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Wendy Osserman celebrates 40 years of authentic dance

Wendy Osserman in Greece in 1964. Photo courtesy of Osserman.

You can learn about dance history by going to the library and losing yourself in the books. Or, you can learn about it face to face, in her loft apartment down the block from the flower shops. I met Wendy Osserman to discuss what inspires her, what she is working on, and her incredible accomplishment of creating dance and presenting her company for 40 years.

Wendy Osserman. Photo courtesy of Osserman.

Wendy Osserman. Photo courtesy of Osserman.

Osserman has been choreographing and performing since the early 1960s, studying with greats like Martha Graham, José Limón, and Valerie Bettis, and performing works by Alice Condodina (a Limón dancer), Kei Takei, Frances Allenikoff and Bettis, among others. She studied ballet, jazz, flamenco, African, theater and mime, in addition to modern dance, and decided to begin choreographing when she was ready to discover her own way of moving.

“I remember wanting to find my style, thinking that I don’t want to look like the people I’ve studied with, who were great,” she shares. “But what’s the point of copy cats? It made me very uptight, and I thought, okay, I won’t move very much. Apparently a lot of other people went through that! Paul Taylor sat in a chair and critics wouldn’t review him… so then you find your own way of moving, the way you like to move. And then you think, ‘That is boring to me, and maybe to the audience, because I’ve done that before.’ This is because the ‘new’ is feeling exciting.”

After decades of creating and always searching for the “new”, Osserman says she is still constantly inspired to make new works, to have a voice and share that voice with an audience. And while she is inspired by themes and events, books and artwork, she draws her greatest inspiration from her dancers.

“In the last few years, I trust the dancers so much,” Osserman says. “I can give them my thought process and see how they manifest it. Maybe I didn’t do that so much before, but now I almost feel it’s not politically correct to tell them exactly what to do! They look so much better doing their version of what I am doing or thinking that I am thrilled to go that way with them. It’s not even my movement; it is a bit, but it’s their interpretation of it. The dancers usually take to this [process] because it is a bit different from other companies, so someone doesn’t necessarily need to be working with me for years to get that. It’s more that if it suits them to explore that way — it’s improvisation, of course — then we are off and running. So, very much it’s gotten more collaborative.”

The Wendy Osserman Dance Company playbill.

The Wendy Osserman Dance Company playbill.

I was thrilled to be able to bring our discussion and her movement together by seeing the three works presented this season: two premieres, including a solo for Osserman and a contrasting work from 1985. Wondering what made her put together a program that included an older work as well as a solo for herself, she explained that they fit under the umbrella of a theme: the passage of time. In the work, she says, “It’s not a narrative; It’s already abstracted, and it comes as a feeling, tone or metaphor in the pieces that, to me, are about now.”

Her solo took the theme most literally, using spoken words to illustrate her relationship with time, often very humorously, and a fear that time might not treat her well and mother her, and instead might leave her faster than she expects.

“Usually there is a theme, and this one is time,” Osserman explains. “For me to be feeling: ‘How much time am I going to keep doing this, especially the dancing? How is that going to affect my choreography if I cannot demonstrate something?’ So time is on my mind. And every year I say to myself, ‘You don’t have to do this every year. Take a break’, because when it’s production time, it’s really exhausting… I want to be dancing well and bringing it all together well, too. Then I say to myself, ‘If you don’t like it, then don’t do it!’ Yes, the dancers will be sad, but then I always want to do another season because there is always material.”

Wendy Osserman. Photo courtesy of Osserman.

Wendy Osserman. Photo courtesy of Osserman.

It was in the final work of the program that I was profoundly struck by an understanding of something Osserman had told me about her movement style. Four dancers cycled through solos, duets, and the group, each dancing with a distinct, individual style although still easily moving harmoniously with one another, their movements appearing to flow entirely naturally from their body, with a complete freedom that seemed to stem from the ability to make choices about their steps. I found myself compelled to move with them, not to dance and do steps but to really move and bend and tilt and swerve. I realized I was experiencing the sight of “Authentic Movement”, a practice that emerged when Osserman was developing as a young professional dancer.

“What I do is this process called Authentic Movement,” she says. “It’s hard to do on your own — you need a witness. The witness watches and doesn’t criticize in any negative way or objective way. It’s all subjective in fact, very hands-off in the way of giving you any instructions. There is nothing you have to do at all. I find that amazing, and that it always brings material to me. It’s improvisation but a little bit more forceful because you do it with eyes closed and you go inside yourself, where you become your own witness. It’s an emotional way of working that came to me from many years of working with a primal theater group. I always felt that moving made you feel like another character in yourself. We have so many ways of being, and movement can right away change your character. Acting and dance to me were very much the same.”

The newness, the nowness, the authentic modernity of one’s current self, these things are all inherently part of time and are all something Osserman wants her audiences to take from her show. She says she wants you to feel “that excitement of always wanting to experience newness with your body and seeing how the dancers love that, too, and how amazing they are”. And she feels it from her dancers, too, explaining, “They do things that I never really thought I could do, so it’s such a pleasure! I am looking forward to sitting out there and seeing them from the audience because they blow me away every night. There will be shifts in the way they perform… They have a lot of freedom. They have things they are supposed to be thinking, but they have a lot of freedom.”

Lauren Ferguson and Emily Vetsch of Wendy Osserman Dance. Photo by Dariel Sneed, courtesy of Arts Brookfield.

Lauren Ferguson and Emily Vetsch of Wendy Osserman Dance. Photo by Dariel Sneed, courtesy of Arts Brookfield.

You may next catch Osserman while she is in North Carolina, where she spends eight months of the year. She has choreographed for the community theater and is planning to work on an improv group with the local director, as well as theater pieces with singing, dancing and acting. Whether it’s her next season here in New York or a new venture down south, her 74 years have led to a life filled with art of all different sorts and a vivacity that sweeps you right along with her. She rocked her theatrical dance solo, and we saw a little bit inside her self, which is ultimately the most important element.

“What is it about on the inside?” she asks. “That is what we really look at — the artistry of the dancer.”

By Leigh Schanfein of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Wendy Osserman in Greece in 1964. Photo courtesy of Osserman.

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