A&E Q&A - Choreographer George Staib faces the music

Staibdance performs with Vega String Quartet and pianist William Ransom at Emory Sept. 23-25

Iranian-American choreographer George Staib recalls his mother telling him "Boys don't do ballet" when he was a child living in Tehran. In 1977, when Staib was 10 years old, Staib's family immigrated to America, where he discovered a productive career as a dancer, choreographer and Emory University professor. He founded Staibdance in 2007, which has become one of Atlanta's most acclaimed and original modern dance companies. From Sept. 23-25, Staibdance presents another live, collaborative performance with Emory's Vega String Quartet, along with pianist William Ransom.

How did you first get interested in dance?

Throughout high school, I danced nominally in things like the show choir. In my freshman year of college, a for-real dancer asked me to do a duet with her in the student dance troupe. It was a disaster — a teacher called it "The Care Bears go to Hollywood." I planned to either pursue acting or go to law school after college and saw dancing as this little diversion, but I kept it up and took modern classes and summer programs with the Philadelphia Youth Ballet.

Do Iranian dance traditions inform your work?

There are some Armenian and Persian traditions that made their way — to a small degree — into a piece I did in January. Not so much in the work I've been doing lately, but my next piece after this show will involve movement traditions based on Persian dancing at parties.

As a teacher, do you ever find it difficult to put ideas about dance into words?

It's so hard to describe feeling, content and mood with dance. It's like telling a joke when you have to say, "You had to be there." Even teaching choreography class, when I give one kind of feedback to one person, I have to completely negate it based on another's approach and abilities.

Why did you found Staibdance?

At Emory, the faculty has a lot of creative freedom, and I've known for a long time that I really wanted my own company to do my own work. I want to make work with a consistent group of people, so the dancers can create a more homogenous style. And it helps facilitate my career at Emory. The more I do my own choreography work, or what we call "choreography research," the more I share with my students.

Do ideas for choreography come exclusively from the music, or from notions you've developed independently? Do you change things based on the skills of your dancers?

It's a little bit of everything. For I while, I couldn't make anything without knowing the music first. Lately, especially with this show, it's been a comfort to look at an idea first, and find the music later. In this show, one of the dancers is very thoughtful and emotional, so I'll move things around based on her abilities. Having the idea first is very liberating. Sometimes, if the music has a strong, eight-count structure, I can feel boxed in.

Once more, Staibdance will be performing live with the Vega String Quartet, with whom you collaborated in 2009. Do the dancers and musicians rehearse together?

The first time around we had more interactions. This time is more challenging because of the quartet's performance schedule. We won't get together until 10 days before the show. It's a little nerve-wracking, but we do have recordings of them performing the same music. The first time, we discovered there were major differences between what we the dancers rehearsed and what they were going to play. I explained to the musicians what I wanted, and within 24 hours, they came back with the music sounding and feeling the way we expected. They're phenomenal people, and so gentle and humble and dynamic.

How are you approaching the collaboration differently the second time?

This go-round is hopefully more sophisticated in terms of the work and the musical variation. Some of the music we're using is more familiar, like Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise" and the "Adagio for Strings," so the popularity of the music is scarier to me, choreographically.

Why is it scarier?

For example, we're doing a Samuel Barber piece that's a really popular piece of music, and people have probably heard it or seen other dances to it. I was originally not going to choreograph it, but I realized that I have these three men in the company, so I'd try a men's trio. The more popular a piece is, the more preconceptions people may have about what should happen in it. It's like when they re-did Willy Wonka. It's hard to battle or live up to people's expectations.

Kendall Simpson will be premiering a new composition, "Island," at this show. How is it different choreographing a new piece of music, compared to something classical?

He is great. Because we've worked together so long, he created a piece that challenged me, but resides in a place that's comfortable and feels very cozy. The challenge is to create a dance that feels very consistent in these three drastically different sections. It appeals to the mathematical side of me, the side that likes to solve problems. I've been asking them to hold notes longer, to make more connections between the sections, and he's jumping in with that. We're both getting our hands dirty.

Earlier this year, you told local arts blog ArtsCriticATL.com, "Lately, with dance, if there isn't something I can draw from in my own experience and somehow make universal, it's a lot harder for me." Is that still true?

That is the case. I'm not sure why. I find myself on this bridge, away from making pretty dances to pretty music, and trying to make something with more meaning. We're doing this lively Schumann piece, and it bothered me that it doesn't have content. I started thinking about the oddities of family members and the ones you talk about when they're not there, like "Uncle so-and-so and his drinking." So that inspired the choreography.

How old are you, and how much do you dance these days?

I'm 43. I dance as much as I can, although I'm nursing a painful back. I have herniated discs, which I guess came from dancing, but is a pretty common injury. My physical therapist says it may have come from a specific dance injury in Philadelphia 20 years ago. But whenever my colleague Greg Catellier has a performance, I usually participate, and I do work with my fiancée Kathleen Wessel. When this show is over, I should be dancing fairly consistently.

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