WOU in the news: Les Watanabe on Alvin Ailey, Lar Lubovitch, Donald McKayle and his life in dance

Picture of Les Watanabe preforming "Reflection in D" choreographed by Alvin Ailey.

At 2 and 7:30 pm on Saturday, January 21, Laura Stilwell, Felice Moskowitz, Terry Brock and Emma Mochnick will dance Les Watanabe’s Love Songs, part of Fertile Ground’s Groovin’ Greenhouse, hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre.

I was initially interested in learning more about Watanabe when I heard that Love Songs was being performed by a cast of older, retired dancers. As an aging dancer I am always interested in how other dancers feel about aging and performing in a culture that vastly prefers youth. I also learned that Watanabe, currently an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance at Western Oregon University, had had a rich, prolific performing career with some of America’s great, early modern dance pioneers, including Alvin Ailey and Lar Lubovitch.

I was astounded that I had lived in Portland for five years and had never heard of Watanabe, so I decided I had to talk with him and learn more about him.

Over several days last week we chatted via email, and that conversation unfolds below.

It is my understanding that you have made a dance for a group of retired professional dancers. Is this true?

Not exactly true. Laura Stilwell is a jazz singer, producer, choreographer…but hasn’t danced in quite a few years I believe. Felice Moskowitz is a teacher of dance; she is no longer performing but is full-time committed to Arts education. Terry Brock is a tap dancer/teacher/choreographer who has guest engagements, internationally. All three are older: one is in her 50s and the other two are in their 60s. My fourth dancer, Emma Mochnick, has just now graduated from Western Oregon University.

What prompted this choice?

My choice was made for these dancers because of their full life experiences and maturity to convey emotions.

Can you tell me about your piece? What inspired it, and what your creative process is like?

Inspired by the intriguing and deeply emotional music of Cuban singer Bola de Nieve, Love Songs captures love in its varied forms and meanings, from longing to joy, to the pain of unrequited love

It is inspired by Bola de Nieve’s music. As I was listening to his music one night, I suddenly wanted to do a dance to three songs. Immediately, four dancers came to mind. Each person I thought had an affinity to the particular song. This was most important for me that psychologically these separate dancers could find a connection, physical and emotional, to Bola De Nieve’s music. Once this was established, well then the steps would take care of themselves. In each case, the emotional guided the physicality of the dance.

Les Watanabe in ‘Sojourn’ by Donald McKayle, Inner City Repertory Company. Photographed by Martha Swope in NY. 1972. Photos courtesy of Les Watanabe.

I would love to know more about your performing career and what it was like to work with Donald McKayle, Lar Lubovitch, Joyce Trisler, Alvin Ailey, Burch Mann, Sachiyo Ito and Peter Gross. Could you share a few special memories of working with these great choreographers, and your take away from the experiences and how you got into the companies to begin with? Did you have any favorite roles and why?

Re: Donald McKayle
When I was at UC Irvine beginning my dance career, a friend of mine said that if I ever had the opportunity, that I should audition for Donald McKayle as she knew we would ‘hit it off.’ Well, a year or so later, I heard that Donald McKayle had relocated to Los Angeles from New York and that he was auditioning for his dance company. Of course, I auditioned…and my friend was right: we did hit it off immediately. So I transferred to Cal Arts, where Donald was teaching.
I began working with his company in the evening, first learning all of his famous works such as Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder, District Storyville and Nocturne. The experience was both fantastic, all consuming and so very demanding.

Rainbow Round My Shoulder, one of Donald’s signature works, is considered one of the most demanding works in modern dance. If done the way it should be done—with passion and commitment— one is forever changed, both as a dancer and as a person. I underwent this transformation and am eternally grateful to Donald McKayle. I consider him the most influential person in my life. I worked on and off with him for 20 years. [I] assisted him on two Broadway shows, worked with him [on choreography] in Europe, and finally I was invited by him, to be an Artist In Residence at UC Irvine.

Alvin Ailey:
I was nursing a torn hamstring in Los Angeles for four weeks when Donald McKayle telephoned and said that Alvin Ailey wanted me to audition for a CBS special he was doing on Duke Ellington. Alvin had seen me with Donald McKayle’s company at the ANTA festival the year before. It was a Thursday when I received the call. Well, I was in ballet class that evening and again Friday evening. Took the plane to New York on Saturday. Checked into the Paris Hotel and went to work on Monday. After lunch I was told that Alvin wanted me in the show! Our rehearsals were 10:00-5:00 everyday for five weeks.

This was an exhilarating time as this was New York and this was with the fabulous Alvin Ailey. He seemed very happy with all of us young ones as he had always valued and treasured his experience with his teacher, the great Lester Horton, and he wanted to teach us as he was taught by Lester. So he confided in us a great deal.

Alvin at that time looked fabulous. I had seen him eight months earlier in Europe but he had gained quite a bit of weight. But in New York he looked great. It turned out that he was also dancing in this special. In fact, I believe it was the last time he danced. The show was entitled Alvin Ailey Celebrates Duke Ellington CBS Special.

