World-renowned choreographer returns to KU

Bill Evans imparts decades of dance know-how to University Dance Co.

When Bill Evans visited Kansas University in 1985, the man who was then arts editor of the Journal-World referred to him as the Pete Rose of dance because "At 45 he dances with the vitality of a man half his age."

Eighteen years later the more apt baseball analogy might be Cal Ripken Jr., the major leaguer who played in more than 2,600 consecutive games before retiring in 2001.

Of course, Ripken bowed out of baseball at 41. Evans is still dancing at 62.

"I can't imagine stopping. I've performed almost my whole life. It's just a very significant part of who I am," Evans said.

The world-renowned dancer, choreographer and teacher is in Lawrence through Tuesday, teaching master classes in modern, jazz and tap and teaching two of his dances to select members of the University Dance Company for performance at the company's April concert.

The secret to his own longevity comes through in his choreography and the techniques he uses to teach other dancers. Evans is well-known for approaching his art through the auspices of science. He has studied anatomy and kinesiology and devised movements which he says encourage balance, wholeness and healing.

"Most conventional dance techniques until the past couple of decades developed without any knowledge of dance science or somatics. People were imposing their ideas of what they felt was beautiful upon the human body, and some people found things beautiful which were in fact quite damaging as practices," he said.

"My first concern is do no harm. The second is to try to invite the whole person into the process of moving in a way that will be regenerative and healthful. That, to me, is far more important than having my students be able to do lots of things and be impressive because I'm really training for a lifetime of successful and satisfying movement.

"Then, along the way, if they engage in this process fully, they will become accomplished dancers."

A crossroads

Evans has long since attained the "accomplished" designation.

During his decades-long career, he has studied with and/or performed in the works of masters like Willam Christensen, Jack Cole, Viola Farber, Betty Jones, Jose Limón, Murray Louis, Matt Mattox, Donald McKayle, Daniel Nagrin, Alwin Nikolais, Ruth Page, Anna Sokolow, Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury.

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Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

Dancer, Choreographer and teacher Bill evans leads Kansas University dancers during a master class. Evans, 62, is an artist-in-residence at KU through Tuesday. He will teach two of his dances to select members of the University Dance Company, who will perform them at their April concert.

He is artistic director of the Bill Evans Dance Company and has choreographed more than 200 works for 63 professional dance companies throughout the world. He has received the Guggenheim Fellowship, 13 grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and 70 other awards from public and private arts agencies in the United States and Canada.

He is on the brink of retirement as professor of dance at the University of New Mexico.

All this from a guy doctors told when he was 23 that he wouldn't be able to jog, let alone dance again. That's when he suffered a devastating ankle injury while serving in the army. All the bones in his foot effectively died.

"I went through this horrible period in my life where I wasn't able to dance, I wasn't able to walk. It didn't take me long until I realized that I had to dance," he said. Until then, he had thought he might become a writer after he left the service. "As soon as I was unable to walk, it became so clear to me that dancing was the most important aspect of my life."

Life as dance

He's been choreographing since he was 3 years old in Lehi, Utah, where his aunt took him to see a movie that set his imagination and his feet reeling. He doesn't even remember the film's name, but "some guy was tap dancing" in it. The rhythmic form of expression made a lot more sense to Evans than his older brother's version of fun -- playing war games with toy tanks and guns.

Ironically, Evans is now creating dances about war and loss. One of the pieces he's teaching University Dance Company members is a response to the events of 9-11. He felt a tremendous sense of loss after the attacks -- not just the human loss, but the loss of personal liberties, trust and tolerance among the people of the world.

However, as he drove the mountain backroads of New Mexico to get home because the airports were closed, he was captivated by the beauty all around him.

"At the same time that my heart was breaking, my heart was full because I realized how happy I am to be alive and how rich my life is," Evans said. "I wanted to do a piece that shares a little bit of that sense of loss, anger, foreboding and appreciation of exquisite beauty and friends."

The second dance Evans will teach is a tap number that grew out of an experience with a close friend and fellow dancer.

"I don't sense that there's any separation between my life and my dance," he said. "My dance gives me inroads to live my life, and my work is an expression of the life I lead."

A sacred experience

As for the future, Evans can't see himself not dancing. He hopes to retire soon and write his autobiography and a book about his training technique. He also plans to explore new performance modes for mature male dancers.

"I need to facilitate my moving now that I'm in my 60s so that it's appropriate," he said. "All things need to be balanced and proportioned, so the way I move now needs to have that wholeness for this person at this stage of life. That means doing some exploration."

Finding a way to continue doing what he's passionate about for as long as possible is essential for Evans. After all, there aren't too many people who could give this description of the feeling they get when they're engaged in their life's work:

"I feel fully alive because my mind, my body, my spirit, my thinking, my feeling, my sensing, my intuiting are all in the moment. There's no future, and there's no past. I'm in the moment. And that to me is a kind of sacred experience."

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