Choreographer Joshua L. Peugh couldn’t have known it eight years ago, but he owes no small part of his career trajectory to Fort Worth choreographer Bruce Wood.
When he was studying dance in the mid-2000s at Southern Methodist University — a program in which traditional techniques of George Balanchine and Martha Graham reign supreme — the Las Cruces, N.M., native was blown away by the work being done in Fort Worth by Bruce Wood Dance Company. So much so that he planned to audition for the company as graduation approached.
“I saw his work and it inspired me,” Peugh, 29, says. “Coming from this small town, I only saw these big storybook ballets.”
But his plans changed when the organization folded in 2007. So, in the pursuit of working with international choreographers he respected, Peugh began a journey that would take him to Seoul, South Korea, for six years before coming back to Texas. That return was thanks in part to Wood, who discovered him in 2011 at an SMU alumni dance concert and brought him on as associate choreographer for his year-old Bruce Wood Dance Project in Dallas for the 2012 season.
But Peugh resigned from BWDP this year. This enabled him to focus on his own company, Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, which he co-founded in South Korea in 2010. The group has three performances next weekend at the Sanders Theatre in the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, with works by Peugh and Korean choreographer Kim Dong Hyoung. Dark Circles will also join Avant Chamber Ballet in its fall program in October at the Eisemann Center in Richardson.
Move to Korea
In New Mexico, Peugh took ballet as a kid, but in high school, he was more interested in musical theater. Still, he pursued dance in college.
After graduating, he nabbed a six-month gig dancing for Universal Ballet, out of Hanyang University in Seoul, which turned into a much longer stay in a country that he didn’t know much about when he left the United States. Universal Ballet is a sternly Russian-based, traditional company, and Peugh found himself dancing the classic roles, often wearing a dress in comic roles, such as Mother Ginger in The Nutcracker.
He also was able to work with two of his idols, Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin and Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, who regularly worked with Universal Ballet. Naharin cast Peugh in one of his signature pieces, the improvisational Minus 7.
“It completely changed the way I was thinking about movement and dance,” Peugh says. “It wasn’t as rigid; it was about trying to connect with pleasure. … His structure is genius, brilliant and simple. ”
While living in Korea, he taught English to kindergartners and took in as much dance and culture as he could. Then he was asked to be a last-minute replacement, as a choreographer, at a theater in the Korean countryside.
That began his interest in choreography, and he quickly bonded with another dancer in the company, Hyoung. Inspired by the work of choreographers like Naharin and Duato, as well as traditional Korean dance — which uses delicate wrist movements and often involves the performers holding drums — he decided to create his own company to perform at festivals.
Because of the stringent schedule with teaching and being in the ballet company, he only found time to work with his company at night, hence the organization’s name.
“We had dark circles down to our knees,” he says with a laugh, thinking of another name that evokes dark circles around the eyes. “‘Panda Dance’ didn’t sound as good.”
Infusing comedy into dance
Thanks to his musical-comedy days and his work with Naharin, Peugh admits an affinity for comedy. His dance at the alumni concert in 2011 at SMU, Shuffle, caught Wood’s attention. And his piece in the Bruce Wood Dance Project’s 2012 summer concert, Slump, showed a knack for comic theatricality in a contemporary dance idiom.
“I like to see the movement; I want that to be the thing that speaks,” Peugh says. “I try to take away anything theatrical, in terms of facial gestures, and replace it with movement. Don’t try to be funny — the funny part is that you’re completely serious.”
As for leaving Bruce Wood Dance Project, he explains that “being a choreographer in another choreographer’s company is a challenge. … In this field, you’re bringing you, and when you have that many experiences in a room together and that many expectations … you can’t help but to become personal. Bruce and my expectations were not in line with each other.”
There are now two branches of Dark Circles: the original one in Korea and the new one in North Texas. The Korean branch of Dark Circles, led by Hyoung, has its fall performances in Seoul on the same weekend that the American company debuts with a full-evening performance. He has found his dancers mostly from SMU and Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts alumni.
The concert features a revival of Peugh’s “frisky, 1950s sitcomlike” Cosmic Sword, inspired by sex education and the wholesome, masculine imagery in the 1950s, as well as the premiere of his Jjigae, influenced by U.S.-North Korean conflict and inspired by traditional Korean dance. The premiere of Hyoung’s Fighting Games rounds out the concert.
Peugh is focused on his goals for growing a company in North Texas.
“Ultimately my three-year and five-year plan is to offer a full-time salary so that we can keep [dancers] in Dallas,” he says.
Peugh says they are working on Hyoung’s visa so he can work with the American Dark Circles company in the future.
“I think if we’re doing simple, pure, authentic, truthful work, people will connect with that,” he says. “We may grow slowly, but I’m interested in getting people in to see the work. … I think the way to do it is allow an audience to participate in my fantasy.”