Benjamin Wardell/The Nexus Project: It’s Complicated

Benjamin Wardell and Michel Cintra.

It starts with two men working with 12 different choreographers separately, then they take the material and remix it. In the meantime, funds need to be raised, a venue found and confirmed and the final product created. Much like the mind behind The Nexus Project – it’s complicated. Benjamin Wardell is not new to the Chicago dance world. He danced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago for four seasons in a wide range of works by Nacho Duato, Alonzo King and many by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, among others. After he left Hubbard Street, most thought he’d retired from dance and/or moved away. Lucky for us, he didn’t.

Before coming to Chicago, the Memphis-native danced for the Cincinnati Ballet and Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. Now a freelance dancer (a touring stint with Azure Barton and Artists and currently with Lucky Plush Productions), he’s also teaching at Extensions Dance Center, Visceral Dance Center and occasionally at Lou Conte Dance Center. He’s the official videographer for Luna Negra Dance Theater and River North Dance Chicago as well as a freelance photographer. He also does repetiteur work setting piece from the Hubbard Street rep around the country and is in charge of the company’s summer intensive program in Iowa. “I’m all over the place,” he said. “For me, that’s great. My brain is in 20 places at once. Whenever I would get into a company, I would eventually feel compressed by the lack of variety. Even just going in the same building every day. Now, I’m in so may place that I stay calm to make sure I don’t forget anything. That lifestyle works better for my internal make-up.” ?For the upcoming project he’s teaming up with dancer Michel Rodriguez Cintro (of Hedwig Dances) and a dozen local choreographers for an exciting and ambitious project tentatively scheduled to premiere later this fall.

RB sat down with Wardell earlier this year to talk about his career, past and present.

Hubbard Street is currently in collaboration with Alonzo King/LINES Ballet. You’ve previously said that working with Alonzo for a long period of time is transformative and that it changes the way you dance. Is it also emotionally taxing?

Yes. He pushes really hard. The work is not particularly emotive, but it?s emotionally taxing because you?re always pushing really hard. He expects you to always be generating thought. In a way, your creativity with your movement maxes out, because he always wants it to be different every time and you perform the same piece like 130 times, but if you do it the same 2 or 3 times, he?ll call you out on it. “You need to explore that section of movement in a different way.” Part of the transformation was how to get creative doing the same movements and embracing the constant change. One of the good things is it prevents that subtle death of the choreography where it starts to look comfortable.

When you decided to leave Hubbard Street, what was going through your head?

I started to realize I wasn?t built for companies. It?s becoming easier to freelance and the sound of being in control of what I was doing was appealing. I thought it was pliable for me to do. I got to the point where I?d achieved all my institutional goals.?At this point, I?d rather make something new that?s a “swing and a miss” than do a masterpiece that was made for someone else. I found myself at this place where I wanted to be generating stuff rather than learning choreography. That combined with I was getting into video and photo work and wanted to explore those avenues. I needed to be on my own in a way that I could do a lot of things. I had a vague thought about wanting to produce work, but that was the least part of my original plans.?

Why did you call the new project The Nexus Project?

I’d been calling it the “Two Man Show” since it’s inception, but I though that was a little generic for product packaging. I talked to a friend of mine that does marketing and he said I should have an overarching name. “The Nexus Project” was the first thing I came up with. The idea for the project, having all the choreographers and an open rehearsal process for the second half, is that the two of us, rather than being in a bubble, are the crossing point for all the spokes.

How did you pick Michel?

He choreographed for The A.W.A.R.D.S. Show and I was like ?who the fuck is this guy and how have I lived here for two years and not know him?? I saw Chino (Michel’s nickname) dance and was shocked that he would be in this city and I had no idea. So I?introduced myself.?I need to find another guy that I can share the stage with for an hour and be on even ground with and who is available to do the amount of rehearsals needed. That list was short, because of all the demands.

How did you pick the choreographers (*listed below)?

