As the May show of #unprotected is coming together—opening tonight at the Erickson Theatre!*—I thought it would be interesting to ask the three male Whim W’Him dancers, to reflect on this year’s season. (The women had a say in an earlier post on Annabelle Lopez Ochoa‘s new piece, Les Biches.) The biggest external change this year has been that the dancers, instead of being a pickup group hired on just for a particular piece in a particular show, have been under contract for the whole season. But the greatest internal difference is the effect of this new regime on relations of the dancers to each other and to their art.
Jim Kent is the dancer who has been with Whim W’Him longest of its current crew.
The first time I talked to him for a blog profile, in 2009, he said that the hardest aspect of his then life was trying to schedule his various activities—from waiting tables to playing the piano for dance classes to dancing in a variety of programs with several different groups—avoiding conflicts. Now he is supporting himself entirely via the performing arts.
“Because we have regular hours to count on Monday-Friday, over the period of 6-7 weeks at a time,” says Jim, “we’re in the studio together as a company quite a bit more. We see each other on a regular basis and in effect, the day-to-day interaction colors our experience and ultimately makes us all a bit more comfortable with each other. It feels like there’s more trust, humor, and a lightness to learning choreography. It doesn’t take away the challenge or the new levels that complexity
“One thing I love is that we take turns teaching a warm-up class to each other. Besides being given space to warm up, we’re doing something together as a company that isn’t choreography or creative, it’s something that is essentially upping our game as dancers.
“There’s also a social aspect to it that feeds us in a way. When we’re learning new material or developing partnering, Olivier often jokes a lot about ‘mind-reading’ and ‘why can’t you read my mind??’ He’s joking, but he’s really not. Being in the company this long and building this relationship with him, as he hones his choreographic voice, it has been a fun challenge to anticipate what Olivier wants. WWOD (What Would Olivier Do?). Knowing what he probably wants and executing it the way he wants is the never-ending challenge.”
Kyle Matthew Johnson has been affiliated with Whim W’Him since he understudied for Approaching Ecstasy in May of 2012, then danced in the next season’s Crave More.
I asked him how he’s seen Whim W’Him develop in his time with the company.
“I would say that the biggest changes I have noticed in the past two shows since the dancers were under contract,” he reports, “is the closeness of the relationships of the dancers. Inside and outside the studio. And that shows in the work—as we become more in tune with each others’ movement styles and qualities, we become better, blending together into a cohesive ensemble.
“For instance, I am performing a pas de deux with Tory in [Olivier’s new piece] Above the Cloud. We’ve danced together in five pieces now, and it is evident in the studio how comfortable we have grown dancing together. We know where each other’s center of balance is, and how far off we can take that balance without losing control. We are also a lot more comfortable telling each other if something the other is doing isn’t working, so we are able to fix it faster, and without getting annoyed.
“You can sense that throughout the ensemble, of course we still have room to grow, but we have only been together like this for [part of] a year. So next year at this time the growth will be all the more evident.”
Thomas Phelan, the newest of the three male Whimmers, joined the company last fall.
“As I continue to work with Whim W’Him,” he says, “I’ve now had some time to reflect on the experience. I’ve definitely started getting a taste for what makes Whim W’Him… Whim W’Him. It’s not just Olivier, the other choreographers, the dancers or the stylistic movement we use. It’s this kind of flavor—that we all contribute to.
“I’m definitely being pushed as a dancer and an artist. I’m constantly inspired by the other dancers in the company. They are all so talented!!! The dancing and movement we are asked to perform presents its own set of challenges. Of course each choreographer has a different ‘voice’ but they all demand an awareness and focus on the movements of the body. Not necessarily totally in control all the time, but aware of what you’re engaging and being asked to do.
“Overall, the biggest thing I’ve noticed with Whim W’Him is how each show, each piece, really builds its own world, its own context. When you go to a Whim W’Him show you have to be prepared to suspend your idea of reality and travel somewhere else for a bit.”