compared to large cities,” she said, “it’s difficult to have resources and to find wonderful dancers like we have in order to create a good, quality, artistic, well-produced product.”
The dancers have the backgrounds to match those high standards: Wood spent seven years with Utah’s Repertory Dance Theatre and has performed across the world, including in New York and Beijing. He’s also taught dance at the University of Wyoming and Idaho State University. Hebert, who grew up studying ballet from late Casper dance legend Shirley Lewis, has danced for multiple companies in Denver.
The company brings a variety of skills and expertise, ranging from Hebert’s ballet training to Wood’s modern and contemporary focus along with Gamroth, whose experience includes yoga. Company member Bang Huang is a also a personal trainer while Madison McLimore brings skills teaching dance forms including ballet, tap, modern and jazz, Wood said.
Expression and evolution
Wood stood in the center of the studio during rehearsal Friday with his laptop computer as he and dancers discussed an intro to “Collated Memory.” They exchanged ideas about setting the chairs and the newspapers.
“You’ll pick up some of this newspaper then kind of let it drop and fall,” he told the dancers.
“You can even crumple it as you’re coming out,” he said, “so we hear that texture.”
The dancers rehearsed the introduction and took their places once again at the chairs to begin again as Wood counted the beats.
Much of Wood’s work begins with concepts he works out in the studio with the other dancers, like setting the space where the dancers would move during Friday’s rehearsal, he said.
“So that was something I wanted to see in the space with them,” Wood said, “because there’s only so much my imagination can do.”
The idea behind the piece is memories and “how in time and space they’re being imprinted as we go,” Wood said. “So the paper serves as that memory or as a placement of themselves in time.”
The range of expression in the piece stands out to Gamoth, he said.
“So you have the real high, high parts, the elated parts and the really low, gritty parts,” he said.
The dancers at one point continually return the memories to Gamroth as they carry and scoop the newspapers toward him and at one point even bury him. Memories at times cover like a warm blanket while others are less joyous or even terrifying, Wood said.
Wood challenged himself to add lighthearted parts in the show’s choreography, since his work is often perceived as darker or more serious. He set a flirtatious, humorous duet in the piece with McLimore and Huang and a solo for Hebert he thinks of as a celebration that reminds him of spring, he said.
Wood plans to expand “Collated Memory,” which is based on the proverb “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” with a couple more sections, and “The Other Echoes” will become a full evening-length piece with expanded dance and music, Wood said.
Leave it to Shiva duo came to a rehearsal one day and improvised with the dancers, Wood said. Then they composed music to the movements from what they’d watched and videos of other rehearsals, Wood said.
In the run-through at last week’s rehearsal, the dancers joined and parted in movements that matched the tension of the music. At points throughout the piece, they covered and blocked their own and other dancers’ eyes, ears and mouths with their hands.
As Wood guided the dancers through new material in “Collated Memory,” he held onto a chair back and demonstrated a slide into a partial split followed by a jump while turning. He slid out one leg and swung the other around behind it in a pivot to the floor. He demonstrated parts for the group and individual dancers, at one point leading Hebert in a running motion while lying on the chair seat and moving one hand overhead.
A minute of dance movement takes about three hours to set, Wood said. Fortunately, the experienced dancers pick up the choreography quickly. Often their ideas and interpretations become part of the performances, he said.
“I like to work in the space and with the dancers in an organic way to see what their bodies can do and what we can facilitate together,” Wood said. “There will be times where I’m gung-ho on certain things, but for the most part I feel like there’s a lot of flexibility in which the dancers can make a choice. And when we can guide each other in our choices.”
No two rehearsals or performances are the same with live art, Hebert said. With Wyoming Dance Arts, the dancers constantly make new discoveries and connections with works and music, and with one another, Hebert said.
“I think we pull from the audience too as far as energy,” Hebert said. “I don’t know that it is like I’m watching them and assessing their reactions, but there is something that I can sense them there.”
Wood agrees there’s a kinesthetic line that connects one person to another, whether it’s dancers on stage or the audience.
“It’s really actually quite magical,” he said.
Wood leaves much of his dance pieces open to interpretation by the dancers and the audience.
“I’d rather them leave discovering their own truths about what they saw whether they were attracted to it or not,” he said.
In a talk-back after the performance, audience members are welcome to talk with the dancers about their perceptions and feelings about the performances.
“That’s also going to inform the dancers and how they in the future perform the work and interpret it for themselves,” he said.
One thing Hebert loves about dance is that everyone sees the performances from their own perspective and takes away something different, she said.
“And it’s almost like a gift, but they make it their own thing,” Hebert said. “And I just love how it’s a little bit open to interpretation, and I think in some ways you get what you need from the performance that way.”
In lectures and talk-backs, Wood often discusses how people can come together and understand one another better through dance.
“I’ve talked about how dance bridges people’s perspectives and their ideas of the world,” Wood said. “Even though we might not agree all the time, we can still talk and debate about things. And movement lends itself to that so easily. That’s also where that collaborating component comes in, is that if we can collaborate with these various artists, we can bridge each other’s ideologies. We can share each other’s truths.”