For California Dancemaker, It's All Step By Step

Correction Aug. 19, 2009

The broadcast version of this story incorrectly identified one of the dancers as Rachel Johnson. Her correct name is Rebecca Johnson.

Dancer-choreographer Randee Paufve performs her piece 'In Exhale.' Photo: Marty Sohl i i

hide captionDancer-choreographer Randee Paufve performs her piece "In Exhale." Based in Oakland, Calif., Paufve specializes in works developed specifically for the dancers who gather to perform them.

Marty Sohl
Dancer-choreographer Randee Paufve performs her piece 'In Exhale.' Photo: Marty Sohl

Dancer-choreographer Randee Paufve performs her piece "In Exhale." Based in Oakland, Calif., Paufve specializes in works developed specifically for the dancers who gather to perform them.

Marty Sohl

"You have to love dancing to stick to it," said the late modern-dance giant Merce Cunningham — and given the grueling daily schedule choreographer Randee Paufve works, it's clear that she's one dancer-choreographer who does.

On most days, the California-based Paufve gets up at 5:30 a.m., eats breakfast and drives an hour to teach classes in Marin County. Then she eats lunch, rehearses a bit for that evening's meeting with her troupe, Paufve Dance, and heads back to the East Bay to teach afternoon classes.

At 5:30 p.m., when most people are headed home from work, Paufve and her dancers are usually just arriving at one of Oakland's many rehearsal spaces.

At one recent rehearsal, Paufve was giving notes about a performance the company had just done; the piece was her latest, a Romeo and Juliet-inspired work called "That Obscure Subject of Desire." Paufve's dancers listened carefully, then tried some new moves.

And as they went through their paces, it became clear that they bring a mix of humor and hard work to their rehearsals. They were experimenting with one particular move — dancer Brian Runstrom lowers down partner Katie Kruger with a long trail of red ribbon — when Paufve noted that Runstrom looked more like Rapunzel than Romeo. The entire troupe dissolved into laughter.

Doing What Moves You, Even When It Doesn't Pay

Paufve says to keep a modern dance company going, you have to inspire its members.

P: Dancer Marlena Oden of Paufve Dance i i

hide captionDancer Marlena Oden performs Paufve's "Spasm."

Joe Kunin
P: Dancer Marlena Oden of Paufve Dance

Dancer Marlena Oden performs Paufve's "Spasm."

Joe Kunin

Take dancer Rebecca Johnson, who says she knew she had to work with Paufve when she first saw her choreography nine years ago. Johnson and her fellow dancers stick with the troupe — one of hundreds in the U.S. that operate on the margins — even though Paufve can't always pay them.

"Five years ago, I was still kind of fighting that formula — thinking, 'Oh, if I could just find a full-time dance gig,' " Johnson says.

But Paufve's style of movement, which focuses on the relationship between dancers and uses performers of different ages, still speaks intimately to Johnson, and she's made her peace with needing to support herself in other ways.

It has taken Paufve herself a long time to make a life in dance. When she was 23, she spent a semester in India, studying one of the traditional dance forms there. When she returned to the States, she realized she was hooked.

"I was also a senior in college," says Paufve, laughing at the memory. "I was freaking out about the rest of my life, and so I picked this really practical solution of becoming a dancer."

'Things Completely Unheard Of,' And Things Newly Made

Paufve, now 48, sees modern dance as America's own traditional dance form. It has its roots at the turn of the 20th century, with two radical women of the time: Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller.

Dancer Diane McKallip, hands in front of her face i i

hide captionDiane McKallip in "Spasm." Paufve's company performs in nontraditional spaces — from bars to barns, meadows to mobile platforms 4 feet square — and includes dancers ranging in age from 24 to 76.

Joe Kunin
Dancer Diane McKallip, hands in front of her face

Diane McKallip in "Spasm." Paufve's company performs in nontraditional spaces — from bars to barns, meadows to mobile platforms 4 feet square — and includes dancers ranging in age from 24 to 76.

Joe Kunin

"They were the women who, along with the suffragettes, they were taking off their corsets and going barefoot and wearing diaphanous clothing and dancing to Chopin," Paufve says. They were doing things that were completely unheard of in our grandmother's day."

But if modern dance was born in the United States, Paufve says it often gets more support elsewhere these days. Over the past 25 years, she says, cutbacks in government spending on the arts have made it even harder to keep nonprofit companies alive.

Paufve has a devoted audience, it's worth noting, and her reputation as a choreographer is growing. Her troupe performed in 2006 at one of New York City's premier dance theaters, The Joyce Soho, and earned a good review in The New York Times. At one recent performance, at Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco, a couple of hundred fans turned out and gave that recent Romeo and Juliet-inspired piece a strong reception.

But ticket sales are never enough to pay all the bills. Paufve keeps her company going by teaching — and with grants, most of which come from small private foundations. (Including one associated with Clorox, the bleach maker, which has its headquarters in Oakland.)

And over the years, Paufve has also developed individual donors who support her work. And she has gotten bolder about asking them to help.

"I think it's taken me this long to become fearless about asking for money," she says. "If we're going to survive, you have to ask for it."

Steps Forward, And Steps In Another Direction

Paufve says she's been able to cobble together a middle-class living, which allows her to buy her own health insurance. But she's about to make a major change in her life. She's realized that many of the best choreographers are making a home base at universities, so she's decided to take a tenure-track position as a dance professor at Sacramento State University this fall.

She believes it'll be easier, under the new setup, to keep Paufve Dance alive.

"I'm going to be very, very busy, but I can't imagine I'm going to be busier than I have been," she says.

And then, sounding a bit like a determined general, Paufve adds: "I want to say that I am nowhere near done. I feel like in some ways that I'm just getting started."

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