Once Upon a Mattress: Keigwin + Company

Those of us who enjoy our beds, and everything that we might do in them, will immediately take to #SHARETHEMATTRESS a whimsical video project about what people do in bed and the many permutations of actions that take place upon a mattress. Yep, really. This video project is a wild success and grows weekly, with dancers and non-dancers alike sending in video of their version of STM (not a disease but a viral epidemic!). All because of a man called Larry Keigwin who, back in 2001, choreographed the work Mattress Suite with his friends. The suite explores sexual identity and consists of solos, duets and trios that are performed over a queen size mattress and include multiple combinations of partners, straight and not so straight. The piece catapulted the company to instant recognition and success, and Keigwin + Company continue to play with the mattress metaphor to the delight of audiences.

Larry cofounded Keigwin + Company in 2003 along with associate director Nicole Wolcott. To my eye, this company represents American contemporary dance at the present moment-its repertory capturing movement reminiscent of Paul Taylor’s leaps and balletic expositions (Natural Selection, Canvas), as well as a mixture of playful, vaudevillian antics (Girls, Boys, Mattress Suite). K + C embraces pop culture, cultural and social issues, gender, sexuality, relationships, and current events in the same way that America continually strives to embrace difference, equality and freedom-wholeheartedly. True, this does not always make everyone happy or come off without problems, yet there is much to the spirit of inclusion and risk. So my proverbial hat is off to Mr. Keigwin, who manages to please most with his blend of physical energy, inquiry, collaboration and theatrical sensibility. As a psychoanalyst, my guess is that he learned to please others early on and can intuit what makes people happy, using this as a foundation to structure his performances. And it works. People do seem to have fun and walk away smiling, sometimes regardless of the choreography. Keigwin + Company has perfected the art of making people smile, so if the dancing isn’t exactly technique driven, who is going to complain? Joy trumps all, and in this day and age it is entertainment that drives audiences.

While other dance companies have faltered during economic downfalls, Keigwin + Company is a well funded operation that has flourished with commissions from Works & Process at the Guggenheim, The Juilliard School, The New York City Ballet’s Choreographic Institute, and The Martha Graham Dance Company, among many others. It has also received grants and generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the American Music Center Live Music for Dance Program, The Greenwall Foundation, The Harkness Foundation for Dance, The O’Donnell-Green Music & Dance Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, The Jerome Robbins Foundation, The Shubert Foundation, The Christian Keesee Charitable Trust, and Dianne & Daniel Vapnek Family Fund. All proof that this American dance troupe is alive and well- thriving, in fact.

Much of this is due to Larry Keigwin himself, a New York born and bred man with a warm and easy manner. He is great fun to talk with and, I imagine, great fun to work with too. He described growing up in Eastern Long Island, one of four boys (and a twin) and having very clear memories of roughhousing with his brothers as a kid. This was perhaps his first entry into dance- its physicality and energy. Keigwin also grew up dancing to early MTV and with an interest in pop culture, which is a hallmark of his work. As a young man, Keigwin studied ballet, jazz and Graham technique, and found that contemporary dance came intuitively to him. He continued his studies at Hofstra University, and danced with many artists including Penny Arcade, Robin Becket, David Rousseve, Varla Jean Merman, Zvi Gotheiner, John Jasperse, Jane Comfort, Julie Taymor, Doug Elkins, Doug Varone, and Mark Dendy. Keigwin’s early career experience in musical theater is evident in his dance pieces- they are often created with the gaze of the other in mind and an effort to entertain- not just through the choreography but also through the sets and the music he chooses.

Keigwin described the first dance he ever choreographed, Tenth Floor, as a foundational piece, which sharpened his vision and ability to capture the human condition in all its complexity. Tenth Floor is based on his impressions of the psychiatric ward at Stonybrook Hospital in upstate New York, where his schizophrenic brother had been hospitalized. The possibilities of dance and choreography to narrate human emotional experience are well known to dancers and choreographers alike, and Keigwin is no stranger to this. Yet his pieces retain an innocent and playful quality even when they attempt to address difficult territory. His choreography has extended from creating a new work for the New Zealand Ballet to working with the pop band Fischerspoponer, to working with the Radio City Rockettes. He has also staged the opening event of Fashion Week produced by Vogue, and has choreographed the musical Tales of the City, at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, as well as the off-Broadway production of RENT. He is currently working on a musical called “If/Then,” which is due to open in March in New York City.  It is perhaps his ability to work within different mediums and maintain an eye to entertaining through movement that is responsible for his success and that of his company.

I was in attendance when the company celebrated its 10th anniversary at the Joyce Theater with two New York premieres: Canvas, with music by Adam Crystal, and dancers from New York City Ballet; and Girls, a female trio danced to Frank Sinatra, alongside two signature works: Natural Selection and Mattress Suite. Having interviewed Mr. Keigwin about the program, he described Canvas as encompassing his choreographic style: starting with a blank slate and adding color slowly- letting the dancers move on their own and refining those movements together, creating a work through collaboration. Canvas came across more as a work that contained varied pairs and individuals who expressed themselves through movement, never quite coming together to form any kind of gestalt. Where I did see the collaborative effort and union was within the dancers themselves, who in this piece included not only the contemporary dancers of the company, but also classically trained ballet dancers. The mix of these two did in fact capture the collaboration that Keigwin spoke to me about. However, it also emphasized their differences.

Girls, the other premiere, is meant to be a companion piece to K + C’s Boys, and as such features three female dancers moving in and out of shiny mylar curtains to Frank Sinatra songs. While fun to look at, I found this piece too simplistic, with none of the quality of movement evident in some of Keigwin’s other pieces, but instead with a bubble gum-like style which did not capture any of the potential intricacies of girl-play. Instead, it seemed to me to be a misguided attempt to speak about girls, it seemed more like boy-play. I thought the music was wrong, the outfits were wrong, and the dancers were cute but what else is new? They were really skipping through the stage, and while I am all for playing and having fun, I think Frank Sinatra would be rolling his eyes.

#sharethemattress, photo by Whitney Browne
#sharethemattress, photo by Whitney Browne

Larry Keigwin seems to have found a successful framework within contemporary dance to both entertain and speak to social and cultural issues: An individual model where it is possible to be inclusive and to highlight difference, to remain fun and joyful while addressing controversy. This is not because he does not see the shadow in all of us, but because he chooses to interpret it as entertaining and play with it. And who couldn’t use more playfulness in life?

Keigwin + Company Repertoire

Urban Birds (2002)

Female Portraits (2002)

Mattress Suite (2003)

Angels of Anxiety (2004)

Natural Selection (2004)

Love Songs (2006)

Caffeinated (2007)

Elements (2008)

Runaway (2008)

Megalopolis (2009)

Sidewalk (2009)

Triptych (2009)

Bird Watching (2010)

Exit (2011)

Trio (2012)