Corby is making waves in the dance world. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Looking disheveled in a tattered dress, a dancer is surrounded by a ring of red fabric. She explores her confines, swirling and collapsing. Broken, then completely still until fingers twitch, she arches her back and tilts her pelvis. Suddenly she slides forward on her belly, pushing the fabric out and creating messy heaps of clothing. We see this action over and over, but each time it is startling. Finally, the circle of red is destroyed.
This piece is called "Brute," and it was choreographed by Kate Corby, an assistant professor in the UW-Madison's dance department. Ideas in "Brute" led to her new, evening-long work, In Whole or In Part, which she is presenting in a concert by her company, Kate Corby & Dancers. The concert runs Oct. 13-15 in UW-Madison's Lathrop Hall.
Corby was recently heralded in a Dance Magazine article profiling artists on the cusp of making waves in the larger dance world. She is intelligent, curious and ambitious - in a particularly polite, Midwestern way that draws people into her orbit. She is helping to shape a new generation of dancers, dance educators and choreographers while continuing to develop original modern dance works.
Corby initially was a theater and women's studies double major at Beloit College. Then she took a dance composition course and a jazz dance class as electives, and she decided to switch from theater to dance. She was drawn to choreography. "I liked," she says, "the idea of creating something from nothing instead of interpreting a script."
"Brute," which can make audiences flinch with its raw beauty, is a look at female survivors. Along with works like "Catch," it is part of Corby's ongoing exploration of the theme of empathy.
Empathy, of course, has a flip side. After working on "Catch," she says, "I looked at when people don't empathize, when stuff doesn't catch on, or when there's total disconnect, and how that can lead to aggression."
These inquiries come to fruition with In Whole or In Part, which mines subjects like power and aggression, using unison dance - or lack of unison - to create metaphors of society.
Helping her explore these unsettling themes is a personnel change: Corby just added three men to her company, previously all-female. This opens up new possibilities for partnering and movement. "I think the violence and aggression [in the new piece] read a little bit better" with the male dancers, she says. "The metaphor comes from some pretty aggressive partnering that involves sheer physical strength. Not that my female dancers aren't strong."
For a less skillful artist, this weighty subject matter could easily be heavy-handed. But Corby has a knack for entertaining even as she gives audiences something to think about. That may owe to her work in theater.
"I see it in the relationships she builds on stage," says Chris Walker, like Corby an assistant UW dance professor, of her theatrical background. "She does it in a very subtle way. All the elements come together."
Her background in theater also informs her approach to stage design. With her light touch and keen eye, Corby is able to use costumes and lighting in ways both quirky and wise. "I definitely think about production elements early on," she says.
As a choreographer, Corby sees herself as a collaborator. When working with her company members, she employs structured improv with her dancers to create movement for new works. "It's ridiculous not to call on dancers to generate movement," she says. As she puts it, contributions from "eight bodies are more interesting than one."
A work isn't set in stone for her, even after it has premiered. In the case of "Catch," she has changed the score, costumes, even the title.
"If I don't like something, I'll change it," she says. "I'm a relentless editor."
Daughter of a Montessori teacher and a salesman of industrial lighting for movie theaters, Corby lived in a Chicago suburb until 1993, when her family relocated to Three Lakes, Wis. In college she landed an internship at the prestigious American Dance Festival, which put her in contact with dance luminaries like Pina Bausch and Twyla Tharp.
She wasn't star-struck, partly because she arrived relatively late to the dance world, and partly because of Beloit's relative isolation. "I didn't have anything to judge myself against, and I was not really conscious of other people around me," she recalls. "I didn't seem to care that I didn't know what I was doing."
After graduation, Corby moved to San Francisco, where she continued her studies, showed original work and founded the first incarnation of Kate Corby & Dancers. She was accepted into the MFA program at the University of Illinois. Bucking the program's traditional timeframe, she lived as a Fulbright Fellow in Budapest, studying art nouveau architecture and delving into her interest in state-supported art and national cultural identities.
