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The rise, fall and rise again of Bruce Wood

Posted 2:31am on Wednesday, Jun. 13, 2012

I've noticed that change generally only occurs when something needs to break. Whether it's an idea, a person, a thought, a building ... whatever it is, something's gotta break. And when that chaos happens, one of two things happens: you can either resist it, or you can pass right through it.

-- Bruce Wood, introducing a performance of his work "The Edge of My Life So Far"

One night in June 2011, a small group of people milled around the lobby of the Montgomery Arts Theater in Dallas. The space was a wall of sound, pulsing with buzzy chatter and anticipation.

For five years, they had waited. And tonight, and tonight ... they would herald the object of their adoration: choreographer Bruce Wood, whose company was once the crowning jewel of the North Texas contemporary dance scene.

And there he was, slipping through the lobby crowd, looking straight out of a Ralph Lauren ad -- white linen shirt, bright blue gingham tie, steel-blue corduroy vest and a relaxed seersucker jacket.

A woman reached out and touched Wood's arm. "Thank you so much," she said.

The fan was Wendy Lee Tedmon, a teacher in Keller, a musician and a former dancer. "I missed him desperately," she said. "I'm thrilled he's back."

Consensus of the room.

After a winding, sometimes agonizing journey, Wood is indeed back. Those performances last summer marked his public return to North Texas dance, with a new, scaled-down company: the Bruce Wood Dance Project, which performed a full program -- and two new dances -- during two nights. It was a let's-wait-and-see experiment, but blissfully, it has spawned a second season: BWDP returns June 21-24 to Dallas, with an ambitious two programs that will stretch across four days.

For Wood, the performances last June marked the end of an often painful hiatus, one that began in late 2006, when he was forced to shutter his beloved company. It is a moment that Wood has called the worst day of his life.

But on that night last summer, Wood's fans had shaken off the heartbreak. They were giddily swept up in a hopeful sense of deja vu, thinking back to those Monday nights in Fort Worth's majestic Bass Hall, when the Bruce Wood Dance Company would create "happenings."

"I remember driving there from Dallas, and then just being transported," said Gayle Halperin, a former professional dancer based in Dallas who is one of the driving forces behind the Bruce Wood Dance Project. "And the audience was like crazy; it was always a scene, and then people would go out afterwards -- I'm sure it contributed to the Fort Worth economy quite a bit, with the bars."

She added: "The location, the venue [Bass Hall], the work -- everything was beautiful."

View from the top

It was a heady time for the Bruce Wood Dance Company, which was sitting pretty at the tippy-top of the North Texas dance scene. It was stealing the limelight from its established older brother, Contemporary Dance/Fort Worth -- ironically, the company that gave Fort Worthians their first exposure to a Wood piece, in 1994. Part of Wood's allure was that he brought cutting-edge performance style to a city that, at least in terms of modern dance, many still thought of as provincial.

Wood, a native Texan, first fell in love with his craft by watching the dancers on The Carol Burnett Show; a telling fact about someone whose burgeoning wit would one day wend its way into his choreography. (He once described one of his dances as "Donna Reed on crack.")

The son of a high school football coach, Wood played some pigskin himself, until he stopped growing at 5-feet, 9 inches. When his family moved from Jacksboro to Fort Worth, he started studying dance in earnest, and he eventually got into the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York. He danced his way through the New York City Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, in Denver and at a company in Montreal, with which he toured the globe. He learned choreography while studying with the renowned Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in New York.

But, at about 30, after 12 years of dancing professionally, he was in crisis. There was an unwelcome presence orbiting his world.

"A lot of my friends had died of AIDS," he told the Star-Telegram in a 1997 interview. "I had danced for everybody I wanted to. Dancing became less important to me. People started to become more important. One day in rehearsal, I realized I didn't have anything else to prove. I put on a suit, walked over to 34th Street and applied for a job at Macy's."

That triggered a restless period that sent Wood bouncing around Texas: operating a ranch in Wise County, where he raised horses and learned to ride and rope; working in Fort Worth as a consultant in a pharmaceutical company's patient-support program; and moving to Austin to freelance as an art director for TV commercials.

Then, a friend in the Austin arts community asked him to create a dance. He got paid $300, and it led him to form the Bruce Wood Dance Company.

He launched his company in Austin in 1996, and moved it to Fort Worth, his hometown, a year later. The company soared with raves, U.S. tours and national aspirations. Margaret Putnam, then dance critic for The Dallas Morning News, and now a critic for TheaterJones, wrote: "Even Mr. Wood's minor works play like big deals, while his major works stand up to those of any choreographer in America."

A Bruce Wood piece can be sexy (Bolero), funny (Lovett!, Happy Feet), tearful (Follow Me), shocking in its emotion (The Edge of My Life So Far). There is sweeping grace, offset by plenty of angular movements: a leg is raised, but a flat foot here, sharp wrist and hand gestures there. You will often see a dancer lay his or her head on the shoulder or back of another dancer and rooooll back off. Same-sex pairings are just as common as male-female couplings. His works don't rely as much on classical, athletic jumps, as they do contact -- a tender caress, a seductive slide, an angry (or comical) shove.

