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The Pittsburgh native and George Washington grad made magic as contributing choreographer and dancer in Nicholas Leichter's hit The Whiz: Obamaland last season. When he's not performing with the city's foremost contemporary companies, Cooper choreographs his own pieces, which range from mystical solo experiments incorporating elaborate costumes, elemental projections, sparse soundscapes and sudden outbursts of spastic movement, to more fluid pieces melding hip-hop, modern and vogue dance styles. We can't wait to see how the two meet during his upcoming Dance Theater Workshop residency.
The L: Could you describe your process for creating a dance piece? Do you start with a gesture or move, and build from there; do you choose a theme, song, visual motif or idea and construct the piece around it; how would you describe your way of working?
Wendell: Each piece can be experienced as a field. What defines the boundaries of this field? If we look at creating art as a means of communicating experience, then we have to look at the components that make up one's experience. The field of a work is the coherent resonance between a moment's thoughts, feelings, physiological state, sensory awareness, etc., and the content of a work as experienced through various mediums.
My pieces begin as an impression in my consciousness. Perhaps a strong experience in dream, meditation, or waking life brings up feelings or questions that need to be released/expressed. Once I have a sense of the essence of the piece, then I can develop the other elements. The various inspirations that come to me—expressed through different mediums—have a rhythm of their own. I mainly work with dance, electronic and traditional music, rapping and singing, video projection, and fashion. As I move between them, they influence one another within the evolving world of the piece.
My dancing has been influenced by many different styles and philosophies of movement. Whether in choreography or improvisation, movement language from breakdancing, house, drum and bass, capoeira, vogue, contemporary modern, Hawkins technique, contact improvisation, Lindy hop, Butoh, and yoga may be present in a work. With such a broad range, my approach to dance is defined by the context and world of the piece. In an improvised urban dance vocabulary, I rely the balance between letting the mind/body in an instant remember everything it has ever learned about dancing, and in the next moment, be a blank slate acting spontaneously in 'open space.'
My research in urban dance is in combining elements from various dance styles and techniques while simultaneously engaging with subtle energy skills. I want to develop an original style that pulls from different techniques to answer questions I have about the body's relationship to gravity, and the mind's relationship with the body. And at the same time, since each style carries its own politics, I wind as many questions around gender, power, spiritual presence, and freedom as I can into this improvised practice. All of this, within the context of subtle energy and consciousness study, gives me plenty to play with.
My inspiration for choreography comes from a dialogue with the world of the piece. What kind of approach to the body in dance will address the same or harmonic questions as my first impressions? Are their rhythmic or movement qualities particular to this range of experience? What does it sound like in this world? How can video expand an audience's ability to directly experience the world of the piece? I enjoy creating a space in dance performance where I am at my edge physically, finding new potentials, at my edge as a performer, using voice and movement, in a dynamic space with video installation, and also tracking the subtle energy and consciousness shifts in the room. Once the elements of a piece are created (choreography/improvisation structures, music/voice, video, costume) then my role is to play in and embody the world of the piece with as deep a sense of continuity in my consciousness as I can muster.
The L: Some of your pieces incorporate up-tempo music, while others feature traditional or classical music, recorded or performed live, and some nearly no music at all; what role does music play in your work?
Wendell: As a teenager, I was performing spoken word with poet Renée Alberts and making hip-hop with the Dreadnots, in Pittsburgh. Then, in college at the George Washington University, studying choreography, performance art, and religion, I electronically scored my performance works (with a Korg Electribe). This was around the same time that I started studying yoga, energy-bodywork and meditation. I began teaching meditation seminars with my mother, Wynne Brown, M.D., FACOG, R.Ac. As accompaniment to guided meditation workshops and yoga practice, I played quartz crystal singing bowls; creating durational, tonal fields to deepen meditation spaces. So, early on I was involved with music in very different contexts. When I am making something new, I consider the world of the piece and go from there. Often, ecstatic flight in performance is a goal or motivation for me, so the journey of the piece is the particular path toward that state. Sound has a strong influence on us in terms of our sense of "place"—that particular rumble in the subway, or certain silence near water—so I use the sound score to articulate and facilitate the journey.
The main music/dance/video project I am working on right now is Specimen001 (a solo figure who also performs with Yozmit and Her Specimen). Specimen001 is a shamanic, club-culture creature in a world of Contemporary Urban Dance, colorful couture, and ecstatic ritual. This is where rapping, chanting, and jazz vocal styling intersect as a genre/gender blend.
Also, my older brother, Jerry Cooper, is a DJ (Poochie La Fever) and a skateboarder and exposed me to a lot of music at an early age.
The L: You often use elaborate costumes, props and lighting in your pieces; do you always design those elements of your performances yourself? How do you pick your collaborators?
Wendell: Sometimes I develop the choreography, music, costume, and video (light) myself. But I often collaborate, and when I do I work with people who I feel have enough of a shared purpose and vision that we can perform together and all fully express our perspectives.
I am currently performing a lot with Yozmit. The costuming in Yozmit's pieces is always elaborate and often acts as a set.
The L: Most of your recent pieces have been solos and duets; what do you prefer about working on such relatively intimate scale? Are you interested in working with creating pieces for a larger group or ensemble?
Wendell: While sometimes it feels like I work in a variety of mediums, I acknowledge that ultimately my consciousness—and my ability to express that consciousness—is my primary medium. For whatever is being created, I have to be immersed in that energy to render the object. On one hand, working solo allows me to stay as close to the source of the inspiration as possible. Working long-term as a duet (Transport with Nicholette Routhier, Kinaesthesia with Mathew Heggem, Yozmit and Her Specimen with Yozmit) allows us to both have a firm foot in the world of the piece. On the other hand, I am happy to work on a lager scale when those opportunities come up!
The L: What are you working on next, and how do you see your career changing over the next five years?
Wendell: My next performance is in Monstah Black and Ashley Brockington's Cabaret Cataplexy (September 27th at Haven). It is a part of the Come As You Are Festival by Queer Art Impact.
I recently choreographed a music video for recording artist Gordon Voidwell. The single "Ivy League Circus" is being released by Cantora Records and the video produced by The Wilderness. It was a great process and I really enjoy working with recording artists, choreographing for stage shows and music videos. So, hopefully more of that will come my way.
This year I am a Studio Series Artist in Residence at Dance Theater Workshop. So, I am using this time to develop media content for my blog and to develop my curriculum for Expanding Your Art Practice, a course in using subtle energy and consciousness skills to create artwork.
My mother Wynne Brown, M.D., FACOG, R.Ac., recently founded an educational non-profit organization, The Original Medicine Institute for the Healing Arts. So this could be an outlet for teaching EYAP. I have taught various meditation workshops with her in the past and find that to be a rich process.
I am currently a member of Nicholas Leichter Dance, and will perform in his remixed version of The Wiz (this version titled The Whiz), created in collaboration with Monstah Black. We recently performed at Joe's Pub, Abrons Art Center, and in the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. I did some additional choreography for the piece and have a section I created as Specimen001. The piece is touring to seven cities in 2011.
Otherwise, I just want to continue to travel for teaching, choreography and performance, and play in bigger venues for more people.