It takes six minutes for Seán Curran to walk, briskly and without stopping for coffee, from his East Village apartment to his job at 111 Second Avenue, the dance department of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. It’s a good thing, because he’s juggling several projects on the side: opera rehearsals, an out-of-town residency and “run-out” performances with his dance company.
An established choreographer in his early 50s, Curran is in his second year as associate chairman of his alma mater, on track to be chair in a couple of years. It’s a dream job in a career that has come full circle, but it came along sooner than he’d planned, and he’s not quite ready to settle down so close to home.
It seems that Curran’s best ideas happen when he’s traveling through space — not necessarily across a Manhattan studio floor, but outside of the international dance mecca, in transit or in residency somewhere else. Curran’s recent ARTech commission at Georgia Tech and three Atlanta premieres on his company’s program, coming Saturday at the Ferst Center for the Arts, are cases in point.
Curran was recently in Atlanta for the culmination of his ARTech residency, the performance of his site-specific “Interactive Strategies of Relational Aesthetics” in Georgia Tech’s Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons. Under graying hair and bushy brows, his eyes radiated wit and the wisdom of a 30-plus-year career that has spanned from Irish step dancing as a child to a decade performing with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and 15 years with his own troupe.
Commissions and residencies have taken him from New York opera and theater stages to cities and college campuses across the United States and Europe, and last year his troupe toured Central Asia as one of four companies chosen for the U.S. State Department’s cultural diplomacy initiative DanceMotion USA. Peers and critics have admired Curran’s expert craftsmanship and endless invention.
Curran told the audience at Georgia Tech how a group of freshman architecture students had inspired him. During a campus tour of potential performance sites, Professor Ann Gerondelis read to him a list of “architectural descriptors” written by her students. Among the phrases were “descent experience,” “sequential re-alignment” and “repeated progression for changing fronts.” To Curran, they sounded like problems in dance composition.
The descriptions became springboards for his site-specific commission at Georgia Tech, in a process that included local dancers Alex Abarca, Alissa Mittin and Erik Thurmond, along with Curran’s associate artistic director, Betsy Coker Giron. The student descriptions became section titles and dancers interpreted the phrases, responding to the architectural interior with body movement that was equally complex. The piece was as noteworthy for its athleticism and invention as its emotional resonance and formal beauty.
Curran’s three upcoming works also reflect inspiration from words and were conceived in that off-center state of moving toward a destination. Curran was on a plane reading Joan Acocella’s review of a piece by choreographer Akram Khan when he ran across a striking phrase. “She said, ‘When he dances, he looks like the letter “S” trying to turn itself inside out.’ ”
“Social Discourse,” which will open the Ferst Center show, will show dancers grappling with the “S” image in what Curran describes as a “contemporary urban folk dance.” To a wash of sound by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, six dancers in primary-colored leotards are spread across the floor, moving in their own orbits. Bodies whirl through twisting descents, folding nimbly into the floor and rebounding into the air. Arms and legs slice through the air. Dancers reach to the body’s extremes, pulling through their torsos as if stretching their hearts open.
Curran calls “Hard Bargain,” the program’s middle work, his “diplomacy dance.” It was commissioned by Minneapolis-based troupe Xenon, which asked Curran to quickly assemble a “men’s piece.” Set to arias by George Frederic Handel, it’s “four men agreeing to disagree,” Curran explained. “It’s combative and competitive, but also collaborative.” He said he’s a political news junkie, which adds a layer to this slapstick, rough-and-tumble dance of “baroque diplomats trying to convince each other that they are right.”
The program’s final work, “Left Exit (Faith, Doubt and Reason),” came from a commission by Anna M. Thompson, executive director of the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. She challenged Curran to choreograph an evening-length work; they compromised with a half-evening-length piece that touched on Notre Dame’s overarcing theme that year: “the image of God in man.”
Thompson tied the work to a course that all Notre Dame freshmen take, titled “Faith, Doubt and Reason.” Curran talked with students about every section of the course. “The interesting thing to me was I only found faith; there was not doubt,” Curran said. “It was radical to have this sort of out-gay man who was raised in a pretty strict Catholic environment questioning, ‘Does religion make more problems than it solves?’ and ‘Do you really think if you pray to God and ask for something, he’ll intervene?’ You know, things I’ve been thinking about for years — I call it wrestling with the angels.”
He brought those questions to his troupe, whose members are Jewish, Buddhist, atheist and Catholic. The experience galvanized the company. “It really was art doing its job,” Curran said. “It’s a piece that raises lots of questions, and asks the audience to consider them and answer them.”
Curran also drew from Astra Taylor’s documentary “Examined Life.” In that film, Taylor interviews 10 philosophers, all while traveling — in a taxicab, between gates at an airport, walking down a sidewalk on the shore of Lake Michigan and so forth — based on the idea that people express themselves differently when in transit or moving through space.
Curran concurs with that point of view and hopes he can keep up with the demands of full-time teaching plus free-lancing and touring. Getting the job he’d long hoped for has involved making sacrifices; he recently had to turn down some glamorous foreign projects.
“The irony doesn’t escape me,” Curran said. “But it is about connecting with other human beings; it is about being an ambassador for the art form. I’ve decided that art can work in your life the way that religion does for some people. It can organize a chaotic universe where bad things happen to good people. It is how I connect to spirit or soul. It just gives me a more vivid life.”