In a small studio in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, a slight man sitting in a chair watches six dancers shift together. Each dancer moves deliberately, relying on the others to catch him here or push her there. Every now and then, Stephen Koester puts on his glasses to write in his notebook. Then he takes them off to continue to watch the dancers.
After the rehearsal is complete, Koester shares his notes. In a precise but compassionate tone, he explains what he wants the dancers to change, after complimenting them on what he likes. It seems apparent from his cadence and demeanor that he’s been doing this very thing for a long time.
Koester has choreographed more than 140 dances for companies across the world. But this is the last one he’ll create while a professor of modern dance at the University of Utah.
Koester, who is retiring from the U. in May, made this piece for “Bloom,” a production by Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company scheduled Thursday through Saturday at Rose Wagner. Formerly the co-artistic director of the New York all-male dance company Creach/Koester, he — with his partner, Terry Creach — has received five consecutive choreographic fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, plus a choreographic fellowship from the New York State Foundation for the Arts.
Koester has moved from the world of private dance studios to academia and back again; each have their own aesthetic and beliefs about what dance is meant to be, he said. While he admits he doesn’t know the studio system as well, he believes it has more flash.
“It’s more about trying to impress people with virtuosic and known moves. The steps are the important thing. For me, that’s not enough,” Koester said. “The steps are just the means. What’s the purpose of them? How are they serving the bigger picture?”
His piece for “Bloom” is titled “Departure – A Last Song, Perhaps a Final Dance Before a Rest.” He describes watching it as akin to sitting in Yellowstone National Park, waiting for bison and other wildlife to appear.
“They don't come out to perform for you. They come out and they do whatever they are doing. They do their life,” Koester said. “And what we as witnesses get to watch is that life which unfolds amongst us, in front of us, without them being aware or being performative about it.”
In a similar way, he starts with the landscape — the music — and then envisions organic movement, he said. Koester shuns concepts like choreography or steps.
“So instead of OK, now I move, (it’s) I'm aware. Here I am, I choose to start moving,” Koester said. “I'm listening to what it feels like to move. I am seeing the landscape before I enter it or decide to change it.”
His ideas change with what the dancers bring and what Koester himself feels.
“Process is indescribable. It’s not as methodical as, ‘These are the steps that I went through.’ It’s a constant choice of making decisions in the moment and then taking time to reflect upon them,” he said.
In “Bloom,” Koester focuses on dancers working together.
“It’s another device for me to figure out, how can I make these people interact? How can I approach partnering in a slightly different way? How can I build community?” Koester said. “Because if I need you to be able to do this to that person, who is then going to do that to me, then there is a coordination and cooperation and a community.”
Koester took some of his first dance classes with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company founders Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe, the company noted in a news release. He’s moved from learning in its summer workshops to serving as a teacher there and creating for its dancers as a choreographer.
Even though he is retiring from academia, Koester hopes to continue making dances — which despite his years of experience, he feels he is still learning to do.
“I don’t know if anyone knows how to make a dance, because each dance needs to be discovered for what it is,” Koester said. “The rules that apply to the last dance may not have anything to do with serving you in the next dance, so that curiosity, it’s still a mystery that I love.”
SEEING THE ‘BLOOM’
In its final performance of the 2018-2019 season, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company presents “Bloom."
What: Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company performs “Departure – A Last Song, Perhaps a Final Dance Before a Rest,” choreographed by Stephen Koester; “Dance for a Liminal Space,” choreographed by artistic director Daniel Charon; and Bulgarian-born choreographer Tzveta Kassobova’s “The Opposite of Killing.”
When: April 18-20 at 7:30 p.m.; Moving Parts Family series at 1 p.m. April 20
Where: Leona Wagner Black Box Theater at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South Salt Lake City
Tickets: $35 ($40 day of); student/senior $15; family matinee $10 or 5 for $45; tickets do not include box office fees. Tickets can be bought online at ArtTix.org, by calling the box office at 801.355.ARTS (2787), or by visiting any ArtTix box office.
Learn more at https://artsaltlake.org/production/bloom/
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.