Warren Spears Biography
Began Dancing as a Teenager, Brought Modern Dance to Denmark, Critics and Audiences Praised his Ballets
Choreographer, dancer, master teacher
A highly regarded dancer, choreographer, and teacher, Warren Spears created a variety of modern ballets. After spending his early years with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Spears went on to dance and choreograph for numerous companies in the United States and Europe. He settled in Copenhagen where he helped establish the New Danish Dance Theatre (NDDT), introducing modern dance to the people of Denmark. As a dancer he was strong and athletic with a soft and pliable technique. Real people, including artists, writers, and his grandfather, often served as the theme from which his ballets evolved. Audiences and critics loved his fast-paced and imaginative staging and use of space. He choreographed to music ranging from that of Henry Purcell and J. S. Bach to Igor Stravinsky, John Adams, Philip Glass, Keith Jarrett, Steve Reich, and contemporary jazz and rock.
Began Dancing as a Teenager
Born on May 2, 1954, Warren Spears grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Walter and Theresa Wilma (Davis) Spears. No one in his family was inclined toward music or dance and as a teenager Spears planned to become an architect. However he took up dance after being mesmerized during a matinee performance by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Spears's first teacher had danced with Isadora Duncan and his second teacher was a member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. While still in high school Spears began dancing with a small professional group, the Clifford Fears Dance Company, and choreographing for the Michigan Opera Company.
In 1972 Spears moved to New York City with a full scholarship to study in the Dance Division of the Juilliard School. Working with some of the greatest dancers of the day, Spears studied modern, classical, and contemporary dance, composition and choreography, music, and dance and music history. On evenings and weekends he explored the dance studios of New York. At the Clark Center for the Performing Arts, Spears studied the Lester Horton technique with Thelma Hill. At the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, Spears studied jazz forms with Fred Benjamin. He spent his summers at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut, working with Louis Falco and Walter Nicks.
Choreographer Joyce Trisler urged Spears to audition for Alvin Ailey. When he was invited to join Ailey's company in 1974, Spears had to call his mother first, since he had promised her that he would graduate from Juilliard. For the next four years he performed and toured the world with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
Spears left Alvin Ailey in 1978 to devote more time to choreography and to dance with other companies. He choreographed for the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble—the junior Ailey troupe—and, between 1972 and 1982, he choreographed 15 ballets for his own dance company, the Spears Collection. Between 1978 and 1981 Spears danced with the Joyce Trisler Dance Company, the Pearl Lang Dance Company, the Kazuko Hirabayashi Dance Theater, and the Walter Nicks Dance Company, among others. He also performed in the musical films The Wiz and Hair.
Brought Modern Dance to Denmark
Spears was with Joyce Trisler's company when she died in 1979. The following year he traveled to Copenhagen to perform as a soloist in her "Dance for Six," on Denmark's national television. Spears moved to Denmark in 1984, along with other dancers and choreographers who were set on introducing the country to modern dance. In 1987 he created "Rowing in Eden" for the Royal Danish Ballet, with music by John Adams and stage design by Spears's frequent collaborator, Danish artist Lin Utzon, a designer for Royal Copenhagen porcelain.
Spears served as artistic director and resident choreographer at the NDDT from 1987 until 1999, choreographing more than 20 ballets for the company. Some were longer abstract pieces whereas others were one-act themed ballets. However he was best known for his full-evening themed productions. The NDDT grew into the largest and most international of Denmark's modern dance companies. Spears led the NDDT through twice-yearly Copenhagen premieres, tours of Denmark, and guest performances throughout Europe and Australia.
In 1989 Spears created "Black." On a summer's night in Detroit in 1968, with the sounds of rioting in the streets, three men and three women move around each other in a party room. Although rock music takes over for a while, the gunshots and sirens return. It was performed by the nationally acclaimed Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) at the Joyce Theater in New York in 2000. Critic Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times wrote that "the greatest fascination of 'Black' is the ways he [Spears] uses cliches of recent modern dance by black American choreographers with a knowing affection and respect that makes them fresh."
Critics and Audiences Praised his
"Skagen," first performed in 1990, became one of Spears's most popular works, with subsequent performances in Denmark, Norway, Germany, and Spain. Named for a cape at the northern tip of Denmark, it focused on the painter P.S. Krøyer and Danish impressionistic paintings of the late nineteenth century. The figures in the paintings danced out of their frames to the music of Puccini.
In 1993 Spears created his own version of "Sacre du Printemps"—"The Rites of Spring." Later he choreographed "Dex," based on the expatriate jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon, and "Milne," based on A. A. Milne, author of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.
