Assistant professor of dance Kathleen Ridlon began to develop her piece, “Dives and Lazarus,” last January in Knox’s intermediate modern dance class.
Development continued throughout the year, culminating with a performance at September’s Art in the Park. In September, however, an even larger audience was exposed to the work.
Ridlon recently conducted a dance residency for the University of Oklahoma at Norman. There, in addition to teaching technique classes in the Horton style of modern dance, she set the 13-minute “Dives and Lazarus” with eight dancers from the university’s pre-professional dance company, Contemporary Dance Oklahoma (interim director Derrick Minter).
The piece tells the story of the biblical figures Dives and Lazarus, in which Lazarus, a beggar, is denied food from Dives, a man of great wealth. Upon their deaths, Lazarus ascends to heaven but Dives is sent to hell and his pleas for forgiveness ignored.
“I liked wrestling with the story,” said Ridlon. “I liked figuring out a way to get the Dives character to understand, in the end — and I think he does.”
Ridlon employed a variety of movement techniques to convey this understanding. The four dancers representing the rich used angular movements, while the four expressing poverty used softer movements, were more comfortable falling, and spent much of their time low to the ground.
“I feel like the piece has to do with support structures,” Ridlon said. “It’s more familiar for the poor to reach out. Isn’t it good to want? Who do we lean on in life? Who supports who? These are the things I started asking myself.”
Although Ridlon has been working on the piece for quite some time with dancers from Knox, the residency at the University of Oklahoma allowed her to try some new things. The performance of “Dives and Lazarus” at Art in the Park took place outside, with simple costumes, and lacked many traditional theatrical elements.
At the University of Oklahoma, the piece was performed inside with access to a costume shop, lighting and a full production team. Ridlon also played around with different choreography for both versions.
“I really concentrated on the opening sequence to highlight, these are the rich people and how they behave, these are the poor people and how they behave,” Ridlon said.
In both versions of the piece, Ridlon’s work was heavily influenced by the late Lester Horton, a choreographer whose style blended together several different movement types and concentrated on using the whole body.
“Being able to teach Horton technique is very important,” said Ridlon. “Having an opportunity to teach that specific technique was great for me. I see the work as a tribute to Lester Horton, or the Horton technique — it’s very influenced by him.”
Another important factor for Ridlon was the music. Set to the five variants of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Dives and Lazarus,” Ridlon acknowledged the challenge that came with using a well-known and renowned composer.
“For me, it’s a very large piece of music,” Ridlon said. “It’s a challenge as a choreographer […] if you pick a renowned piece of music you have to do it justice.” The song, unusual in that it was based off folk tones, helped Ridlon deliver her message to the audience.
“I think the dance is about the people, about the folk,” Ridlon said.
Ridlon is enthused about the potential for further exploration of the piece.
“The longer you are exposed to the movement material, the better you get at telling a story with it, with adding artistry to it,” she said, mentioning that Knox students who have danced the piece before have expressed interest in doing so again. She went on to note there are multiple possibilities for continuing to work with the piece, such as selecting an entirely new cast, dancing in it herself, bringing it to the American College Dance Festival, or even presenting a video of it at a fringe festival.
“That’s part of being a choreographer — getting your work out there,” she said.