The year was 1983 when Sister Beth Burns of the order of St. Joseph of Orange began teaching children to dance in a summer pilot program for at-risk youth. The program was an immediate success, with Burns’ vision eventually becoming the Wooden Floor, a non-profit organization that provides tutoring, academic services, counseling and dance education to low-income youth at no cost.
Indeed, with some 475 students ages 8 to 18 currently enrolled at the Wooden Floor, that education includes classes in contemporary and improvisational techniques, while each year choreographers are commissioned to make new works for a number of students. And, to celebrate its 40th anniversary in a concert dubbed, “Limitless,” the Wooden Floor is presenting four dances from three acclaimed choreographers June 1-3 at Irvine Barclay Theatre.
The choreographers, New York-based John Heginbotham and Keely Garfield, as well as the Wooden Floor’s artistic director Jennifer Bassage Bonfil, have all been working alongside students over hundreds of hours of rehearsals to further develop their skills in creativity, ideation, collaboration, commitment and achievement.
Bassage Bonfil, who took the reins of the Wooden Floor in December of last year, but has been working with the organization since 2006 in roles that include teaching and dance educator—and who was also a founding member of Orange County’s Backhausdance from 2003-2016—said the transition to artistic director has been smooth.
“Dance education runs through my veins” she enthused. “It’s who I am. I have been slowly preparing myself, shadowing the two previous directors, and [also] implemented what I learned from being there so long.”
With a yearly operating budget of $3.6 million and a 96% Latinx student body, the Wooden Floor also has a mind-boggling 100% success rate of students who graduate and go on to higher education. For her debut work for the organization, “Critical Mass,” which is set to an original score by Patrick Vargas and Brian Wood—two musicians who accompany classes at the organization—Bassage Bonfil said that there are 29 dancers, ages 12-17, in her work that has a run-time of 19-1/2 minutes.
“I wasn’t going to choreograph,” explained the director, “but life happens, and I did. My plan for my first rehearsal was to go in and trust the dancers. I’ve had them for 10 years [and] have been an integral part of their journey for 10 years. I met them in level 1 and have been teaching them at level 2. We were joking in rehearsal,” added Bassage Bonfil, “that they finally learned to read my mind. We speak the same language in the dance studio, and I trust them to carry the piece.”
The work, which celebrates individuality through vibrant shifts, circular motifs and the interplay between structure and disarray, evolved naturally. “I didn’t have a plan,” noted Bassage Bonfil. “I gave them a movement score and asked them to create a solo. An hour in, I smiled and breathed a sigh of relief thinking I was right: I can trust them, this is going to work because they’re incredible. And 95% of the movement is them—they’ve created it.”
As for learning the dance and working with professional choreographers, “it is,” the director pointed out, “empowering for the kids. It comes down to how we give them a voice. It’s not just that the choreographer comes in and teaches—“This is what I want you to do”—but because we also invite choreographers who are willing to co-create [and] have them be a huge part of the process.
“That helps not just with their performance quality,” she continued, “but helps them practice open-mindedness and [being able to] respond to new ideas. There’s an extra investment, because it’s movement they’ve created. And it’s an adult that’s listened to them. They’re also more likely to speak up. If the family runs into a challenge, they’re more likely to come to us as adults and [say] what they need or want through dance and rehearsals. They feel empowered.
“It is something about the Wooden Floor that [says], “We trust you.” We get to know the students in a different way, so they feel comfortable coming to us.”
Students also feel comfortable with choreographer Heginbotham, who danced with Mark Morris Dance Group from 1998-2012 and whose honors include a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship, and the 2014 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award. In addition to his work with his own company Dance Heginbotham, the maker choreographed the revival of “Oklahoma!,” which won a 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, while his list of opera commissions include choreography for, among others, San Francisco Opera, Dutch National Opera and Los Angeles Opera.