"I don't do work that's clever or brainiac," says the Balanchine-trained Wood. "I just don't find it interesting. I like work that people can feel, and I think that was the thing people missed. People will never remember patterns or structure, or how many turns they did or how high their legs went -- nor should they. But they will remember how they felt."

"His pieces just sort of pull you in," Halperin said. "It was fascinating, innovative choreography. Rich, beautiful images. Poetic images. I thought he was the only one [in North Texas] doing really sophisticated work."

Flight before the fall

For a while, life for Wood and the company seemed like one soaring, never-ending grand jeté. A national tour brought raves, including a 2000 Los Angeles Times review, which said of Wood's Bolero: "By turns sadomasochistic, outrageously haughty and downright sexy ... it thrilled, with long-legged women strutting in satin and lace, swaggering tux-clad men and full-force erotic partnering. "

In 2003, he was commissioned by RiverCenter, a new performing arts venue near Fort Benning, Ga., to create a dance, Follow Me, honoring the Army infantry. His 2004 dance, Liturgy, an indictment of religion and an affirmation of faith, was lauded by a Star-Telegram critic as "one of the most significant works of dance created in America."

But during the mid-2000s, followers of Bruce Wood also kept hearing about budget shortfalls and financial woes.

"Each time we'd hear about a new executive director, we were like: 'Yeah! It's gonna turn the corner now. It needs more money,'" Halperin said.

So when the news broke in November 2006, it was a punch to the gut: The company's board of directors decided there was no surviving a $300,000 budget shortfall. The company's 10 dancers were laid off, the season's three remaining shows were canceled, and the company folded.

Halperin says she thinks the original board didn't realize the amount of work a professional dance company needed, "and what they had to take off of Bruce's plate."

"He needed an executive director, a marketing director, a development person; or you could make combinations of those. Like TBT [Texas Ballet Theater], they have an 11-person staff. And with Bruce Wood, it was pretty much Bruce and Joe [Groves, former board president].

"And so, in a way," Halperin said, "and you only know this in retrospect -- it was set up to fail."

It was a blow to Wood, in every sense.

"I had to kill the thing I loved the most," he said. "Any emotion that you can think of that would go with that, it did. And it lasted a lot longer than I thought it would."

"I know he was completely depressed," said Groves, who resigned as board president in 2004 for personal reasons. "I think at the time he felt like he had failed the dancers more than anything."

Doug Hopkins, a veteran dancer with the company when it failed, said it was a shock. "All of a sudden it was The End, period. And we were left with a feeling of: 'Well, what do we do next? Now that we've dedicated the last 10 years of our lives to this incredible movement?'"

Wood found himself at a similar crossroads.

"Once we closed, I kinda figured, maybe somebody will hire me to do a dance once or twice a year somewhere, and that'll be enough to keep me going," he said last summer.

"Honestly, I couldn't get any work as a choreographer," he added. "No one called."

He ended up taking a job at M.L. Leddy's Western wear shop in Fort Worth, designing boots and selling merchandise. (He worked there through December, when he took a leave to focus on the new company).

"In my brain, it was over, I was done," Wood said during an interview last month. "There's no way I'm going through this again. I didn't have any thoughts of like: 'I'll show them!' I was like, 'Ten years, that was a good run.'"

Funding the arts is challenging enough -- but wrangling money for dance? In an tough economy? Brutal. Wood thinks it's because the art form is so ephemeral.

"That's the best thing about dance, but it's also the worst thing," he said. "There's no score, there's no script afterwards, there's no statue, no painting to be hung on a wall. When it comes to a lot of donors, if they're gonna donate $20,000 or $50,000 or whatever, they would like to have more permanence than just two hours in a theater. It takes a very special kind of donor to have that mindset."

And it takes a special partner to make it happen.

So when a second chance came along, the lure was strong. Burned as he was by the shuttering of his company, Wood couldn't quite resist making another go of it.

Back on the dance floor

It's a Wednesday afternoon in May at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, Wood's dancers are finishing up a ballet class, and he is about to launch into a rehearsal for Season 2.

One look the tank top he is wearing, and you can't help but grin. It's Kelly green, emblazoned with an illustration of Yoda. The message is Yoda's, but it might as well be Wood's: Trust me. A Jedi I am.

He pulls a powder-blue sweater over Yoda, and his taut muscles ripple through the thin cotton. After warming up with some stretches, Wood, who turns 52 in August, has his dancers move across the floor in a slow-motion, free-form collective.

Arms float, bodies twist like they are swimming, stretching and yawning through the ether, occasionally touching and entwining. Coming directly at you, it's an entrancing sight.

