Adam Barruch, one of 3 choreographers chosen by the Whim W’Him dancers from over 100 entries to create a new piece for the 2017 Choreographic Shindig, is a soft-spoken, polite, and intense presence. His professional life began early. Already by the age of 9, he was a child actor in community theater. As time went on, he acquired an agent, “performing professionally on Broadway and in film and television, working with prominent figures such as Tony Bennett, Jerry Herman and Susan Stroman” (as noted on the website of his company, Anatomiae Occultii). “My parents were great,” he says, “not stage parents.” While he was in school, though he did some fairly local traveling, they wouldn’t let him go on tour. To expand his abilities, Adam took some jazz classes and discovered a knack for picking up movement easily. When he enrolled in Laguardia High School of Music & art and Performing Arts for dance, he was not thinking about contemporary dance, but expected to stay in musical theater. Three years later, at the age of 16, Adam graduated early and was accepted into the Julliard dance program.
There life was not what he expected. “Things went bad,” he says. “It became a sort of dead end for me.” Growing up fast, the intensity of the classes, and the newness of everything brought on a crisis. Adam started out so young that performing had always been just natural and fun. “But now I lost my joy in dance. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t feel that anymore. When I worked when I was younger, I wasn’t afraid. It never crossed my mind.” At Julliard, however, the director didn’t support his form of creativity, and he “felt stifled, burnt out and damaged. Everything seemed too intense. My anxiety scared me, and I realized I’d have to take myself out of it.” So in just under 2 years at Julliard, Adam dropped out. “I had no other option.” Clearly never one to do things by halves, he quit not only school but dance “forever.” He knew he had talent, and he’s kept in touch with friends and faculty from his Julliard days, but at the time felt he simply “didn’t know how to utilize it in a free and safe way. I felt injured.”
It was a strange state to be in for this formerly enthusiastic and buoyant youth. “At Juilliard, I tried to find a way of creating that felt relevant and safe to me, to counter the fear I had about movement,” Adam says, so now he started making dramatic, non-movement-oriented pieces. “Monologues. Textual works. Going back to my roots as an actor. Any movement had to have an emotional impulse or reason behind it, rather than being abstract or architectural.” One of his Julliard teachers had said, “‘Movement is emotional,’ but I didn’t get it.” Then he saw Pina Bausch’s work. “That changed everything—not so much the theatricality of the productions, but the women, how they were sensual and gestural—and I thought, ‘I can do that!’”
Something similar had happened when he was younger with Bob Fosse, and that seems to be how Adam often operates. As he says, he gets “fixations on artists or styles”—all the way back to when he saw a revival of Chicago at the age of 11 in 1998. It’s a propensity to more or less swallow whole the work of those he admires, until they become part of who he is and what he does subsequently, though later on he may lose interest and not consciously think about them anymore. I’ve been reading a collection of essays, Making an Elephant, by Booker Prize winning author Graham Swift, where he broaches the subject of ‘influences’: “How writers affect other writers is as mysterious and misunderstood as how writers are made in the first place. The word ‘influence’ itself is misleading. It assumes that one writer’s writing can directly shape and inform another’s, as it can, but surely the most important influences aren’t influences in this sense at all. They are those other writers who, though they may not leave on you any stylistic mark, yet ignite or reignite your simple desire to write.” The same is equally true in other arts.
Adam was entranced by Bausch, “but there wasn’t any entrée. Her website said Do Not Contact and she generally didn’t hold auditions.” Then, to his astonishment, right after he left Julliard, he saw a notice about an audition for men. “That’s just what I need,” he thought and went off to try. He naively thought he might get the job at only 18 years old. “Nope.” It was too soon. He was too young and unready. “But I had had exposure to her on that one occasion, and I learned from the audition. I had received in person a suggestion of what was there. Afterward, I would think, ‘What would I do if I were in the studio with her.’ I became obsessed and watched her videos compulsively.” Before another audition opportunity came along, however, Pina Bausch passed away, and “the company no longer had the same allure for me. I had wanted to work with her. After that I didn’t look any more or care.” It wasn’t necessary. Adam had internalized what he needed to know from Pina, and, to paraphrase the Swift quote above, she had reignited his dancer’s simple desire to dance.
From there, Adam went on to dance with Sylvain Émard Danse in Montreal and to work with The Margie Gillis Dance Foundation, performing and researching Conflict Transformation as part of The Legacy Project. Margie Gillis—whose Dancing from the Inside Out program focuses on the body’s experiential wisdom—became a mentor to him. “I get her work, ideologically and physically,” he says, and praising her “Textural, interior landscapes,” an approach that has deeply affected him.
He also did a lot of collaborative work with “my dear friend and muse” Chelsea Bonosky, whom he met at Springboard Danse Montreal in 2008 and who also has many talents. In addition to dancing with Adam, Chelsea does freelance modeling, is a trained Pilates instructor and Reiki II certified, works as social media correspondent for The AXIS Connect, and is an active member and fundraiser for Dancers Responding to AIDS. The partnership resulted in the formation of Anatomiae Occultii, what Adam calls his “own company-ish.” The name comes from a “fascination with the human body, and the way it functions.” An article in Dance Pulp quotes him: “I have always found drawings of the human anatomy beautiful, in the fact that they can be poetic and completely mechanical at the same time. There is a code and intelligence in their architecture that brings me solace. I think the sketches of the human anatomy in Leonardo DaVinci’s notebooks are some of the most beautiful ever created. I also have a fondness for anatomical illustrations from Medieval texts where knowledge of the human body is still primitive, many including celestial bodies with their physical counterparts. The subtle anatomy in many of the Eastern and mystical traditions of the world beautifully illustrate how the creative energy of universe interweaves with the physical. My favorite illustration is one called ‘Anatomiae Occulti.’
