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Creating cooperative choreography

'Keigwin + Company: Bolero Silicon Valley' lets locals shine

They're a retired particle physicist, a ground-services manager, a librarian, a psychologist, a homemaker, an aerospace engineer, even a Palo Alto Weekly columnist. But for the past few weeks, culminating with shows on April 2 and 3, they and dozens of other community members are something else: dancers, performing with a major national company.

This weekend, Stanford's Bing Concert Hall will host performances by the New York-based Keigwin + Company, including the grand finale, "Bolero Silicon Valley," a collaborative piece by choreographer Larry Keigwin with his local cast, made up entirely of community members rather than dance professionals. Through their movements they'll attempt to portray the essence of Silicon Valley, set against Maurice Ravel's iconic "Bolero" ballet score.

The group of around 75 locals came together through an open casting call -- no experience or requirements necessary other than an ability to commit to two weeks of evening rehearsals and a desire to get involved and have fun. Cast members were also asked to fill out a questionnaire describing themselves and suggesting which words, positive and negative, they felt best captured the Silicon Valley experience. Keigwin, his assistants and the cast then tried out ideas at rehearsal and, together, will bring the piece to life.

Keigwin's community "Bolero" project first took place in New York, in 2007, when Keigwin earned raves for using a diverse bunch of real New Yorkers to celebrate their city through dance. He found the experience fun, as well as creatively inspiring.

"The energy in the rehearsal studio was very playful. I was really taken by the process of going from nothing to something, and it all cumulates to a professional production, dancing alongside our company," he said. The dramatic "Bolero" music is a good choice, he said, because it's familiar, repetitive and memorable.

"It's so iconic. Even if you don't know what it is, you know you've heard it before. One hook (for audiences) is the music; one hook is they're going to see images that relate their own lives," he said.

New York audiences and critics took notice, and Keigwin's since taken his "Bolero" to communities including Santa Barbara, California; Denver, Colorado; Akron, Ohio, and others.

"I'm always trying to pick a few prominent aspects of a community to outline the structure, the landscape," he said. For instance, for a performance in suburban White Plains, New York, country clubs are plentiful, so golf carts were worked into the choreography. In sunny Santa Barbara, the show had a beachy theme.

Not surprisingly, the tech world looms large in "Bolero Silicon Valley," one theme being "the amount of connection and how that can promote disconnections," he said. Dancers may dress in Mark Zuckerberg's trademark hoodie and jeans or the late Steve Jobs' black turtleneck.

At a recent rehearsal, the charismatic, good-natured Keigwin had his dancers crossing the stage in controlled chaos, pretending to text and scroll on smartphones. Occasionally, after the appropriate count in the music, they'd stop and pose for quick selfies. Later, he divided the cast in two, with half riding on wheeled office chairs, the others pushing them gracefully into position. The hall was filled with laughter and occasional bursts of applause.

"When they were building Bing (Concert Hall), I never ever thought I'd be onstage. I thought maybe I'd buy a ticket and go to a performance," Mary Nolan, a manager in the Stanford University Ground Services Department, said.

With a day job in which she maintains the outdoor campus, "It's nice to be from the inside looking out," she said of being involved with the project. She said she decided to participate because she enjoys the opportunity to meet interesting people with whom she may not otherwise get a chance to mingle.

Ken Moffeit, a retired particle physicist, said, "This dance experience has been something quite unexpected for me. To go from nothing then two weeks later to be on stage, it's really an amazing learning experience."

While for non-dancers, learning to count to the music and learn choreography can be tricky, Nolan said she's not too nervous.

"As adults, it's giving us permission to have fun. We're all in it together," she said.

For Moffeit, the collaborative element helps him with learning the choreography, as it's easier to remember something when you've helped come up with the idea, rather than been simply instructed on it, he said.

"It's very clever the way Larry is directing us along ... this process of getting the performers' input into it is a very important piece of the way you learn," he said.

Keigwin said it's the variety in the dancers' backgrounds, body types, ages (previous "Boleros" have featured dancers ranging from age 2 to 80) and abilities that makes the pieces special, and his job is to help find what movements work best for them.

"I'm not asking a non-dancer to do a high kick or split. It's the job of a choreographer to cultivate their cast and find the value of each individual and make everyone look good," Keigwin said. "I'm really catering to the ability of whoever's in the room."

"(Keigwin) is very good about engaging all of us, very open to ideas, amazingly encouraging," Nolan said. "I think everyone's been game to try different things as well. Larry said the goal is to strive for perfection, but if we don't get there, it will become charming," she said with a laugh. "Well, I can do charming."

What: "Keigwin + Company: Bolero Silicon Valley"

When: Saturday, April 2, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 3, at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanfod

Cost: $15-$60

Info: Go to Stanford Live. A brief video excerpt is available here.

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