After finishing her master's in 2007, Corby taught as an adjunct dance professor at Beloit and at the Dance Center of Chicago's Columbia College. Shuttling between these very different dance institutions, she put 10,000 miles on her car in nine months. All the driving paid off: Several dancers in her company hail from Columbia. In Chicago, she also directed the Live Animals Performance Collective.
Corby joined the UW faculty in 2008. Dance professor and fellow Illinois graduate Jin-Wen Yu, who was chair of UW dance when she was hired, remembers being impressed with her drive, her ability to make things happen. "It's crucial as an artist to make your projects possible and ask for funding," he says. With her ability to fulfill a vision and survive as an artist, Corby "serves as a role model for students."
In August, Corby, her family and 160 guests gathered in downtown Madison as she married Tarek Said, who works in development for nonprofits. The wedding took place atop the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, where two of her students performed a dance improv prior to the ceremony. At a time when most brides are obsessed with scheduling a mani-pedi or achieving the perfect up-do, Corby was presenting a piece in Chicago and rehearsing this improv.
Another family member has a gift for performance. Corby's father is an Elvis impersonator, and at the wedding reception, held at the Orpheum Theatre, he descended the grand staircase lip-synching to the King of Rock 'n' Roll's tunes. Corby's company members performed as impromptu backup dancers.
After a honeymoon in Hawaii, Corby is back at the UW as a new freshman class settles in. The country's oldest college dance program was founded by Margaret H'Doubler in 1926, and it has a rich history. Officially designated a department last spring, it's attracting dancers with stronger technique, and it implemented an audition process a few years ago as part of Yu's vision as chair.
Some tradeoffs come with the changes. "You definitely want to be high quality," says Colette Stewart, an adjunct UW dance instructor who last year collaborated with Corby on the engaging duet "Passive Voices." "But at a certain point you may start to get people who are less likely to think for themselves because they are trying to fit into a mold."
"I think it's a difficult transition," says Corby. She says, of potential students, "Sometimes I think it might be better to have a natural mover with no training who is a really critical thinker, and is really creative. Yet I love to have good technicians in my dances, so who knows."
Corby calls herself a laidback teacher: "I like to think of myself as more of a facilitator than an authoritarian.... My teaching is grounded in a sense of mentorship and friendship, which is probably kind of unusual in academia."
Students give Corby high marks. In class, her approach is "more about what your body is doing and how it feels than what it looks like," says Sarah Mitchell, who is set to graduate this winter. A technically proficient and commanding performer, Mitchell has already secured a job with the Chicago dance troupe the Seldoms. She says that when other students learn she is a dancer, they assume she is a member of the dance team performing at Badgers football games.
Corby says her dance classroom is a safe space where students can experiment. She likes to see students "using potential and not having fear. I hate watching people be tentative. I guess it's because when I started, I didn't even know about technique, and I didn't really have a sense of fear."
What gratifies her about teaching? "Being able to watch people grow consistently over four years is really satisfying, especially people who don't really identify as technicians, and then put in the work year after year. By the time they are seniors, they are gorgeous, and you like to think you had something to do with it."
Inside and outside of universities, modern dance has long been the low man on the totem pole, in terms of funding and drawing audiences. Corby says that auditioning dancers for her company in Chicago this past summer made her a little depressed. "There are all these well-trained, highly educated dancers that are showing up to auditions, willing to work for so little money to do this thing they love. It gave me pause as a dance educator."
Moreover, the dance major can be a tough sell to worried parents. "People aren't sending their kids to study dance," she says.
Still, Corby is optimistic about the discipline, even though there is an overwhelming emphasis on translating a college education into marketable skills. UW dance graduates will indeed have honed their creative thinking, their cooperative techniques. It's important, she says, that the department "leave space for people who are super creative and just want to eventually make their own work - or are using the dance major as a lens to look at the world creatively, and don't necessarily want to perform professionally."
As for Corby's own professional future: "I'd like to be able to pay my dancers and collaborators what they are worth, which is more than what I pay them now, and truly establish a national profile."
Above all, she says, "I just hope to survive - meaning keep making work that I'm proud of with people I respect."