It took me three or four months to hash out the project, it was a pretty slow process. It started off with just wanting to explore male duets. So a two-man show, then I started to think about my particular strengths and weaknesses. I?m not good with or particularly good at generating movement. That was a bit tricky. So what if I work with other choreographers? What am I good at? Outside of dancing, my secondary talent or other interest is coordinating people and finding connections between disparate parts, partly because my brain exists in that place. The way that things connect is how I see thing.?I love complexity, so I should make a complicated process, because I?m going to feel at home in it. It?s going to tap into my capacity spectrum. Part of it was wanting to deal with the hierarchy of dance. Every choreography has a different methodology, but the way dance gets made is essentially the same in terms of the choreographer coming into the room and being in charge and making a piece and then leaving. That basic structure doesn?t really change. I?ve never been in a process that has more choreographers than dancers. Let?s try that. And, frankly, I just like the number 12.

Is there a choreographic theme to the show?

No. This is one of the aspects of the show that I?m most proud of – the process. It wasn?t one of my goals, it?s something I realized had happened once the process was set. The 12 choreographers have that truly rare consequence-free environment. That have two dancers who can do pretty much anything they can come up with, who are willing to try whatever, from the most risky to the most strange. We will do whatever you ask us with zero judgment. They get 12 hours of rehearsal each and they get to keep the work, but they’ve given us permission to use them. The choreographers came from wanting to represent the community, to give credit to all the stuff going on. I want people to have total freedom. At the end of February, whether they’ve finished their piece or not, I’m done with that phase of the project and need to move onto the second, which is the remixing process, an open rehearsal process (for donors) and putting the show together. A big part of why the second part is open is that studio time is our favorite time as dancers and yet we never let anyone in.?

What are your hopes for The Nexus Project?

In terms of the final show and guaranteeing it being not terrible, priority number one is ?Don?t Suck!? Especially if you?re trying something new. It?s terrifying because this is all my little new idea and I haven?t had any experience with it aside from having a choreographer set work on me. The basis of the show that will make it at the very least not a waste of time, is that they?re going to come see some good damn dancing. You?re going to see two real good male dancers who are real good at dancing with each other and can hold a 60-70 minute show no matter what we?re doing. I felt like we would get better at dancing together more quickly if we had to work with a bunch of different choreographers than if we were spending the same number of hours just doing our own thing. It?s hard to avoid self-indulgence when you?re totally in charge. Having to go from style to style, I feel like we?ve gotten to know each other?s dancing fairly quickly.

For more details on The Nexus Project and to donate to the Kickstarter campaign (ends Wednesday, Jan. 23!) click here.

*Choreographers include: Harrison McEldowney, Francisco Avina, Autumn Eckman, Robyn Mineko Williams, Julia Rhoads, Penny Saunders, Ron De Jesus, Jonathan Meyer and Julia Rae Antonick (Kechari), Nicolas Blanc, Jonathan Fredrickson, Matthew McMunn and Daniel “Brave Monk” Haywood.

 

Preview: Lucky Plush’s The Better Half

The cast of "The Better Half". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Tonight at the MCA Stage, Lucky Plush Productions (LPP) opens a two weekend run of its new production The Better Half.? A 75-minute collaboration between LLP Artistic Director Julia Rhoads and physical theater troupe 500 Clown Co-Founder Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, this new work puts a modern, interactive twist on the psychological thriller Gaslight (1944 movie based on the Patrick Hamilton play Angel Street) where a husband tries to make his wife believe she’s losing her mind.? The Better Half incorporates characters, text, lighting (Heather Gilbert) and sound (Mikhail Fiksel) cues and a heave dose of reality to keep the story evolving in real time on stage.? Add in costumes by Jeff Hancock and you have the setting for a fun, creative collaboration living inside a live, artistic whodunit?

I spoke with Rhoads earlier this week about her process and the new work.

I’m embarrassed to say, I think the last thing I saw Lucky Plush perform was Lulu Sleeps (2005). (*Side note:? After viewing the repertoire on LPP’s website, I’m happy to say I have seen most of the recent work, although I did miss last year’s hit Punk Yankees.) ?? Back then, you were incorporating theatrical elements, but recently you seem to be adding even more theatrics and humor.? Is that a different direction you’ve taken over the years, or is it just because I’ve missed some of your work?

