Education - What?: A Choreographic Evolution
The Creation of What? A History - How does a work evolve? Can it? Should it? by Beth Miklavcic
Written July 7, 2003

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My purpose in sharing the creation and evolution of What? is to show the changes of a work over time. Some people believe in absolute purity, that once a work is created it should not be adjusted or changed in any way. My point-of-view is that some works change whether you want them to or not. What? is such a work. The movement is so dynamic, fun, and completely challenging to perform that I couldn't let it atrophy. I wanted to keep it current in our company's current repertoire. After the original creation of the work in 1984 I was itching to try it on myself.

What? has a movement quality that is aggressive, questioning, and physically exhausting. Choreographing What? and later learning the movement as a dancer enabled me to find a vehicle for an exhausting form of cathartic expression. It is not something that can be easily expressed verbally but through time, the various dancers that have had an opportunity to learn and perform this work, expressed to me a similar feeling described as a cathartic sense of release.

What? is a dance about communication. The movement was originally inspired by sign language and then exaggerated. I can't look at a movement and say, "Oh, that's an A." It's not like that. It's more of the energy of watching someone communicate in sign language. It is expressive, emotional, beautiful, and requires the complete concentration of the people signing.

The format of the dance has to be credited to the original dancers. When the work was created in 1984, I had the privilege to work with two very incredible performers. Esther Burchinal had the ability to create strong, precise, and quick lines. She had a light quality to her natural movement I wanted to use that, as well as, challenge her to perform her movement with increased intensity. Susie McGee was a dynamic and intense performer. She was one of those performers that could pull anything off. I knew I could give her very strange movement and she would make it work. My challenge with her was to see how far I could go. I think every choreographer wishes to work with a dancer that has Susie's qualities. I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to create this work using these incredible dancers.

The visual look of the dance was space age. I'm not sure why it turned out that way, but I kept envisioning bald. It took a little research to figure out how to create the look without asking my dancers to shave their heads. The University Pharmacy in Salt Lake City supplies make-up for the theatre students attending the University of Utah, so I went there and asked them for suggestions. They were extremely helpful, they ordered the skullcaps, helped match the makeup, which covered the cap, and showed me what kind of spirit gum to use. As we started rehearsing with the make up we discovered a problem. When the dancers did floor work that involved any sort of head contact with the floor, the dancer would leave a big make up imprint on the floor. This not only looked bad, it was dangerous for the dancers, because they could slip on the make-up left on the floor. We had to figure out a way for the dancers to keep their heads off the floor and for some of the movements this was extremely hard, because of the force involved in the execution of some of the backward falls. Another problem was the spirit gum on the skin was very irritating, as well as the amount of time it took to apply the make-up was at least an hour. This limited the dancer to only being able to perform one dance in a concert. Besides these problems, the look was great and added to the mysterious quality of the dance.

The costuming priority was to give the dancers freedom of movement, so I went with jumpsuits. I picked out stretchy velour. One jumpsuit was a hot pink, this was Susie's. Esther's was a deep maroon. When the lights hit the shiny velour the costumes vibrated. The jumpsuits needed something to keep them up at the waist so I went to a used clothing store and picked out some thick belts, took them home and painted them white with different color accents. The finishing touch was to put a band of color around their eyes that matched their jumpsuits. This made them look like demented raccoons. I was pleased with the finished product. I'm sure my dancers were thinking, "What is she doing?" But they never said anything to me and they put up with all the inconveniences that it took to create the look that made the dance come alive.

Jimmy Miklavcic, my husband, was the person to create the original sound score. Our process was one of talking about qualities, but then leaving specifics open. At that time, Jimmy's sound studio was upstairs in the house we rented. As he would work on sound sketches I would yell up to him through the stairway, "That's it!" Through that improvisational form of working, Jimmy came up with a piece for Esther's solo, consisting of drum rhythms. Then he composed a completely different piece for Susie's solo. The duet section consisted of a meld of the qualities of the two.

The drum section, as well as the drum parts in the whole work, was composed and performed with a Roland Drumatix. It is a small programmable drum machine with a standard trap set instrumentation. The Drumatix was played through an old Yamaha amplifier designed for organs. It had a pair of high frequency tweeters that rotated to produce a tremelo effect. Jimmy's goal with the drum solo was to create a punctuated sonic environment for the solo dancer.

In the second section, Jimmy minimized the drums to a slow single pounding, similar to that of a hammer on steel. Using this as the base, Jimmy created long drone-like humming sounds using a Mini Moog analog synthesizer. This created a more haunting audio environment for the second solo dancer.

As the dance transformed into a duet, at the same time the music also took on an orchestrated structure. Beginning with a heartbeat style bass drum, other percussive and rhythmic sounds, produced with a Sequential Circuits Pro One Synthesizer, were added to build layers. Accents of reverberated vocal contortions were added, as well as, increased frequency of cymbal crashes helped the piece build to an abrupt end.

What? was originally performed at the Salt Lake City Art Center on May 10th, 1984, for Experimental Floss which was an art variety show that Jimmy and myself along with Tina Karlsson organized before we formed Another Language in 1985. Susie and Esther heated the stage when they performed the dance and they were greeted with roaring applause.

Beth Miklavcic's What? was included in my 'Boy, did I ever like that,' category. Miklavcic displays a consistent and innovative command of her craft. Even though I am sometimes more or less drawn to the particular aesthetic of her pieces, her sense of dynamics and ability to enhance and expand the language of movement is impressive. Miklavcic goes for the essence of her themes, leaving the superficial imitations of gesture to others. Too often, choreography looks like movement phrases derived from a dance technique class pasted together to make a 'dance.' This choreographer makes the distinction between classroom movement and choreography with originality and vitality. Robin Chmelar-The Event 1984

Dance Theatre Coalition had scheduled a concert for June 7-9, 1984, and invited us to perform What? for their concert. Again, Susie and Esther did a superb job and the work was again received very well.