One of Spears's best-known works—"Tanne"—was inspired by the life of the Danish writer and storyteller Karen Blixen. Tanne was the family's nickname for Blixen, better known as Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, a memoir of her life in Kenya. Spears told Anne Flindt Christensen of Dance Magazine : "I wasn't born in Denmark and raised in the Danish culture, so [I] hope I'll be able to portray Blixen with the fresh curiosity of a foreigner. My intention with Tanne is not to show all her literary achievements but to focus on the feminine part of the myth that she has become. Her fights against the old-fashioned view of women and her struggle against a deadly illness [syphilis] must have been of major importance to her life as a woman and as an artist. I think that the audience of today will see the parallels to our huge problem with AIDS and also to the constant attempt of every artist to improve." Blixen's lives as a young woman, as a lover, and as a creative artist were portrayed by three different dancers. The NDDT premiered the work on April 8, 1994.
Continued to Grow as an Artist
Between 1982 and 2003 Spears was a guest choreographer with various groups including the Philadelphia Dance Company, the Impulse Dance Company of Boston, the Dallas Black Dance Theater, Kaleidoscope Dance Company in Indiana, and the Djazzez Dance Company in Holland. He also choreographed for theater and musical productions in the United States, France, and Denmark. A master teacher of contemporary modern dance based on the techniques of Lester Horton and José Limon, Spears guest taught at universities, private schools, dance companies, and international workshops in the United States and Europe, including Copenhagen's Dancers House, Copenhagen University, Poitiers University in France, the University of New Mexico, Wright State University in Ohio, Michigan State University, Western and Central Michigan Universities, and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
Spears left the NDDT in 1999 to pursue a freelance career of dancing and choreography. He appeared in the film Dancer in the Dark by the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, along with Catherine Deneuve and the Icelandic pop star Bjöaut;rk. In 2001 Spears choreographed and danced in a Web-based interactive production called "The Room," based on James Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room. With funding from a variety of Danish sources, Spears made his premiere as a solo dancer in "Eugene," a ballet based on the life of his grandfather Eugene Davies. He performed the work, with music by pianist and composer Keith Jarrett, in Copenhagen and on a tour of Denmark in 2001 and 2002. He then received Danish funding to produce "Kiss Me, I Love You" in Copenhagen in 2003. In addition to choreographing and directing this ballet, for the first time Spears designed the costumes and sets himself. In 2003 he produced "Without Sanctuary," a theater-ballet based on the book and gallery exhibition of the same name by James Allen.
Knighted by Queen Margrethe
Spears had a long-term relationship with the DCDC in Ohio, a dance company dedicated to promoting the work of black dancers and choreographers. He created several pieces for DCDC and his work has remained in the their repertoire. "On the Wings of Angels," with music by John Adams, was included in DCDC's "The Flight Project," a 2003 tribute to the Wright Brothers on the 100th anniversary of their maiden flight. Spears's piece was a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, a courageous group of black World War II fighter pilots. "The Flight Project" toured the United States on DCDC's 35th anniversary.
In 2003 Spears was knighted by Queen Margrethe of Denmark with the Cross of the Order of Dannebrog, in recognition of his contributions to Danish dance. "Random Cruelties," choreographed and designed by Spears—who also performed as the solo dancer—premiered in 2004 with music by Henry Purcell and John Adams and a performance by Spears's partner, the singer Karsten Mach.
Warren Spears died in Copenhagen on January 8, 2005, at the age of 50, from the effects of treatment for a recurrence of multiple myeloma. In "Danish Modern Dance's Relevance Today," published on his Web site in October of 2003, Spears wrote: "Maybe we should both remember our historic past look forward to the future, and once again ask ourselves, why do we dance? The answers are because we have something in our hearts, in our muscles and because we must express it through our bodies!"
"The Spears Collection," 1972-82.
"Knutsen Variations," 1982.
"Sculpture Park," 1982.
"The Exiles," 1983.
"Dream of the Gods," 1985.
"Drum Suite," 1985.
"Scenes of Death," 1985.
"Blue, Red Green and Yellow," 1986.
"When Giants Learn to Dance," 1986.
"Carmina Burana," 1987.
"Carmina Variations," 1987.
"Four Movements," 1987.
"Rowing in Eden," 1987.
"Songs of My Youth," 1987.
"The Last Waltz," 1988.
"The Firebird," 1989.
"The Power of the Harp," 1991.
"Stravinsky—The Rites of Spring," 1993.
"1995—An Installation Ballet," 1995.
"Brandenburg Concerto No. 5," 1995.
"Short Pieces," 1995.
"Worshiping Icons," 1995.
"Dex—A Jazz Odyssey," 1996.
"On the Wings of Angels," 1996.
"The Room," 2001.
"Kiss Me, I Love You," 2003.
"Without Sanctuary," 2003.
"Extravagantly Dressed on a Strange Planet," 2004.
"Random Cruelties," 2004.
The Wiz, 1978.
Dancer in the Dark, 2000.
Dance Magazine, April 1994, pp. 30-1.
Detroit News, January 13, 2005.
New York Times, October 16, 2000, p. E5; January 23, 2005, p. 26.
Warren Spears, www.warrenspears.com (May 1, 2005).