Dancing Through Fatherhood

by Jean Schiffman

Choreographers Scott Wells and Sheldon B. Smith examine contemporary fatherhood through dance.

On a Saturday afternoon at Mills College, a rehearsal is underway for the upcoming San Francisco world premiere of “Father On.” The evening-long piece, created by Scott Wells and Sheldon B. Smith for Scott Wells & Dancers, examines contemporary fatherhood in ways that are dark, funny, reflective and deeply personal. It comprises movement, text, improvisation and both live and recorded music in an edgy exploration of a life experience in which Wells and Smith are currently immersed.

Wells sits watching as Smith, Stephen Buescher and Rajendra Serber—who comprise three of the five-member ensemble (the other two are Wells himself, who’s ending a seven-year hiatus from performing, and Christophe Schutz from Germany, who’s absent today)—engage in a free-form, dancerly version of the children’s game “Red Light, Green Light,” with the dancers competing to deliver short, seemingly improvised monologues. One describes the birth of his child, another tells of attending a grandparent’s funeral. One ends up on the floor in a tantrum of pounding fists and feet.

Makeshift props are scattered about: a dressmaker’s dummy on wheels, a free-standing ladder, table and chairs, a music stand. On a chalkboard are scribbled working titles of sequences in development: Led Zeppelin dance, lullaby music, tantrum, tag dance, sex talk and more.

Wells, who is shorter (by a head) and stockier than the tall, lanky Smith, has ceded the floor to Smith for this section of today’s rehearsal. In this first collaboration together for the two--who have known and respected each other’s work, for 23 years—they are taking turns, in a loose manner, in choreographing sequences. Smith’s an old hand at collaboration; he’s the co-artistic director of a multimedia dance company, Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts, along with his fulltime gig teaching dance at Mills. For Wells, the collaborative effort, while deeply rewarding, is also challenging: “It’s a different mode for me” he says, laughing, “to hold back and let him go with his flow for a while.”

The “Red Light, Green Light” sequence and the tantrum are likely to take place somewhere in the middle of the hour-long piece. Wells, who volunteers at a child-care center, saw some kids playing the game one day and was struck with how good they were at freezing like statues. “It seems natural to draw some kids’ games into this,” offers Smith, “without getting too carried away.”

As envisioned at this point in the rehearsal process, the piece begins with a minute-long sound collage (probably Beethoven, says Smith, as the two relax after the rehearsal, and a tinkly lullaby versions of rock music by Nirvana or the Sex Pistols). What follows will be a seemingly casual how’s-fatherhood-going conversation between Smith and Wells.

For Wells, whose son is four, the idea of creating work about fatherhood seemed like the next natural thing to do in a career focused on dances for men—a career that has included multiple awards (Isadora Duncan awards, a GOLDIE and more) and tours of Europe to teach and perform.

“This idea sounded like a natural for both of us,” agrees Smith, who has a six-year-old son. “Being a father is many, many different things, one of which is watching your son do amazing, inspiring movement all the time. . . . The starting point for me was seeing the creativity in my own child and acknowledging how that was shifting my creativity, my artistry.”

The two men began with conversations that have continued throughout the rehearsal process. “We’re still at the sketching stage,” says Smith, pointing to the chalkboard. “We’re filling in the gaps and forming the thing into a shape. At the same time, I think there’s going to be lots of improvisation in it. . . . Depending on how it all weaves together, there’s a lot of room for rawness, improvised text, text that can be absurd. . . . A sad tale can be contextualized with other things, things that undercut that sadness with humor or with movement. We’re playing with layers of juxtaposition.”

The “Led Zeppelin dance” will precede Buescher’s own story of the birth of his first child; after that will come Wells’ monologue about his father. The tantrum leads to utter confusion and cluelessness on the part of the men, who resort to nervously fixing and repairing things until a cinema verité moment in which Christy Bolingbroke, theater director at ODC (where the performance takes place and where Scott Wells & Dancers is in residence) storms onstage to scold them. A game of tag segues into partnering dances involving horseplay and acrobatics.

At today’s rehearsal, the dancers are substituting a bundle of cloth for the doll they’ll use in performance, in a sequence in which they juggle the baby, play football with it, roll on the floor with it. “Maybe the baby flies into the wings with a crashing sound,” says Smith as all three pause, laughing.

“Father On” will have a sense of a beginning and an ending (with some of the music played by the dancers on children’s instruments) plus an important climactic moment. Fragments of narrative will be interwoven throughout. But, says Smith, dance deals with “feeling, tone and abstraction of things that aren’t entirely linear, so this is a collage of experiences of being a father and being a child of a father.” In all, as Wells elaborates, there will be images, scenes and dances—“slower moments of maybe pure dance,” he says, “and wild moments. We want to take the audience through a journey.”

The journey is, very specifically, about the male experience of parenting. Smith theorizes that one of the differences between mothers and fathers is that fathers get away with irresponsible behaviors a little more often than mothers do—a gross generalization, he admits, but true for him.

“I’m the first generation in my family to be a 50 percent wage earner with my wife and trying to be a 50 percent parent in raising my child,” he says. “So part of this piece is grappling with that—not even necessarily finding the answers, but moving through the questions.” One of the questions is, “Who am I if I still have the residual sense of whatever I thought a father was supposed to be?”

Observes Wells, “There’s something endearing about the confusion of men around parenting. . . . I think women have a little bit clearer idea [in advance] of what it’s going to look like.”

“Father On,” says Smith, explores the “raw nature of fatherhood [which can be] frustrating, tiring, but also inspiring . . . as well as the loving, humorous, combative, complex, messy part of it—complex in the best ways that make a person feel really alive. I hope this piece has a really alive quality to it.”

Wells aims to push the edges, express how hard and dark fatherhood can sometimes be. “Father On” will be both bold and light, he concludes. “I think we’re going for extremes.”

Dec. 5-8, ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. 863-9834.