Contemporary choreographer George Staib says his new piece, “Versus,” coming March 21-23 at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, emerged out of some of his older works. But it’s not a retrospective. And if the dancers in his six-year-old company, Staibdance, were hoping they would know the movement vocabulary, they were dead wrong. “They’re saying that only the working titles have remained the same and that everything else is completely new,” Staib says with a smile.
“What I saw in these older works was a kind of through line,” he explains as we sit in his tiny office in the dance department at Emory University. “I am interested in the fact that conflicts are internally driven; they happen because something doesn’t feel right in your gut. These older works were all in some way about not believing, not trusting, not understanding. I was thinking about the cardinal, literary conflicts too: man against man, man against fate or destiny or nature.”
Staib acknowledges that those are huge, global subjects, but as we talk he gives shape to “Versus,” a 70-minute piece for 15 dancers. It’s a movement triptych comprising one combative section titled “Touché” bookended by two more introspective parts, “Crevasse” and “Endgame.” “Crevasse” includes choreography by Staib’s wife, Kathleen Wessel. (Disclosure: Wessel also is a dance writer for ArtsATL.)
Staib says the middle section will resemble hand-to-hand combat. He even brought in a stage combat professional, John Ammerman, to train the dancers in punching, kicking and slapping.
“It’s about the kind of crap we see on TV,” Staib declares. “What does it say about us that we spend so much time watching other people’s misery? I think it’s because we are really bored and need to know that our own lives aren’t so bad, so we enjoy watching conflict and seeing the mighty fall.”
As the work developed, the choreographer introduced ideas about different kinds of conflict: racial and political, and the fights over evolution and abortion. It’s all in there, he says, if only briefly. So are his parents.
When he was a child, Staib says, his home life was so contentious that “Days of Our Lives” could serve as the family’s soundtrack. “It was psychological, not physical combat, but our parents’ fights were just so cartoony after a while, kind of silly and ridiculous. Everything had the same weight, from taking out the trash to cooking dinner. It was all done in the same fever-pitch argument. I didn’t see it at the time, but I think the over-the-top craziness indicated something tender underneath.”
That tenderness emerges in the first and third sections of “Versus.” And, Staib says, there will be feathers softly floating and flying at the end.
It’s difficult to talk to any contemporary choreographer these days without Gaga coming up in the conversation. Gaga is a new approach to movement developed by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. It encourages dancers to override technique and discover a more relaxed, visceral exploration of the body.
In the past, Staib has been the antithesis of Gaga. The winner of several awards for choreography, he has a reputation as a meticulous dancemaker who knows what he wants and asks his dancers to learn phrases he has created before rehearsals begin.
That’s a useful trait, he says, when choreographing for a 30-girl high school marching band, one of his many credits. Now, thanks to Gaga training in Israel and years of experience as a choreographer, he’s working in a less structured way and collaborating more with his dancers.
“I have been planning a lot less with this work,” he says. “I want it to be more authentic, more in the moment. For a while, this approach was giving me more anxiety, but now it’s making me less anxious.” Anxiety, one suspects, is a Staib trait. During our conversation he comes across as a smart bundle of nervous energy and frequently interrupts himself to clarify, revise or reiterate.
The sound collage for “Versus” will be more ambient than in some of his previous works, with music as diverse as Sam and the Womp, Klaus Nomi and Kroke. Kendall Simpson, who composes and edits sound for many local choreographers, intersperses his own compositions along with text from Charles Darwin and the Bible and haikus from Georgia poet Michael Diebert.
Staib, 45, has been on the Emory dance faculty since 2001. He’s on the executive committee of the American College Dance Festival Association and served as an adjudicator for this year’s ACDFA South Regional Conference. His company has performed across the United States and internationally and has won several awards. As a result, Staib says, he feels ready to move Staibdance away from Emory — “my safety net” — next year. “Versus” will be the company’s last performance at the Schwartz Center’s black-box Dance Studio.