Choreographer Ann Woodhead stages final piece
By Paula Harris
ANN WOODHEAD can recall the exact moment she got hooked. It happened out of the blue one day when Woodhead, just a schoolgirl then, went to see a performance by renowned Spanish dancer José Greco.
"I can still remember what the weather was like that day and what I was wearing," she remembers dreamily. "While other girls were infatuated with movie stars, I was in love with him!"
Woodhead realized then she was also in love with dance.
"Not with ballet--at the time I hated that," she explains, "but with other forms like social dancing. I knew that when I danced I was really happy. It engaged me totally--my intellect, my spirit, and my body. It made me feel like a whole person. It made me feel beautiful."
That love affair has spanned almost four decades. Woodhead began ballroom dancing in high school. For the past 39 years, she's danced seriously, working as a dance instructor at Sonoma State University since 1975 and creating adventurous choreography that often melds classical and modern dance and music.
Now the acclaimed Sonoma County dancer and choreographer is winding down her teaching career at SSU by directing The View from Spring to Autumn, her last production before she retires next January.
Today, at age 61, the unconventional Sebastopol resident is as provocative as ever. She lounges in a Santa Rosa restaurant booth, dressed entirely in scarlet and black, a dramatic figure with a flowing scarf, chunky silver earrings, and gray hair cut short and spiky with the ends colored red.
Woodhead is not about to "act her age." Right now she's admiring a woman's blood-red fake snakeskin ankle boots from afar. "I'd like a pair of those," she remarks and settles back in her seat to order a thick sirloin steak and fizzy mineral water with lemon. During the conversation, Woodhead polishes off the meat with gusto but eschews the mashed potato. At one point, she rests her steak knife on the plate looks across the table intently and doesn't mince words.
"What I love in dance and theater isn't Hello, Dolly," she announces. "And it doesn't interest me to make steps. I've done a lot of steps. Now the thrust is improvisation."
Described by Woodhead as postmodern dance, her new show combines material from two older pieces, Earth and Air (originally created for the Ann Woodhead Dance Company in the early '80s) and Garden of the Heart (created for the Sonoma State University Dance Ensemble in the mid-'90s), with newer pieces, including Temporary Excuses, with original music by Tony D'Anna and Jason Sherbundy, which will contain some subtle nudity.
"Unlike some of the things I've done, this show is extremely accessible," she promises.
"In my early years as a choreographer I was only interested in totally cutting edge and avant garde," she says. "But I've softened. I still consider dance to be experimental, but I've seen so much, I'm not even sure what's cutting edge anymore."
Earth and Air will use seven dancers performing to a prerecorded version of Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto. In Garden of the Heart, SSU music professor Marilyn Thompson will play Chopin's nocturnes to accompany seven female dancers.
Besides the Sonoma State University Dance Ensemble, Woodhead has invited guest dancers Elizabeth Boubion, Tom Truss, and Julie Kane. According to Woodhead, Kane will dance at eight months pregnant to enhance one choreography. "It calls for a very pregnant woman," Woodhead explains. "But if she goes into labor beforehand, the piece can still function without her."
Woodhead herself will perform an eight-minute solo called The Burden of Breath: An Autumn Tango. "Yeah, I'm definitely the oldest dancer in the show," she adds. "Everyone else ranges from 18 to 40."
She's proud of the fact that age and shape play no role in her production. "Different body types humanize the dancing," she says. "I have a lot of body types in my show--big-round, little-round, tall-skinny. I love that."
Woodhead believes the Western art of dance should begin to embrace artists who fall outside the stereotype.
"There's a whole generation of dancers in their 40s, 50s, and beyond, and there are going to be more of us," she says, explaining that today's dancers take better care of their bodies, make use of sports medicine, and are able to continue for longer despite breakdown of connective tissue and loss of resilience over time.
Some critics may disapprove of dancers who still perform at age 61, Woodhead says, but far more congratulate her positive example. However, she grudgingly admits, "Aging is a challenge."
As far as the future of dance is concerned, Woodhead spots a trend toward a more athletic, almost circus-style showiness. She doesn't like it.
"There's a place for flashy, but it's not my fundamental intention," she explains. "I'm interested in the poetics of dancing in imagery and evoking feeling rather than demonstrating and telling people what they're supposed to feel. I want audiences to find layers of experiences in what they're seeing. I don't like it to be too simple."
Although her time as an educator with SSU is coming to a close, Woodhead says there are still lots of challenges on the horizon. She plans to pursue her second love, acting, move eventually to a home by the sea north of Fort Bragg--and, yes, keep on dancing.
"Yes, of course I'm going to continue to use dance as my exercise," she says with a laugh. "Somehow walking just doesn't make it."
'The View from Spring to Autumn' hits the stage Feb. 23-25 and March 1-4 at Sonoma State University, Persons Theater, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Tickets are $15. Call for times. 707/664-2353.
From the February 22-28, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.