After the show, Alvin kept us all together to form a second company as this was a dream of his: to form a company that would feed into his Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. I learned the repertory for seven months and then left to join Lar Lubovitch’s company which was preparing for a European tour. I left as I saw that in the first Ailey company, there were two Japanese male dancers and two Asian female dancers. So I felt his quota for Asians was met. I would be odd man out.

Lar Lubovitch:
During Alvin Ailey’s CBS rehearsals, Lar Lubovitch was teaching in the next studio. I ran into him at the drinking fountain. While living in L.A., I had read articles about him in Dance Magazine. So while he was stooped over drinking, I exclaimed, “Lar Lubovitch! I’ve read all about you!”

At that point he stood up facing me wiping his mouth and looking incredulous like, “Who is this guy?” I then asked, “Do you ever have auditions? I would love to dance with you.”

“Are you dancing now?” he asked.

“Yes, with Alvin Ailey next door, but it is only for five weeks.”

“Where do you take class?” Lar asked. “At Maggie Black’s” I answered. “Good. Let’s meet at her first class. Then you can rush back to rehearsal. See you next week”

So the following week we took class together. I was in the first group; Lar the second group so that he could watch me. After the Adage, Pirouettes and small jumps, he then asked “Can you start tomorrow at 7 pm downtown?”

A lightning bolt had struck!! Wow! Dance with Lar Lubovitch?! How fantastic!

So the next day after Alvin’s rehearsal was done at 5, I grabbed a New York pizza and caught the subway downtown to his studio. I did this for the seven months I was dancing with Alvin’s secondcompany until finally Lar’s company was set to go to Europe. I left Alvin’s at this time to dance with Lar. During the tour I danced all of Lar’s roles as his knees were getting bad and he wanted to dance less.

Les Watanabe in “Salsa Caliente” by Donald McKayle commissioned for the Joyce Trisler Danscompany. Photo courtesy of Les Watanabe. Photographer unknown.

What was it like to be a dancer then, compared to now?

Well, some things never change. The daily class, the constant auditions, networking. Prices for classes have certainly escalated. I remember paying $1.75 per class and being astounded when they rose to $3.00 per class! You can see how old I am!

But back then in Los Angeles, there was much commercial work for dancers. Many stars had dancers in their shows and so dancers could work commercially during the day and do their concert work at night. Sleep? Who needs it? Overrated!

And if one could do many styles of dance, then one could work non-stop, from choreographer to choreographer. Word of mouth was how one got jobs.

Today, there is a similar opportunity for dancers if one is truly versatile and can cross dance genres. For top-tiered talent, one can work as a guest for ballet companies, doing Broadway, and contemporary work.

I think what makes it difficult for dancers is the cost of living. More for rent, especially in New York. So a dancer has to work more to make ends meet, and so if one is lucky, they will be able to find a company that can afford to pay them. Better still if that company works year round with tours.

But in the end, one chooses dance because there is no other way to live life. Dancing is life! Nothing else matters. As one of my teachers, the great Eugene Loring, once said, “Your commitment to dance..is your security.” I never forgot this and it carried me through all the hardship this life placed before me. “If dance is your religion, well..no problem..I can take anything life throws at me.” Without this belief and passion for the art, one will not make it.

Where did you grow up, where did you train in dance as a child? How did you make the leap from student to professional dancer?

Being an Army brat, I have lived in several places. Born in Denver, Co. Moved to Seattle when I was five. Then to Germany for three years, Japan for three years and finally to Los Angeles when I was 12. It was there that a friend, Marvin Cassio, introduced me to the world of Motown and the L.A. dances thereof. I began my dance there. With Marvin leading the way, I learned many of the Motown dances of the day. We got together on Saturdays at Marvin’s house where we were often joined by other fellas that could dance. I was the only Asian. I did this for 5 years.

Then when I went to junior college, I began my first technical training, twice a week for a year and then three times a week for the second. Janice Gudde was the professor who guided me. She said after two years, “Les, you can make it. It will take you 10 years, but you can make it. Now you won’t get rich and by 40, you’re over the hill.”

“10 years?..Let’s go for it”—was my reply.

I transferred to UC Irvine and thus began my dancing days, or years, or decades, to be precise!

What do you look for in a dancer/performer?

In a performer, I look to the flow of energy throughout the body and the emanations of energy into the universe, with the eyes, heart and soul leading the way. If I can see this..then it is dance.

How do you choreograph? What is your creative process like?

For me choreography begins with the idea…or music…then the idea…after which comes…the dynamic or rhythm of the piece. Then “what am I trying to say.” If nothing comes, I just begin with improvisation. Gradually, like a sculpture, the form reveals itself. After that, I just listen to the music at all times, even before sleeping and for days I will do this.

And finally the most important idea is to rest, to be rested before I step into the studio, for a tired me just does tired choreography. I learned this over 30 years ago. So I rest and listen to the music and the rest takes care of itself in the studio.