I think it?s both.? One of our first works has been our longest standing work which we?ve done over and over is Endplay (2003).? That work has a (Samuel) Beckett play inside of it and is very much about human relationships and about the performers on stage and how they?re interacting and negotiating with each other.? I think that piece had a real liveliness to it that I?m interested in now in my work.? One thing that was a big game-changer for me was Cinderbox 18 (2007).? It just was kind of a magical process.? That was a process in which I started to think more about the liveness, the immediacy of being in performance and having the performers be in a state of response to each other, so it?s less like every move and detail is set and choreographed?there was a real openness.? I did this thing back then where I?d write a little note down for each of them some unknown element that they had to accomplish during the run.? Some of them ended up being in the show in a fantastic way and some of them miserably failed, but the best thing is it wasn?t really meant to find new things to add to the show, it was just a bonus if something really landed.? What it did was put the performers in a constant state of presence because they had no idea what the changes were going to be and what someone might do to change the game.? Even though the sections and the structure and the movement was set, there were things that would happen that they would have to deal with and respond in a very real-time way.? It was just such an exciting process for me.? Since 2007, and really going back to Endplay, I really want the audience to feel like they are knowing the performer, that it was really about the people and not just the dancers being sort of a non-subjective entity.?

This process in The Better Half is even going more in that direction.? Accessibility is really important.? I think it?s sometimes perceived as a dirty word.? I think accessibility is great.? You can be incredibly intelligent and accessible.? It doesn?t mean you?re diluting the content, it just means you?re allowing the audience to enter into it and to maybe laugh or maybe feel like they?re included.? This process has moved more into the dialogue…it?s more narrative.? The dialogue is in service to character development. Narrative, at the same time, we?re doing something very familiar to LPP?s body of work.? We?re also the performers that arrive at the MCA when we start.? We all show up and we get a name of a character.? We get character descriptions.? We hear this vague synopsis of a play.? My character, Mrs. Manningham hears that another person is called Mr. Manningham, so really all we know is presumably, we?re married, so we start to negotiate having a relationship in real time.? Things start to happen.? There?s kind of a loop structure, like reset button, but each time, the consequences change?grows more into the Gaslight story.? The way we hope the work is going to land is kind of fun look at contemporary domestic relationships.? It?s about the five of us being in the space together and negotiating roles that we?ve taken on or that have been imposed on us…how we grow into them.? The loop structure is about routinization that happens in relationships, sometimes how we bring our habits and our role to a relationship and then it?s like that forever.? You can recast yourself in a relationship, but it?s going to take a lot of work.? The piece wants to speak to all of those things, how you want to jump script sometimes and how you find the resilience within a marriage or a domestic relationship.? It?s fun and it?s funny and it has all of those elements, but it also lands with a real resonance about the question of can two people spend their lives together?

When the characters are getting the descriptions, is someone on stage telling them? How is that interacting happening?

In the beginning we?re sort of being directed by light.? Light plays a really important role, light and sound, and we?re directed to a place on stage and one of the characters is directed to a place in the audience where there?s a podium with a binder that has the Gaslight synopsis.? He?s privy to information that he?s one of us too.? It says there?s another character and he gives himself the role of detective.? He comes into the story and is in it for the remaining?being with us on stage as new narratives are proposed.? There are about five or six scripts that we?re sort of navigating through.? There are real time consequences for introducing those scripts and being inside of them and how it ultimately lands back in this central marriage.

How did the collaboration with Leslie come about?? Have you worked together before?

We?ve known each other for a while.? The thing that really drew us to each other is that she?s also interested in the immediacy of presence with the audience and having a real time experience.? She?s also interested in humor.? We?re a really good fit for each other. ?She came in during Cinderbox 18.? I asked her to come in to give feedback to the process.? I liked her language and I was really excited by her point of view.? She had seen my work and I think she felt the same way.? She?s really drawn to physicality.? Her work is physical theater and she?s really drawn to dance and physical vocabulary as a way to move a story forward.? We started talking about doing something together a couple of years ago. We’re both really excited about this work.

Lucky Plush Productions’ The Better Half, Oct 27-29 & Nov 3, 5, 6

MCA Stage, 220 E. Chicago, 312.397.4010