The upcoming concert for the Wooden Floor marks Heginbotham’s fifth time at the organization, where he has currently created not one, but two works, “Nova” and “Boss.” Featuring 34 students ranging in age from 11-18, the former is accompanied by five members of the Pacific Symphony Youth Quartet in music by Osvaldo Golijov; the latter is set to music from Quincy Jones’ Space-Age-era arrangements of jazz and popular standards.
“What keeps bringing me back,” acknowledged Heginbotham, “is [that] the spirit of the Wooden Floor is rewarding to be around, and I really believe in what they do, which is that they focus on dance as a way to find ways to have the best of life.
“Dance,” added Heginbotham, “is the way a lot of it gets done, but it’s also about learning the skills and having the opportunities that are necessary to potentially have really wonderful lives beyond the Wooden Floor—through education, through a college-focus. I believe in that, and it’s nice to participate in that.”
Rehearsals for the choreographers consist of three, two-week sessions (mid-December, March and May), with Heginbotham’s works focusing on distance and perspective and having been partially inspired by NASA’s 1977 Voyager Program.
“It wasn’t always known that they would be two separate pieces,” explained the choreographer, “but they are quite related. I had a point of inspiration, and I had music that I was attracted to, but when I showed up in December for our first sessions with the dancers, there was a lot I didn’t know. The point of inspiration is perspective—things up close and far away and what that was going to look like. How perspective translates into a dance is certainly a mystery, and the answers unfolded over time.”
Heginbotham added that, “a dance can come from anywhere—from a color, [or] a piece of music, but to say I’m going to make up a dance about a space craft from the 70s—that’s a [huge] thing to draw inspiration from. But I will say, since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by astronomy and science fiction.”
Indeed, the maker said that last summer his company premiered an evening-length work that focused on the planets, meaning he was already “in a frame of mind enjoying and living in the world of outer space and the solar system. Sometimes I finish a piece and I’m ready to move on to something totally different, but in this case, I was enjoying being there. It was an attractive idea in my mind.”
Heginbotham, whose admiration for the Wooden Floor is palpable, said that the biggest difference between choreographing for students as opposed to making work on professional dancers, is, “the amount of time it takes to accomplish things. Professionals can zero in, and their ability to concentrate, for the most part, is longer. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same.
“We go through the same process of not knowing what something is going to look or feel like,” he continued, “and figuring it all out together in the room. I would say, weirdly, it’s not that different. It’s just the amount of time and the amount of experience—the little technical things. I might say to the group, “Let’s move upstage,” but not everybody knows what that means yet. It’s about learning the language of theater.”
As to how the choreographers are chosen to participate in the Wooden Floor’s program, the organization’s CEO, Dawn S. Reese, wrote in an email that it, “is continually considering artistic and production talent development. We look two to three years in advance of our performance schedule to ensure we meet our artistic and production strategies and requirements. We do not have difficulty in recruiting, but rather really aim to find the right culture that aligns with our organizational values.”
To that end, the team conducts a search, as well as taking recommendations from choreographers who had been with The Wooden Floor in the past. “We pursue choreographers,” added Reese, “who do not see the Wooden Floor’s annual concert as a mere performance, but as a transformative opportunity for the children and choreographers alike. We are very selective and choose to work with people who we think will uplift our children.”
And Keely Garfield, a 2017 Guggenheim Fellow and Bessie award winner, certainly fits that bill. Her eponymous company, Keely Garfield Dance, has been widely commissioned and presented at theaters and festivals nationally and internationally, with the New York Times hailing her as an “artist working at the height of her powers.” Adding to her already illustrious CV, Garfield is a hospital chaplain in an end-of life and trauma care hospital in Brooklyn, her capacity for caring evident in her work with students at the Wooden Floor.
Garfield’s 20-minute piece, “Spoondrift,” features 26 students and has an original score by Jeff Berman, with the title, defined by Webster’s Dictionary as, “the spray of seawater blown from cresting waves during a gale.” For Garfield, the piece—her second for the organization—celebrates unity while also lifting each dancer’s uniqueness.
