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Caleb Teicher's “More Forever.” Photograph by Em Watson

Works & Process: Caleb Teicher

The sound of sand and other things in Caleb Teicher's new work, “More Forever”

Nonchalance, inventive choreography and genre-bending collaboration are the hallmarks of New York-based tapper Caleb Teicher’s work. Teicher first made waves as a founding member of Michelle Dorrance’s innovative tap dance company, Dorrance Dance. Lauded by the New York Times for his “switchblade feet,” in 2011 Teicher took home a Bessie Award for outstanding individual performance. In 2015, Teicher founded his own troupe, Caleb Teicher & Company. CT & Co blends tap, vernacular jazz, Lindy Hop, and other American dance styles to reflect “a collective conscience within modern American culture.” 

Recently, CT & Co were invited to join the Guggenheim’s Works & Process series where they presented excerpts from “More Forever,” a new evening-length work set to premiere at the Guggenheim January 6 & 7, 2019. After the successful showing, we caught up with Caleb to learn a little bit more about “More Forever”—an eclectic piece set to music by Conrad Tao, incorporating sand, soft shoes, and various dance styles to create a rich tapestry of moves, grooves and sounds between him and six dancers.

At the Guggenheim’s Works & Process, we saw several excerpts of the full-length work, “More Forever.” How did you choose what to highlight, and what inspired/informed the different sections?

We shared the pieces that, in our minds, had seen the most development during our residency in the week prior. We were also curious to see how the order, pacing, and trajectory of certain pieces worked in relation to others, so we tried to show several pieces in our imagined order. 

“More Forever” also incorporates other dance styles within tap. What were some of the other influences and how did you work with the dancers on expanding the vocabulary?

The piece pulls from a lot of dance traditions that relate in a very direct way to music—tap dance, vernacular jazz, Lindy Hop. There are dance forms that intentionally articulate sound (tap); dance forms that don’t always intentionally articulate sound but make sound anyway (Lindy Hop). There are forms where physical connection is expected (Lindy Hop); and others where the connection between performers is primarily left to a sonic connection (tap, jazz). That gives us nearly endless tools to play with in creating a new vocabulary. All of these different dance forms, meeting together on sand (which has a particular sonic effect), and all of us wearing the same kind of shoe creates an equality in sound that evens the playing field for these forms to coexist.

The dancers in the company all have different backgrounds. Some are strictly tap dancers, others would primarily identify as Lindy Hoppers, and then others don’t really identify as anything in particular. By combining our shared values, experiences, and most frequent movement vocabularies, we’ve tried to create something that pulls from our collective interests and physical histories.

Establishing borders and crossing them is a motif I’ve noticed in your work here and in “Bzzz,”your Fall for Dance commission,with the dancers stepping on and off the floor, or in and out of light. Can you elaborate a little bit on this idea? 

Yeah, there’s a lot of playing with space in both works! I’m really interested in the idea of breaking conventions of what one “can” and “cannot” do in a piece. What are the unspoken rules of our world? How do they get there? And, depending on what effect we’d like to have on each other and the audience, how do we break or follow those rules? In “Bzzz,” that was exemplified in stepping on and off the prescribed “tap floor.” We’re supposed to dance on that floor exclusively, but dancing off it (and back onto it!) is a very simple way of saying, “This world has more possibilities available if one chooses to be creative. We, the dancers, have agency and the ability to decide how our space relates to us.”

How would you describe the musical score by Conrad Tao and what was that collaborative process like? 

I find Conrad’s music very emotional (without picking one specific emotion). Some pieces feel mournful, others are playful, and sometimes the complex embroidered arrangements seem to reflect everything one could feel as a human—we’re complicated emotional beings, after all.

We’ve spent a lot of time in conversation, talking about our shared values and what we hope to express together in the piece (which we usually keep to ourselves), and then it departs from there in many different ways. Some pieces have been fully composed by Conrad with very little editing or interruption or contribution from me. Other compositions are directly inspired by choreographic ideas I set on the dancers and then shared with Conrad. Usually, though, it’s somewhere messy in the middle—sections get rearranged, tempos and notes and musicals moments get revised to accommodate choreography, and we change to match Conrad’s ideas. That’s collaboration!

We’ve been very fortunate to have Conrad in the room for every major residency rehearsal we’ve had. From what I know, that’s not common for music/dance collaborations. Usually, the composer and choreographer work primarily by volleying mp3s, rehearsal clips, and emails back and forth. Having Conrad in the room allows his reactions and his ideas to flow seamlessly into the dance side of the composition.

You’ve mentioned the importance and joy of social dancing before. How does that reflect in your choreography?

I very rarely direct individual performances of my company members. I create the steps and do so for a reason, but then I let the dancers embody it with their perspectives and interpretations. When one goes out social dancing, no one says to that person, “This is how you should feel when you swing dance to Benny Goodman’s music! This is the happy song! Go dance a happy dance!” Social dance is a vessel for what feels like it needs to be expressed in the present moment. I trust my dancers to not act, to show their natural selves, and for that to be far more interesting than any contrived ideas of drama I could try to impose upon them.

Quite frequently, though, joy seems to be a common expression of my group. We enjoy dancing together, we feel moved to dance by the music that is played, and we do not feel the need to hide that joy for our performances to be “taken seriously.” If I feel joyful on stage, I hope I show it—and if I feel something else, I hope I show that as well.

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