The critique: "Better. But it's still choppy," Wood says. "I want to do it one more time, and I want everybody to do it on the floor, the entire way across. You need to get a little more comfortable with the floor. ... When you're kids, everyone tells you to resist the floor. If you would just let go of that idea, your life would just be so much easier."

They follow his direction, stretching, crawling and curling their way back.

"This should feel good," he says. Then he imparts one of his favorite mantras: " The floor is my friend, the floor is my friend, the floor is my friend."

Just about the time Wood was starting to think about pursuing choreography again, the stars aligned.

In 2010, a longtime fan nominated him for the Dance Council of North Texas's Mary McLarry Bywaters Award for Lifetime Contribution to Dance. That fan was Gayle Halperin, who since the 1990s had been involved in development and volunteer work for nonprofit arts organizations in Dallas.

For the award ceremony, Wood was commissioned to create a new work, a duet that featured Joy Atkins and Jonathan Campbell.

"A lot of dance people saw it and said, 'Oh, we miss that.' And that's when the chatter started," Wood recalled.

It's also when Halperin approached him with the idea of putting a company together again. After Wood agreed, Halperin assembled a group of like-minded Dallas investors, and those two performances last June were the debut of their brainchild: a company with a new, flexible name -- the Bruce Wood Dance Project, and a new structure that just might be prove to be the secret sauce.

A new direction

"I laugh a lot more now," Wood says. "I scream a lot less. However ... [the dancers] would probably disagree with you this past week. I still don't put up with foolishness."

Last summer, Wood was calling the BWDP a "reboot."

"All the things that really bugged me and didn't work out well, have all been changed. Things that worked really well, I've kept," he said. "The goal is to use this as a planting thing, so from this point it can keep continuing to evolve and grow, to where it's something quite substantial and permanent."

These days, Wood gets to spend more time in the studio with his dancers. In the old setup, he was forced tospend five days out of the week raising money, leaving him with only two days to work with the dancers.

"And that is not what I signed up for," Wood said. "The more I got out of the studio, out of necessity, the more miserable I became."

Halperin says she's watched Wood transform into a master teacher role; in fact, he's brought on an associate choreographer, Joshua Peugh, who will debut his own work in the June program.

Bruce Wood 2.0 moves at a different pace; there's one big project in the summer, with other pieces scattered here and there at events throughout the year. (He created three new works for last December's "A Gathering: The Dallas Arts Community Reflects on 30 Years of AIDS.")

"Before," Wood says, "it was just crank out four seasons a year and raise money. And that became its own closed loop. Whereas when you call it a project, you have a lot more freedom to try different things."

However, the new model still doesn't make the money rain down from the heavens.

They're far from the $500,000-plus budgets of the original company's heyday. "Right now, we're at $100,000," Halperin said, of the current annual operating budget.

The top priority, she says, is paying the dancers and choreographers; just about everything else is volunteered.

For Bruce Wood fans in Dallas, the new company's move there was thrilling news. However, the loss to Fort Worth reopened some wounds in that city.

"It's just a pity, because [Fort Worth donors] should've been around to save it," said Hopkins, who was a dancer in Wood's original company, and who reunited with his mentor for last summer's season.

"We were there for 10 years and had a very strong company going; we were getting great reviews all over the country, touring and what not. And Fort Worth just kind of dropped the ball, I think, and let something that was really special, and very unique to this area slip out of their fingers."

Wood, too, is still puzzled by the lack of support in Fort Worth. "That was always the strange thing. I honestly thought that Fort Worth [donors] would be very proud of the fact that they were exporting art that everybody else wanted, as opposed to feeling like they had to constantly import it. But the difference I'm finding here with the supporters in Dallas is that they get very jazzed by the idea that we could be exporting it. That's an incentive to them."

Poised for the future

Nobody has a crystal ball that will tell us whether the Bruce Wood Dance Project will last another year, another decade, or beyond.

Wood, who still lives in Fort Worth to be near his mother, commutes to Dallas five to seven days a week to his other home: the studio. A romance is next to impossible. "I haven't been on a date in years," he says.

He is married to the work.

Although based in the Dallas Arts District, the BWDP can't afford the Winspear Opera House, and the Wyly Theatre is fairly booked. So this season and last, its performances have been in the Montgomery Arts Theater at Booker T. Washington, which is, yes, a high school theater, but a stunning one, with gorgeous sight lines. The troupe rehearses downstairs there, and also at Southern Methodist University.

Still, a venue change could be in the offing. "There's the new space coming up, the Dallas City Performance Hall, which is going to be a beautiful space of 750 seats," Halperin says. "It won't be ready until middle September, so that's a possibility for Season 3."

Season 3 of the Bruce Wood Dance Project. That has a glorious ring to it.

And if you believe the Jedi master, it will happen. Dancing is in his DNA.

"I like being paid," Wood said. "But honestly, if it becomes a question of me and getting the show up, the show's gonna win. It always has."

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