“The inspiration for this piece came from not really knowing what I wanted to do.”
Choreographer Kenneth Kvarnström is talking on the phone from his San Francisco hotel room about “Fragile,” the hour-long work from 2001 that his dance company is bringing to UCSB Campbell Hall on Wednesday.
“Fragile is how I felt,” he says. Since 1987, the Finnish-born but Stockholm-based Kvarnström has made it his company’s mission to produce one long work per year, and then tour the world with it.
“I’m in a lucky situation,” he says. “We tour a lot, something like seven to eight months of the year. And the time we start up again for the next piece, usually about one to two drop out. But this time when it came time to make this piece, nearly everybody had disappeared. Somebody was injured. Another dancer moved back to Norway, another to Finland. Nearly everybody had decided not to be in it.”
Feeling fragile like his title, Kvarnström had to start from the beginning, hiring very young dancers to start. He couldn’t rely on them to be familiar with his methods, especially difficult for a choreographer who has spent his career advancing his own personal dance vocabulary. (The touring company is slightly difficult).
During the conversation, Kvarnström refers to all artistic decisions with “we.” Is his working process full of collaborations between choreographer and dancer?
“No, I’m a bit of a dictator,” he laughs, “But I try to cover it up. However, the dancers must be very comfortable on stage. That’s the most important thing.”
“Fragile” requires great stamina, with the work clocking in at 65 minutes with no intermission. “It can be a problem,” he says of the amount of work required. “So we try to sort out those issues early.” “Fragile” is split up into several trios and duets, and that helps the dancers, with “muscle memory” and interaction making it less complicated.
For those looking for meaning in “the piece,” Kvarnström advises against it. “It’s light entertainment,” he says. “It’s pure dance. It’s after I completed ‘Fragile’ that I decided that the next work will be deal more with the subconscious.” (He will produce 2002’s troubling “Feel My Breath.”)
To Kvarnström, “Fragile” may feel light, but the audience will witness much struggle between the dancers onstage. A Polaroid camera becomes the work’s only prop, with each dancer snapping a self-portrait after a section is completed. What’s that about?
“It was an even larger part of the piece earlier on but the self-portraits remained. ‘Fragile’ is about disappearing. The photos document the moment before they do.”
A large abstract Calderlike mobile hangs over the stage during the piece, designed by Carouschka. Perhaps a clue? “I’ve wanted to work with her for a long time,” he says of the artist. “She came to rehearsals and then came back with this. It’s . . .” Kvarnström trails off. “It’s based on a hand movement from the dance; that’s all I know.” Apparently, even he is slightly baffled.
Ironically, the work premiered in Germany a day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Meaning couldn’t help accrue around the images of locked bodies and Polaroid portraits, reminiscent of the Lost Person posters put up near Ground Zero. Fragile describes how the world felt.
“Yes, you start to look at the look at the work a different way,” the choreographer says. “The outer world will affect things.” He recently presented “Fragile” in front of 800 high schoolers, who all had wildly different interpretations. “All favorable, all interesting.”
Music for “Fragile” comes by way of drum ‘n’ bass musician Amon Tobin and also Anders Jacobson, who turns out to be one of Kvarnström’s dancers. “Yes, he’s a musician, too. We work with music at the start, then for a while we take it completely away. I don’t want the dancers just following the music. In that time (Jacobson) was composing and he returned with some suggestions that we incorporated.”
Like a good filmmaker, Kvarnström knows when ‘Fragile’ needs music and when it must proceed in silence.
Kvarnström started very late in dance at age 19. In Finland, students are required after their national service to take a year away from their schooling and follow a different path. Up to that time, Kvarnström was determined to become an architect.
“But I had seen ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and I really wanted to be John Travolta. I decided to take jazz dance and soon after I gave up architecture.” He switched to modern dance after the year was up.
After the “Fragile” tour, Kvarnström plans to take several years off and become artistic director for Stockholm’s Dansens Hus, overseeing the productions at the 800-seat theater. “It’s a new position and I’ll be able to oversee new things. We have a great in-house crew.”
But will Kvarnström be able to keep away from choreography that long?
“We’ll see,” he says. “It could be for four years, so we’ll see how I handle it after two.”
K. KVARNSTRÖM AND CO.
When: 8 p.m Wednesday, Nov. 12
Where: UCSB Campbell Hall
Cost: $30, $27 general; $19, $16 students
Tickets: At the box office or by phone at 893-3535