David Herrera Performance Company (DHPC) will present the premiere of American Layercake, a new dance theater performance by choreographer David Herrera in collaboration with director Jean Johnston. Performances are scheduled March 11–13 at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco. Herrera and Johnston’s cross-disciplinary approach to American Layercake follows a family’s inner struggle in achieving individual, family, and national identity. Music is by Josh Roberts, media design by Olivia Ting, and scenography by Meghan Beitiks.
The following is an interview conducted during a recent rehearsal for this program.
California Literary Review: Could you tell us a bit about your background and influences?
David Herrera: I began late (for a dancer) as an undergrad in the theater department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I decided to take a modern dance class and soon realized how little knowledge I had of my own body. My love affair with movement began with that discovery. After finishing my bachelor’s degree, I returned to school and earned a post-graduate certificate in the cross-disciplinary study of dance theater.
The major influences on my personal style is a mish-mash of contact, lifting, ethnic/cultural dance, Cunningham, Theater, Release, Limon, and Feldenkrais. I took most of my style and discipline from former Merce Cunningham dancer Mel Wong, but enjoy working within the other techniques. Before moving to San Francisco in 2004, I was coached by William Alderson in Los Angeles. Now that I am in the professional circuit, I attend various styles and classes throughout the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
In bringing in a theater professional, you have taken a unique artistic approach with this work. What have you gained from this partnership? What was the biggest surprise?
Herrera: In the process of discovering DHPC’s voice, I became aware that I needed to add more theatricality to my work. However, while trying to run a dance company — both in the studio and outside — it became clear to me that I was overextending myself. I needed help. Specifically, I needed someone to assist me in drawing out the theatrical elements I did not have the time to dive into.
I knew that for American Layercake it was imperative to find an assistant director who came strictly from the world of theater. I did not need another choreographer’s opinion in the studio; what I needed was a person whose eye and sensibilities were focused in theatricality, character development, story plot and arc, and in performance effectiveness.
With this in mind, I looked for a theater director who also had a relationship to movement. I had known Jean Johnstone for some years, seen her perform in Roccoco Risque Cabaret and in Shakespeare productions, and knew she had international experience studying at the Moscow Art Theater and teaching at Hong Kong University College. When I approached her to come into the project, Jean had just returned to California from Hong Kong. I explained that I needed a true collaborator, someone who was going to have a big say in the development of the work, including choreographic choices.
Working with Jean, I noticed that when I felt crunched for time in the studio, I would lean toward the literal when creating story and characters. Jean, however, pushed me and challenged my need to rely on that literalness. At rehearsal, she would restructure a moment I created and abstract it, capturing its essence, yet finding another means of delivery.
I have never had an assistant, and initially I worried about the effect her contribution might have on my style and, to some extent, my ego. It was surprising how easy it was to let go and watch her in action — to watch her transform a dull moment into something grander, with heart. Upon seeing how dedicated she was, I knew that I could trust the vision and process in her hands.
Through this relationship, a sense of freedom emerged for me. For the first time, I had the opportunity, and may I say the luxury, to put most of my effort into choreography and production, while Jean catered to character relationships and story development. She was the best gift I could have given DHPCo. and myself.
You commissioned the music for American Layercake. Was the work created before you began rehearsing, or was it composed as you worked?
Herrera: I asked Josh Roberts to create the score for American Layercake. I worked with Roberts on last season’s proects and found that we clicked. At the beginning of this season, I approached him about the new dance’s concept; he was excited to return for a second run so we could push our boundaries a bit farther.
What makes this interesting is that I don’t like to choreograph to music at all and rarely use counts and music to cue dancers. There is a part of me that is a bit at odds with itself, awkward almost, when it comes to movement; I want some of that element to come through in the work. I feel that relying on the music for its musicality takes away from the honesty and truthfulness of the performance. Since the dancers are trained athletes, however, they will unconsciously rely on the music to inform their performance.
With that said, Josh begins creating the score after the rehearsal process begins. He has some notes on concepts and overall themes, but he waits to see the choreography before he completes his composition. Similarly, the dancers wait months to hear his music. Josh develops short samples that he feels might work with ideas, he sends them to me, and I bring them into rehearsal and see what transpires. If I feel the mood and emotions in the music match my idea, I ask him to come in and take a look at the segment; in turn, he takes that back to his music studio to flesh it out.
During the second half of the process, we work on changes in timing, clarity of emotion, ambient environment, and story. At this point, Josh is in the studio along with the assistant director and me, adding a third layer to the process. Once whole musical sections are composed, we then begin to see if there are moments we want to match up with the dancers’ choreography — but only if it fits the honesty of the moment.
While exciting, starting a new company has its issues — especially financing. Other than the hard reality of funding, what do you consider to be your greatest challenges?
Herrera: Each season, we have two major challenges, and both are dictated by the financial realities: studio time and dance company members. Because we are an emerging company, our studio time to create and craft the work is limited. The ideal would be a 3- to 5-day rehearsal week, totaling 9 to 15 hours a week. This season, for three months, we only have a studio for one day a week (total 4 hours); we have added a second rehearsal day (2 additional hours) for the last two months.
The limited studio time causes us to skip the essential process play and work-shopping of material. It is during these work-shopping sessions where we make the discoveries that add texture and nuance to a performance. In addition, I can’t hold company class warm-ups to help the dancers.
The dancers are the integral meat and bones of any production. Without the resources to pay them, it is hard for a small company to get dancers to commit to a 3- or 4-day a week rehearsal schedule — especially since most of them have “day jobs.” I want to develop a reputation as a company who compensates at a competitive rate, but the Bay Area has some heavily funded and granted companies, so it is a challenge to compete. DHPC searches for professional-level artists, but they naturally come at a higher price. I feel that the quality of the performance relies on that professionalism so I don’t wish to compromise on dancer quality. Currently, we are able to pay stipends for rehearsals, performance, and tours.
Each year, some dancers return, but many pursue other projects, move, or have to go back to day jobs. This lack of consistency makes it difficult to develop a true company, one where the dancers are 1000% committed to the development and style of DHPC. It takes time.
At the end of some of your performances, you invite audience questions and comments. What do you find useful about this process?
Herrera: Performing companies don’t use audience feedback enough. I find that opening up a comfortable and uncensored discussion after performances informs the directors and dancers and expands their vision.
I always get asked why I hold these Qs & As. The real question should be, “Why wouldn’t I want to know what these people think? These are people who took time out of their day and money out of their pocket to come watch a DHPC production. The process doesn’t hinge, though, on whether the audience liked or did not like the work; I am interested in why people feel the way they do. I strive to make culturally relevant work so it is imperative to know if it strikes a cultural cord with the audience, even if they come from a different cultural perspective.
This process also helps me get over myself. As artists we can get so sucked into our own styles and ideas. You can see this particularly in companies that do not tour outside their own region. The work becomes stale, the director inhibited, the performers complacent.
We are a touring company, which I feel is essential to our company’s development. As such, part of the DHPC mission is to expand its artistic sensibilities through experiencing other environments and to inform its style and mission through national (and, one day, international) exposure.
David Herrera Performance Company (DHPC)
American Layercake (Herrera/Roberts)
March 11–13, 2011
Dance Mission Theater
3316 24th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110-3803
For tickets: www.brownpapertickets.org