Beth Miklavcic's What? followed with much contrast. What? is one of the best pieces in the concert because it doesn't imitate what might be considered traditional costume or music. Dancers Esther Burchinal and Susie McGee-Lowdermilk wore jumpsuits and hair coverings, and looked like bald men from a Star Trek movie. Their movements were jerky and abrupt, but in unison to Mr. Miklavcic's own music. Shia Kapos-The Salt Lake Tribune 1984

After this concert, Susie's husband Mark Lowdermilk who at the time was performing for Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company wanted to learn Esther's role. I was glad to teach him, but wanted to make sure Esther felt all right about another dancer learning her role. It turned out that she was fine with this, especially since she was going to have to take the summer off from dancing, due to having to have an operation on her foot.

I proceeded to teach Mark, Esther's role. Esther graciously came to a few rehearsals and worked with Mark on the role. Esther's costume did not fit Mark, so Susie and Mark created costumes by spray-painting white jumpsuits. The effect was different, but within the same genre, and they worked. They kept the bald heads, and prepared the work for a "Trompel'Oeil" opening at the Salt Lake Art's Center which also included performances of works by Ririe-Woodbury dancers, on July 6th, 1984.

The audience at this concert was more conservative and I believe that most of them were quite shocked by the work, but after the concert Mark and Susie came up to me with a videographer from Channel 4. He wanted to videotape What? to show on television. Now, here is where I made a stupid decision. I said that I would like to wait for Esther's toe to heal. I wanted to be fair to Esther, since she was the original dancer. I was also getting burnt out; the work had been performed for three different concerts three months in a row. It was summer, and I needed a break. Well, of course the opportunity never arose again. And we missed out. I learned a lesson from that experience. Jump on the chances that come along.

Not long after this Mark and Susie formed their dance company called A Company of Four and toured to India. What? was in their repertoire that year and was performed internationally.

In 1985, Jimmy and I decided to create our own company called Another Language Performing Arts Company our feelings about dance and performance is that it is another form of communication. As a result the name Another Language seemed appropriate. Our debut concert focused on repertoire of works that Jimmy and I had created over the previous five years. What? of course was included. I decided that I would like to do Esther's role and Gigi Moss learned Susie's role. We performed it for the Brown Bag Concert Series sponsored by the Salt Lake City Arts Council during the summer of 1985. Then Gigi moved to Colorado and Brian Varanzoff learned the role for our September debut concert. Brian was hot in the role. He did it differently than Susie, but embraced the quality of the dance and made it his own. Throughout the years of performing the work, the dancers who brought What? to life were able to do this.

After our debut concert I decided to let the work rest for a while. In 1992 I had a dancer in the company who I felt could fulfill the role, Sarah Hudelson. A problem developed, by having a small company, everyone performed in a lot of pieces. Doing elaborate makeup such as skullcaps became impossible. So, for this concert we tried something different. We did white face and spray painted our hair with different colors.

What? danced by its choreographer Beth Miklavcic and Sarah Hudelson, was super-intense movement, sharply and uncompromisingly executed, whose futuristic feeling suggested the threat of living in a society filled with constant, impersonal change. Dorothy Stowe-Deseret News 1992

After performing the work, the movement felt good, but the costumes no longer felt right. Dated. It had been seven years. I made a decision to simplify. No special make-up and just black pant and t-shirts. This decision worked. That year as we were rehearsing for an outdoor performance I fell in a hole and severely sprained my ankle. I had to be rushed to the hospital. We had two weeks to fix things for our performance at the Utah Arts Festival. Michael Larkin stepped up. He was an incredible performer with a very intense quality, this quality works better for Susie's solo, so Sarah taught Michael her role and I taught Sarah mine. After two weeks of hustling they were ready and did an excellent job.

That following year I focused on choreographing a 45-minute work to Pamela Z's music, and rehabilitated my ankle. By the next summer I was able to perform What? with Michael. Michael brought the work up to the same level as Brian had. Each dancer is different. Each dancer had approached the dance with their movement qualities and behaviors. Michael was powerful in the role. I felt fortunate to have had the experience of dancing with someone who owned the dance. Michael stayed with the company for three years.

In 1995 for our 10th anniversary concert we decided to pull up highlighted works from our repertoire. Of course What? was included. Spencer John Powell learned Michael's part.

Another favorite was What? a duet from 1984 by Beth Miklavcic. The work has a sculptural quality, enhanced by Jimmy Miklavcic's expressively abstract score. Spencer John Powell took center stage in his interpretation of Miklavcic's intense, driving movement. Helen Forsberg-The Salt Lake Tribune 1995

What? was an eerie, surrealistic work that illustrated the frustrations of two people who try but fail to communicate with each other and the outside world. Scott Iwasaki-Deseret News-1995

The piece evolved not because I wanted it to, but times changed, the situation of the performance venues changed, and the dancers changed. I did not force What? to change, it evolved naturally. The work maintained it's original integrity though the outside look ended up being very different from the original dance. The intention of the message we were communicating remained.

It's now been eight years since I've retired this work. I still crave it. I crave the movement. It's one of those rare dances that I don't know exactly where it came from, but I know the intention of it contains something universal and primal. Now that I'm 44 years old, I don't know if I could even physically do this dance anymore. I don't know if I want to. I remember it. It's in my blood and bones. Maybe that's enough. I am fortunate to have tried on the movement of this dance with so many marvelous performers, dancers who were willing to go to the edge of their expression and of their physicality. What a ride What? was.