When I moved to Seattle in 2002 to become artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater, I felt sad (I had closed the dance company that I had spent 24 years building in New York); misunderstood (my board of directors here didn’t seem to understand a thing I was saying); alienated (I had moved clear across the country into a community whose culture seemed foreign); and lonely (basically I knew no one here). I felt so conflicted about being here that I didn’t even rent an apartment but rather lived out of my suitcase in a hotel for the first 9 months. What got me through this and my first two years at Spectrum was Kent Stowell reminding me (sounding like Tim Gunn from Project Runway), to “make it work” and Stargate SG-1, Showtime and later the SciFi Channel’s long running series. This is not hyperbole (well maybe it is) but it’s true — that television show saved my life!
Of course I knew the 1994 Roland Emmerich directed movie Stargate, staring James Spader and Kurt Russell, on which the television series was based but I had never watched the TV show. I liked the movie because the science titillated me. I loved the idea that a ring-shaped alien device could create a wormhole enabling personal transportation to complementary devices located cosmic distances away; and the quirky concepts partially based on the theories of controversial Swiss author Erich Anton Paul von Däniken’s claims about extraterrestrial influences on early human culture. The TV show with its fiendish but beautiful, vain, and arrogant parasitic villains, the Goa’uld, that marched, camped and vamped, strutted their stuff across the sets and chewed the scenery like glamorous stars in an old Cecil B. De Mille movie, were just so much fun to watch.
During that time FUN is just what I needed– and there was plenty of opportunity for it! Monday beginning at 6 PM four episodes from a previous season; Tuesday through Thursday, one episode beginning at 7 usually from the same season as the Monday episodes; then Friday one old at 7:00 follow by the current season’s episode at 8:00. The characters Daniel Jackson, Samantha Carter, Teal’c, and Jack O’Neill were my imaginary friends and companions. Their travels through the Stargate to distant place, encountering new cultures (usually enslaved and pre-industrial), harrowing situations, danger, and fighting the evil Goa’uld, thrilled and distracted me from the realities of Spectrum. The show provided a daily respite from the challenges of my hard work at a not for profit dance organization. It gave me joy and solace from my sense of isolation in my new home of Seattle and relieved my sense of dread and impending disaster at work.
When I think about the show objectively, Stargate SG-1 was not a great show, it was a good show and I loved it. There were many pleasures to be had – the “Urgo” episode with Dom DeLuise (so, so funny), the Aschen and first Chaka episode, Richard Dean Anderson’s consistently wry and sometimes sardonic humor, the episode when Dr Frasier is killed, the early Carter/O’Neill love/attraction/loss story, the robot SG-1 team episodes, and the growing sense of ensemble as the seasons progressed come to mind. Oh, how I relished those moments when they nailed it! But more importantly I felt that the cast, producers, writers and directors seemed to be completely engaged, passionate about what they were doing and that engagement was often palpable. They found pleasure in what they did and that was inspiring. Those first two years of my religiously watching the show boosted my spirit and showed me what I wanted to bring to Spectrum – ensemble (team work), engagement (passion), and pleasure (love of the doing).
During that period I also started to become aware of an aspect of television that previously I was not conscious of – the role of the series developer/writer/producer. And for Stargate SG-1 that was Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner. Unlike movie making which is a director’s medium, in television it is the ubiquitous writer/producer that rule the roost. That person(s) has the power, and, controls quality, consistency, and vision. Even if they don’t write or direct every episode, their aesthetic sensibility and storytelling notions are reflected in everything you see on that screen. Just as Caesar’s image and seals were on documents and coinage authenticating their value, television producers stamp their seals on shows. For the the networks, they are the real faces of value for the shows – not the directors or actors.If Brad Wright/Jonathan Glassner and Stargate SG-1 is outside of your experience, how about Law and Order (or any of the Law and Order franchises, SVU or Criminal Intent) or CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and its franchises (Miami and New York) and “you betcha” that Dick Wolf and the Anthony E. Zuiker/Jerry Bruckheimer team respective seals of approval are all over those shows.
So what does this have to do with Spectrum? When I came to Seattle I had to use a new model for how to do things. What worked in New York did not work here. It didn’t work because my job was in many ways different. In New York I was a choreographer and by default an artistic director; while at Spectrum I was an artistic director and by default a choreographer. So, I began to model how I went about things like the developer/writer/producers of the television industry. At first, back in 2002, I was not conscious of what I was doing, but all that Stargate SG-1 watching had insinuated itself into my subconscious. It became clear to me that my job was to create a vision, oversee production, control quality, maintain consistency of product and deliver the highest quality dance that I could (set the standards by initially choreographing all the works myself, then begin to find others who could) and to do it all in the SG-1 spirit of ensemble, engagement, and pleasure.
Today, I still watch a lot of tv and am delighted by current shows like House, Fringe, Dexter, Califonication, Castle, Nip/Tuck, Glee, and TrueBlood. And I miss cancelled shows like Carnivàle, X-Files, Rome, and Firefly. My new role models seem to all be working in tv! The Scott brothers- Ridley (well known for his feature films Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, and Gladiator) and Tony (Top Gun, Deja Vu)- new tv show The Good Wife, with Julianna Margulies, is superb. Also, at the top of my list are Ronald D. Moore (the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Firefly), Bruno Heller (Rome, The Mentalist), and Tim Minear (Angel, Firefly).
However, there are two “Televionistas” that leave me breathless and inspired with their audacity, intelligence, creativity and genius – J. J. Abrams and Ryan Murphy. While Abrams’ recent feature Star Trek was a fresh and surprising visioning of a prequel, it is his string of television hits, Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe, which thrill. Just the sheer volume of his creative output and the energy needed to sustain his production company Bad Robot Productions boggles my mind. Murphy who is the creator of the two most diametrically opposed shows on television, Nip/Tuck (the dysfunctional relationship of two South Florida plastic surgeons) and Glee (musical show about the dysfunctional relationships among members of a high school glee club, and between the school’s faculty and staff) exhibits less bravado but more heart. However, both men are brilliant.
But Nip/Tuck brings back that old Stargate SG-1 feeling– but richer and better. The writing is excellent, especially the dialogue, and in-spite of the sometimes soap opera-ish elements, it resonates emotionally mature and honestly in a way that Stargate SG-1 never could. I laugh, I squirm and I am touched by how fragile, vulnerable, flawed and human the characters are. They remind me of me. I feel for them and for myself when I watch. Their foibles are also mine and that insight awakens my compassion for other.
As I move into the next chapter of my tenure at Spectrum, again I find that I am taking my inspiration from television. When I arrive home from my day at the studio, like a passionate young lover, I rush to my big flat screen TV and the downloaded shows I watch nightly through iTunes and Apple-TV (Roku is my next purchase) and embrace it. I tell myself that it is a way for me to escape from the challenges of my work but in reality it draws me closer. For me, it is an entertaining, deceptive, and unconscious way to meet, consider, solve and rise to the job’s demands.
While tv and dance don’t appear to have much in common, that difference might just be superficial, on the surface. Beyond tv’s big money, advertising driven revenues, huge resources at its disposal, and scores of creative types working on every aspect and dance/Spectrum’s lack of all of the above, both good television and good dance require vision, creativity, energy, imagination, skill, mastery, and insight. With television, I am reminded daily that while money and staff would make my life easier, they are not fundamental to making good dance or building a great organization. They just help deliver them to the public.