Les Watanabe performing a solo by Jaime Rogers of L.A. Jazz Company. Photo courtesy of Les Watanabe. Photographer unknown.

What changes have you seen in the field of modern dance?

I was at a White Bird concert featuring a contemporary choreographer from New York by way of Israel. And [White Bird co-founder] Walter Jaffe introduced the evening as innovative, cutting edge, etc. I left the evening feeling I had seen all this before. Yes in the beginning of the 20th century, modern choreographers were indeed innovative and cutting edge. They thrust themselves into the floor every which way they could. [Early modern choreographer] Charles Weidman said that for a year they threw themselves onto the floor as many different ways as they could think of and they just loved it!

So yes, this particular evening had much interesting ground work and falls, but it was history repeating itself. Art repeating itself…fresh perhaps…but still.

What do you teach your students at Western Oregon University? Do you feel that teaching classical modern dance is still important and relevant to dancers today?

When I teach modern at Western Oregon University, my teachings will range from traditional 20th century technique to contemporary choreography with different ground work. I teach the traditional so that they know where their movement resonates from. It is not in a vacuum. Once they have a grounding in this, I pray that I don’t see much of it in their choreography except in perhaps one movement, which will indicate to the audience that they are versed in this technique and don’t have to show any more of it.

I consider myself a 5th generation modern dancer whose lineage traces back from Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis to all that followed. Each choreographer has taken what has come before, and with their experience and life’s blood, has transfigured it. If one is a creative person, one will make one’s own work and within and inside that work lives all that came before. This is exciting and wholesome and awe inspiring.

I am reminded of the White Bird concert I spoke of during [my answer to your question about] ‘Changes in Modern dance’. There was one movement done by the choreographer. She started by shifting her torso and right arm to the side while on her left leg, reminiscent of Jose Limon, whose company she had been in, but as she reached the table top position she changed from exhalation to ease to a guarded position, eyes watching, glaring, muscles taut.

Culturally, as she is from Israel, one cannot ‘leave home’ as one does in the Jose Limon technique, but must be always ‘on guard’ because of the eternal conflict with Palestine.

This one moment was for me the most satisfactory of the evening as I saw her background in her dance, her homeland residing in her body and the juxtaposition that arose from these two elements.

How long have you been in Oregon teaching? What brought you here originally? Did you ever make work on Portland’s professional dance community?

I have been in Portland since 1998. I first was an Artist In Residence at U of O in 1997 for one year, then moved to Portland. We moved here because my wife loved the city as it reminded her of her home, Vienna, Austria. So we moved here, and our first son was born followed by a second, two years later.

I began teaching for Portland Festival Ballet creating works for them. I also started to teach for Anita Mitchell at Northwest Conservatory of Dance. She had a fabulous program! She was a fantastic director. I choreographed works for her. Eventually I did works for Classical Ballet Academy for Sarah Rigles also a fantastic director. I also taught for the Arts Academy in Beaverton, Arts & Communications Magnet Academy with Julane Stites, Terry Brock, Felice Moskowitz and Patty Jones. Phenomenal group and the most cohesive group I’ve known.

I personally am interested in the discussion of aging as a dancer. I myself am 42 and I still perform. When did you stop performing and why? How was that transition for you?

I did my last performance at age 43! but I had stopped training a few years before that. I was mostly teaching and living the life of a photographer and totally immersed in the Japanese Martial Art, Aikido. At any rate, a friend of mine was doing a salsa show and wanted me for the lead. I told her no, that I was retired. She did not accept my refusal and continued asking me until I FINALLY agreed. It was a mistake. During opening night as I was about to do my solo and all dancers had left the stage, I was thinking, of all things, about dinner! Should I have chicken teriyaki or should I make dinner….Well, I knew a lot of folks in the audience and I wanted to give their money back. Here I was thinking about dinner! I knew that was the end. So, I tell my students, if you are performing and you start thinking about dinner and such, well, it’s time to hang it up!

So that was my transition out of performing, and it was abrupt and final! I did do a solo last year at my dear friend Danny Black’s memorial. It was a solo I had done 23 years prior and not since. I could not rehearse it as my hips and knees wouldn’t allow me to stand up quickly on the music and then back to the floor and then back up. So I rehearsed all the props only and imagined myself rehearsing. Well, when performance time came, it was a full house at Portland State and Terry Brock, the legendary tap dancer, teacher and choreographer, danced before me.

“I was to follow her?” Well, then hers was over I walked to my place and the music started. The rest is a blur. I somehow got through it…but was it fun? Hardly! It was very stressful as it was a dance for Danny and I couldn’t mess it up. After it was over, I vowed to not dance for another 20 years! Ha ha! This I’ve got to see!

Groovin’ Greenhouse performance information

Les Watanabe, Polaris Dance Company, Polaris Junior Company, Neo Youth Company
2:00 pm January 21
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave

Les Watanabe, NW Fusion Dance Company, Polaris Dance Company
7:30 pm January 21
Polaris Dance Theatre, 1826 NW 18th Ave

Published by Oregon ArtsWatch
By Jamuna Chiarini