“We took the ocean as our inspiration, which means you can go in any direction,” explained Garfield. “It charts a course, like an odyssey, and starts off with the evocation of waves. Maybe it’s morning, and we proceed into the depths, [where] we’re caught up in murk—seaweed, coral —and figure out how to surface.
“All of those things,” she added, “lend themselves to emotional and spiritual healings [when] thinking about what these young people have lived through. The challenges in the world are also in the ecosystem of their bodies. Dance is a kind of healing container in which to express what needs to be expressed, and to tap into the resources they have built, to see them through the long haul.”
It’s obvious that Garfield’s work as a chaplain correlates to her work as a dancemaker. “I had begun to see more and more how the skill set that you’re trained in, what you’re required to study on your way to becoming a chaplain—the spiritual care competencies, training in active listening, in bearing witness, in providing compassionate presence, in affirming strengths, in helping people to connect with their hopes and their needs—I began to realize that all of these things that are part of the spiritual care tool box are ways in which I interact with dance and with dancers.”
Garfield went on to compare a chaplain’s milieu to the setting of a rehearsal: “You’re listening, you’re bearing witness by watching, you are present, you are affirming strength. As I came off this project in New York [“The Invisible Project”], the skill set applies equally to every project, and in particular, I think it was helpful with this piece I’m making now with the Wooden Floor. Cultivating that kind of awareness, or creating that kind of water for us to all swim around in, is very, very powerful.”
Audibly animated when talking about the organization, Garfield admitted that she, “loves, loves, loves, being at the Wooden Floor, with these incredible dancers. I was here in 2017, and, to tell the truth, I was waiting by the phone for them to call me back. The timing of things is perfect. Being able to come back now, after the pandemic, to tap into the resilience and the grace and the intense beauty that these young people bring, not just to the project, but to the world, I’m absolutely thrilled.”
Her empathy on full display, Garfield added that she can relate to some of the stories that the children have lived through. “I grew up in a home where it was difficult to dance. I didn’t have a lot of support for my dreams, my ambitions, in terms of becoming a dancer. And I think to myself, what my life would have been like if I had the Wooden Floor when I was young. Whether that sets you up to become a dance professional or to become a marine biologist, the integration of art and creativity, and emotional and physical well-being, that sets you up for life. It’s part of you. It’s there when they need it.”
Regarding Garfield’s process—music first or steps first—she said succinctly, “Nothing first! It goes back to this kind of centering I have in what I will call creative and spiritual practice. I want to get a feel for who’s in the room, for what the colors and textures and moods are in the room.
“Out of that, the first big thing,” she continued, “is actually about—rather than stepping in to all the gizmos and ideas—it’s much more about taking a step back, and another step back, and letting the space fire up and speak. Everything has to happen in real time: The choreography, the music—all of that is happening moment to moment. When I first started making dance I was looking for the holy grail. Now I feel more accepting and curious about what’s there.”
As to what the trio of choreographers wants audiences to take away from the performances, Heginbotham said he hopes that they leave the theater with, “an optimism, an idea that things can be beautiful.”
Indeed, positivity seems to run rampant at the Wooden Floor, with the concert’s title, “Limitless,” the perfect descriptor. “Forty years as a non-profit is a huge accomplishment,” gushed Bassage Bonfil. “And we feel we have another 40 years ahead of us. For my piece, I want the audience to understand the potential of these kids.”
And never at a loss for words, Garfield elucidated her desire for audiences to, “laugh and cry, and talk about it over dinner. I hope that people are moved; people are amazed. I hope people are a little bit perplexed. And I don’t mean to be cliché, but they should also feel inspired. As somebody who works in end-of-life care at the other end of the spectrum, I want audiences to remember that, by watching the dance, we are all just waves, but together we are the ocean.”