Bruce Wood, the gifted choreographer who dazzled audiences over nearly two decades with the dance companies he brought to Fort Worth and Dallas, died Wednesday. He was 53.
Mr. Wood’s death was “sudden and unexpected,” according to a news release from his company, the Bruce Wood Dance Project. He died of heart failure, the result of complications from pneumonia, the release said. His family was by his side.
“It’s hard to describe a choreographer’s work as profound, but Bruce had that,” said Paul Beard, former managing director of Fort Worth’s Bass Hall and current CEO of the Smith Center in Las Vegas. “He would engage the audience both intellectually and emotionally with the work. He was one of the best I ever observed. We have worked over the years with world-class dance companies. Bruce, in my estimation, was of that caliber.”
A Fort Worth native, Mr. Wood — the son of a high school football coach — danced with the New York City Ballet and was a soloist with the San Francisco Ballet Company. He was then a principal dancer with Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal before returning to New York. He returned to Texas in 1996 and founded the Bruce Wood Dance Company, which began with performances in Austin. He moved the company to Fort Worth in 1997.
Mr. Wood’s trademark was edgy, innovative choreography. His works could be sexy (Bolero), funny (Lovett!, Happy Feet), tearful (Follow Me), shocking in their 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,” the Balanchine-trained Mr. Wood told DFW.com in a 2012 profile. “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.”
And, oh, how they felt. When the Bruce Wood Dance Company was slated for a Monday night at Bass Hall, it became a “happening,” Gayle Halperin told DFW.com in 2012.
“I remember driving there from Dallas and then just being transported,” said Halperin, a former professional dancer and a driving force behind the Bruce Wood Dance Project, launched in Dallas in 2011. “And the audience was, like, crazy; it was always a scene. … The location, the venue [Bass Hall], the work — everything was beautiful.”
Still, Mr. Wood’s career was fraught with ups and downs: One high came in 2003, when he was commissioned by RiverCenter, a performing arts venue near Fort Benning, Ga., to create a dance, Follow Me, honoring the Army infantry.
The lowest low hit like a punch to the gut in late 2006, when Wood, partly because of financial shortfalls, was forced to shutter his beloved Fort Worth company.
“I had to kill the thing I loved the most,” Mr. Wood said in 2011. “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.”
Beard, then managing director of Bass Hall, said: “We tried to support and nurture him at Bass Performance Hall right from the early days when we opened. … His dance performances were thrilling. They were sophisticated. They were as good as anything in that genre. That’s what redeemed everything.
“Yes, he struggled with his health. There were always issues where he had to make the effort to maintain his health. That was part of it. He also had to really struggle to maintain the financial solvency of his company and lots of other things. So it wasn’t an easy thing for Bruce, but in spite of the challenges in his life, the work prevailed onstage.”
As technical director for Bass Hall, Steven Truitt was there for nearly every show that Mr. Wood produced over 10 years.
“To me, it’s a great loss — to Fort Worth and Dallas,” Truitt said. “Bruce was a very special choreographer, in the sense that nobody was doing what he was doing. Bruce always had vision — about how he wanted his dances to look, and how he wanted his dancers to move. Rehearsal was very sacred to him.
“I’d say the majority of my proudest moments on the Bass Hall stage were created by Bruce,” Truitt said. “One of my favorites was a piece called Red, music by Philip Glass. [You] could sit and watch it and let it take you away for a while. … You kind of forgot where you were and could be transported for a few minutes.”
In 2011, with the help of Halperin, an arts fundraiser, Mr. Wood’s career was given a reboot, and the Bruce Wood Dance Project was born in Dallas.
Truitt said the last time he spoke with Mr. Wood was Saturday.
“I knew he was weak,” Truitt said. “But I’ve known Bruce to be very resilient when he would get sick. We were talking about what we were going to be doing in September 2014, his next show. I think he was hoping to stage Appalachian Spring.”
Performances of Touch will go on as scheduled June 12 and 13 at Dallas City Performance Hall, the company said Thursday. The production will also include a revival of Mr. Wood’s Home.
Mr. Wood was also slated to make his Dallas Theater Center debut next season, DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty said in a statement.
“All of us at Dallas Theater Center are heartbroken by the news of Bruce Wood’s passing. Bruce was one of North Texas’ leading creative artists. The depth of emotion he brought to his choreographic work was matched by his immense technical skill and compositional brilliance. He was a great source of inspiration for audiences and artists alike. …
“DTC audiences were greatly looking forward to Bruce’s debut at Dallas Theater Center next season, when he was scheduled to choreograph Colossal. Personally, I am devastated by this loss to our community and filled with deep sorrow that I will not be able to enter into a rehearsal room with Bruce to learn from him and be inspired by his intensity, passion, artistry and vision..”
Doug Hopkins danced with the Bruce Wood Dance Company from 1999 to 2006 and also performed in the first Bruce Wood Dance Project concert in Dallas.
“As a teacher and a choreographer, he brought movement out of us that none of us thought was possible,” Hopkins said. “From a personal standpoint, it was amazing to see what he brought out in me.”
Mr. Wood had to be tough on his dancers, Hopkins said.
“That’s how he got great dances and ballets. Otherwise, you settle for mediocre,” he said. “When he came back, in Dallas, there was a softness that I didn’t see before, and he was more willing to open himself up and be a little more organic than he had been before.”
Charles Santos, executive director and artistic director of TITAS, which commissioned a Bruce Wood work for its Command Performance Gala this year, said: “Honestly, I think he’s one of the great talents in our cultural landscape. He has a very unique vocabulary and has references to the talent he has worked with, from Twyla Tharp and Lar Lubovitch. He took his influences and created a very unique artistic voice.
“His lasting legacy will be of being a great talent, a great collaborator and an artist whose voice was quieted way too soon. I think we were just rediscovering his talents in Dallas and there were big things to come.”
Mr. Wood is survived by his mother and two siblings, according to the release. The family has asked that donations be made to the Bruce Wood Dance Project ( www.brucewoodance.org) in lieu of flowers.
Mark Lowry of TheaterJones.com contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.