West Coast choreographer Jess Curtis is not afraid of words.
"Words and movement mesh for me," he says. "I have always been a very interdisciplinary person and performer."
Though dance was his primary interest in school, he also studied music, sports, writing, and theater. He encouraged dancers to take acting classes, and actors to take dancing classes. "In choreography classes, I was always the one getting into trouble for talking," he says.
Mr. Curtis's newest dance- theater work, "fallen," reflects his multifarious interests. It combines music, dance, theater, and text. Five texts, in fact, powerfully written and measuredly spoken by Curtis.
The work is about its title. The texts for the piece and their dance sequences take the audience from a fable of celestial birds brought down to earth, to "falling in love," and, finally, to an intense section that opens with the sentence: "I saw photos of people falling." Although never overtly stated, the section was clearly inspired by Sept. 11.
Stirring and inventive, "fallen" received considerable acclaim when it was performed recently at the Edinburgh International Festival.
In the performance, Curtis's words add a contemplative tone to a piece that interweaves intimately precise and vigorously physical movement. The texts give the audience a clarity that dance alone sometimes doesn't allow. Curtis does not like a "foggy image haze" and criticizes choreographers who make him feel unsure whether "they really know what they are making their work about."
He says he actually likes the "risk" of "people knowing what you are talking about." That way, the audience can judge whether or not it is "worth talking about."
Each section effectively crosses different media naturally, as if no divisions existed. "I like to write what can be written, sing what can be sung, and dance what can be danced. Different media have very different communication potentials," he says during a recent phone interview.
The production also continually paints pictures, something emphasized by giant picture frames, in and out of which dancers move, sometimes freezing in them like portraits. In one frame, a cellist sits and plays.
Why does the concept "fallen" interest Curtis so much? "In general, falling is very much part of my work," he says. He calls his own company "Gravity Physical Entertainment." It is plain that all three words apply to "fallen," the word "gravity" not least.
As Curtis created the work, he discovered the most interesting issue was "what happens after you've fallen."
"In several cosmologies, the fall is the first big event," he says. "And then you sort of dust yourself off." The significant thing is "what you do with that moment."
All through the piece, it seems that falling turns into lifting, down into up, and the dying fall into fresh vitality. There is a persistent urge not to succumb.
When "fallen" was almost finished, the group performed a 35-minute excerpt. That was on Sept. 10, 2001. After the towers fell, Curtis did not revamp the piece. Instead, seeing it as a tribute, he went ahead with a Berlin performance five days later.
In November, Curtis was in New York teaching. He visited ground zero and an exhibition that featured pictures of people falling from the towers. That caused him to add the final, utterly moving yet strangely comforting section to "fallen."
The piece has been performed 40 times in the US and Europe, but probably won't be seen in New York before late 2003.
Curtis is aware of the risks involved when an artist addresses Sept. 11, of the possible accusations of insensitivity or exploitation. But he feels "horrible exploitation" was having to "watch that video of the plane crashing into the building so many thousands of times ... without any substantive discussion" of any "deeper ramifications." This, he believes, "is what art should do."