North Texas lost one of its most original choreographers last week. Bruce Wood died in Fort Worth, reportedly of a heart attack and complications of pneumonia. He was 53.
Best known for his namesake group, the Bruce Wood Dance Company, which performed here from 1997 to 2006, Wood attracted new audiences to modern dance with his quirky sense of humor and unique ideas. Financial woes eventually brought the company down.
Raised in Fort Worth, he studied at the then newly formed Gayle Corkery Dance Studio here in the 1970s. A couple of years later, he was granted a scholarship to the School of American Ballet in New York City, George Balanchine’s school for the New York City Ballet. Wood studied with Balanchine and danced with NYCB for one season before going on to become a soloist with the San Francisco Ballet and later a principal with Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal.
In the early ’90s he turned his attention to choreography, and in 1996 he assembled a company in Austin. Finding backing in Fort Worth, he moved the company to his hometown, and for almost a decade the Bruce Wood Dance Company produced extraordinary programs in North Texas.
William Walker, then director of the Fort Worth Opera, was so impressed that he invited Wood to choreograph some of the incidental music for an upcoming Aida production. Wood put something together but at dress rehearsal discovered that his dancers’ places had been taken by singers. He approached Walker. After telling Wood that changes had to be made and that he wasn’t a very bright choreographer if he couldn’t handle what was available to him now, the director walked away. Wood worked into the night with his dancers to create a new scenario. After the opening performance, Walker was ecstatic. He called Wood a genius.
“I went from dumbbell to genius in 24 hours,” Wood said later.
Wood’s most popular ballet is probably Bolero, using the Ravel score, which his company performed several times in Fort Worth. In true Wood fashion, there is nothing Spanish about the dancing. What he cared about was the slow, repetitive melody constantly growing to a crashing finale. The curtain goes up on what appears to be a restaurant downstage left. Waiters in white shirts and black trousers and waitresses in black dresses are moving tables and chairs around, getting ready to open. Upstage a large semicircle of small tables soon becomes the site of mini-dramas among customers throughout the course of the work. Playful dancing becomes more aggressive as the music intensifies. Superimposed over the melodies and rhythms is a muted track that resembles a busy railway station: periodic announcements of arrivals and departures, gate assignments, the occasional hiss of a steam engine, the dull murmur of a large crowd.
As the music reaches its frantic last measures, the dancers literally throw themselves at –– or are thrown at –– one another until the final chord, when they collapse in a heap and the lights go out. It’s great theater. The first time I saw it was in the late 1990s. I loved it then, and it’s stayed with me these many years.
But I never did get everything the choreographer was thinking about the piece. Not much later, I watched the company rehearse a new dance that really left me behind. I asked Wood what it was about. He said, “I never tell anyone what I’m saying in dance. It’s what you get from the piece, what you see and feel, and what you take from the experience that’s important. It could be miles from what I intend, but that’s what’s right for you.”
That was his philosophy.
Three years ago Wood got a shot in the arm from new patrons in Dallas and formed a new company. The Bruce Wood Dance Project was really taking off, performing in the incredible new auditorium of the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the Dallas City Performance Hall, where performances of his ballet Touch on Thursday, June 12, and Friday, June 13, will go on as scheduled. The company was supposed to make its Dallas Theater Center debut next season, but that’s been taken off the books.
Things were beginning to brighten up for Wood and his followers, and it looked as if the Bruce Wood Dance Project would be a sure winner. We’re all losers now.
As of press time, no memorial service had been announced.
Bruce Wood Dance Project’s Touch
Thu, Jun 12, and Fri, Jun 13, at Dallas City Performance Hall, 2520 Flora St, Dallas. $20-100. 214-298-9212.