Adam also draws and eventually has used some of the designs in clothing. “There was a time when I lost interest in moving the body through space, and so I began drawing bodies on paper. It was an emotionally dense time in my life, and movement was no longer a safe mode of expression. Sketching became an incredibly potent and private way to express myself. I was interested in images that were corporeal in nature, but elusive and deeply psychological. As I began to hide my thoughts alongside the bodies, these amorphous and fluid images began to occur…. Over the years, the drawings have become less of an emotional release, and more of a meditation. Each drawing adds to the arsenal of images and textures that I use in every work, as well as the rules that govern them…. No one thing is more or less important than the next, and each finished work is a collection of many negotiations and compromises.”
He continues: “I think that what interests me in so many of these images, is the same thing that dance allows me to do. The melding of the body and spirit.” It is not surprising then that, as the publicity for February 2018’s Chop Shop Contemporary Dance Festival puts it, Anatomiae Occultii “encompasses all of the performative and visual/design work of Adam Barruch” and “strives to produce work that explores the interior landscapes of the human experience.” It is always collaborative with Chelsea,” Adam says. In the past it has worked better to have the pieces set, rather than improvised, although now we work a lot with structured improvisation. “I had wanted to bottle the free-form textures we played with in the studio and realized it was impossible. It was then I decided to just allow a certain freedom in performance which is totally authentic to the moment.”
Adam is highly aware of his good fortune in having had direct, personal contact “with all those—the ones still alive—whose work I have loved.” A perfect example is Stephen Sondheim, a new version/interpretation of whose Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the most ambitious undertaking of Anatomiae Occultii to date. This complex and extended “passion project” began in 2008, when Adam did a “mad solo, a sort of funny Marcel Marceau-like spoof of the Sweeney Todd role.” Angela Lansbury’s role in Sweeney Todd role.” One mentor of his suggested that if he could get the rights it might be an amazing project to do the entire show.
In fact Sondheim himself saw a performance and eventually gave Adam and Anatomiae Occultii all the rights to investigate the score with movement. Adam describes meeting with Sondheim as “one of the scariest days of my life—very intimidating. He’s always been in my life.” Adam adds that the composer was also very kind and generous. “He tells what he thinks—he’s 87—it’s like talking to the Wizard of Oz or God. It was a very humanizing experience to meet him. He was so intelligent.” Adam recalls with a wry smile how he went on talking about how he saw all the things Sondheim’s work symbolizes. “But no. It was more like a mood he was capturing.” It was a bit like earnestly pouring out to a great painter one’s ideas about all the profound significance some particular color holds in his work and the artist remarking, “It’s the only color I had.” Adam comments, “Sondheim is so brilliant, a puzzle-solver and in no way self-indulgent. He wants to write for character and for the show. And there are certain things I get chills from. Where did this come from? What a choice! I’m in awe.” You especially hear the subtlety and complexity in the piano score. “The note is always not quite what you think it is. You realize you’ve been hearing it all wrong.”
Anatomiae Occultii’s Sweeney Todd project is a long-term one. In September 2015, Adam was the DANCEworks choreographer-in-residence at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California. A group of 6 performers from New York—”immersive theater performers, major movers who can act”—along with Chelsea and Margie, collaborated with to develop a new interpretation of the musical, “emphasizing the role of the body in portraying both character and narrative.”
As the company website describes it, “In this scaled down production, the role of the dancer in the musical theater genre has been expanded as never before. Each performer must convey their character both vocally and physically, while also using their body to portray other inanimate phenomena in the production, from Sweeney’s famed razors to the ocean that carries him back to London. The goal of the 4-week process was to begin adapting the material and create a new paradigm that would eventually be used to stage a full-scale production. By the end of that period, the company had finished staging the musical material of Act One and performed it onstage to enthusiastic critics and audiences.” Adam’s own appraisal of the Santa Barbara experience: “Nothing was wrong with that month. It was perfect.”
In October 2016, another 2-week residency was held in Manhattan. The cast re-examined the material generated in Santa Barbara and held two studio showings at the Signature Theatre. And next month, the whole cast will reunite in upstate New York at Lake Placid Center for the Arts to work on Act II. Adam estimates that it will probably be another couple of years before the production is fully realized.
When I asked Adam yesterday “Why Sweeney Todd in particular? What is it about the Demon Barber that so captivates you?” he replied, “It’s my favorite, and also seemed to work the best. It’s a piece that is operatic, with bold characters that allow for a larger than life interpretation. Also, it’s a score that has an extreme amount of specificity… beats written in where movement onstage occurs. It’s almost like a choreographic blueprint in itself.”
UP NEXT: Adam Barruch comes to Whim W’Him, with some beautiful Bamberg Fine Art Photography rehearsal images