Sunday, February 20, 2000

Dance company director stickler for details

Enquirer contributor

        Kevin Ward speaks so softly that you must lean forward in your chair to hear him. It's unexpected. Dance company directors are skilled at keeping noisy dancers moving, all the while fielding dozens of questions that come flying at them.

        His laid-back style seems out of place in the bustling world that is Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. But it's deceiving.

        “He's quiet only until you're not doing your job. If you've seen it (the louder side), you don't really want to get to that point,” laughs Terence Greene, a 10-year company veteran.

        Mr. Greene, originally from Cleveland, came to Dayton via New York because of the company's reputation. “Everybody knows about DCDC,” he says. “It's famous.”

        Kevin Ward came to DCDC in 1980 when the company's founder and artistic director Jeraldyne Blunden invited him to teach a men's class. Soon he was dancing and choreographing for the group.

        Ten years later he became associate artistic director and resident choreographer. He was named artistic director in December after Ms. Blunden died in November.

        Mr. Ward's high standards are why Mr. Greene is still with the company.

        “He's stern, a stickler about everything, but he knows his stuff. His touch is light but his walk is powerful,” Mr. Greene says. @subhed New York in March

        Evidence of the “stickler” tag shows up during a rehearsal of “Las Desenamoradas,” Eleo Pomare's dramatic work to the jazz sounds of John Coltrane.

        In a cavernous, mirrored studio one recent gray February day, Mr. Ward and dancers spent an hour and a half perfecting a 60-second section of the work they would perform in Cleveland this month Then it's off to New York in March to perform the work at Cornell University.

        Every flexed foot, extended arm and stretched leg was analyzed and explained as to the choreographer's intent. It was a tedious process that had its payoff when the company finally got to a run-through that ran flawlessly with rich, dramatic impact.

        Mr. Ward began the rehearsal sitting to the side and taking notes as rehearsal coach G.D. Harris demonstrated the movements. The atmosphere was as relaxed as Mr. Ward's attire — jeans and checkered shirt.

        He didn't sit still for long. Within minutes Mr. Ward was out of his chair, dancing and mixing it up with the dancers with an easy laugh.

        Painting pictures with words — and humor — is his style.

        In “Las Desenamoradas,” based on Federico Garcia Lorca's dramatic play The House of Bernarda Alba, dancer Nejla Yatkin was struggling with her character.

        “She's a 60-year old virgin,” Mr. Ward says. “Think how that would feel.”

        The room burst into laughter and Ms. Yatkin had the mental tool she needed.

        DCDC's reputation for attention to detail and deep respect for the works bring the best choreographers to the company. Donald McKayle and Ronald K. Brown, for example, set last year's popular “Children of the Passage.”

        The predominantly black, 12-member modern dance company includes other ethnic groups. The majority of its extensive repertory is by black choreographers, but it uses a diverse group of them. As an example of its reach, DCDC is the first predominantly black U.S. company to ask for one of modern dance legend Merce Cunningham's works, “Channels and Inserts.”

        The company is on the road 8-10 weeks a year. After the Cornell performance, it's back to Dayton to prepare for a joint concert with Dayton's Rhythm in Shoes in May.

        DCDC rarely performs in Cincinnati, although Dawn Wood, director of touring, says the company is working on a date for next fall with Jefferson James of Contemporary Dance Theater.

        Mr. Ward says the most obvious change since the beloved Ms. Blunden's death is the heavy feeling of responsibility.

        “There's a lot more forward-planning, a lot more time spent in the office and not in the studio,” he says. “It's not good or bad, it's just what has to be.”

        Ms. Blunden's daughter, Debbie Blunden-Diggs is associate artistic director/director of education.

        Mr. Ward, 46, grew up in Dayton. He started dancing at 15, performing African dances with a radical theater group in the '60s. Called Theater West, it no longer exists but allowed Mr. Ward his first chance to earn money for dancing. “Maybe $15 a week,” he recalls.

        With piano as his first love, he attended Interlochen Arts Academy, a high school in Michigan, where he majored in music and minored in dance. This brought him a dance scholarship to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He performed with Cincinnati Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem before returning to Dayton.

        He continues to play piano (“Only for myself now”) and has composed dance scores for DCDC and Dayton's Rhythm in Shoes (“The kind to get people up and moving,” he says).

        He'll continue to teach and choreograph for the company he's grown up with artistically. That makes the dancers happy.

        In discussions, they use words such as “mentor” and “role model” in describing their relationship with him.

        “He brings something out of you that you never knew you had,” says Greer Reed-Walton, who's been with the company eight years.


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