Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2005 | Features

Footwork: Resurrecting the Dance

By Judy Polumbaum

Three weeks and a day to curtain was the day the shirts came off.

“Aarrgh!” squealed Katie Johnson in mock horror as she arrived at the studio entrance. “They’re naked!”

Actually Diego Carrasco and Dan Stark were wearing black leggings, and Alan Sener had on a droopy pair of gray nylon running pants. From the waist up, however, all three gents sported bare skin.

“Okay, ladies,” Sener declaimed to Johnson and two other young women in the room, Jayme Heaberlin and Meagan O’Conner. “Let’s get used to the touch. Smell.”

Carrasco ostentatiously sniffed his own armpit and announced, “It’s like burnt Crisco.”

“It’s like the inside of a chicken soup can,” added Sener.

A visitor might be forgiven for concluding that this was gross-out time in Halsey Hall, home to the dance department at the University of Iowa. At the very least, an observer would take note of the ease and informality in this dance studio and the seeming obliviousness to hierarchy among a faculty member (Sener), graduate students in choreography (Carrasco and Stark), and undergraduate dance majors (the three women).

Underneath, however, something more serious was going on. As a prelude to nearly a half hour of strenuous, kinetic dancing, these interactions illustrate how far six individuals had come in coalescing into a tight ensemble. The camaraderie their banter revealed was essential to the sort of challenge they had taken on—recreating work by the choreographer Louis Falco, whose spirited and provocative New York City-based modern dance company wowed audiences worldwide from the late 1960s into the early 1980s.

Falco is best known as the choreographer for the 1980 movie Fame, which was set at a high school modeled after his own alma mater, New York City’s High School of Performing Arts. Yet his creative output was vastly greater—including the 21 dances he originated for his own company between 1967 and 1983; commissions ranging from a piece set to Duke Ellington music for the Alvin Ailey dancers to flamboyant productions for Italy’s La Scala Opera Company; and, during the latter part of his career, music videos and TV commercials.

In an unlikely chain of events, Iowa City has become a center for preserving and celebrating Falco’s contributions to contemporary dance heritage. Sener, who arrived at the UI as a visiting choreographer in 1991, then joined the dance faculty, and currently serves as department chair, is the reason. A principal dancer for Falco’s company for six years and Falco’s choreographic assistant for 15, Sener went on to become a leading educator and choreographer in his own right, but he is the first to admit he is forever stamped by his time as a Falco protégé.

The doffing of the shirts occurred last fall during the home stretch of rehearsals for the latest Falco work Sener has revived. Entitled “Hero,” the piece was named—with characteristic Falco whimsy—for food (the sandwich) rather than heroics.

A lithe, restless, self-deprecating man with strikingly blue eyes and a mane of springy hair that has gone from blond to silvery white, Sener at 49 still embodies the audacity and exuberance that were hallmarks of the Falco style. Louis Falco died of AIDS-related complications in 1993, at age 50, and Sener has dedicated much of his own career since to documenting, protecting, and perpetuating his mentor’s legacy.

Sener’s tidy office at Iowa is a de facto branch repository for the Falco Archives. The apartment he retains in Manhattan houses most of the rest, from choreography notes to correspondence, from contracts to itineraries, from press clippings to photographs. Additional materials, including videotapes, soundtracks, and original costumes, are in a New York storage unit, with a set of tapes also at the performing arts branch of the New York Public Library, where Sener hopes the entire trove eventually will come to rest together—after he completes a biography for which he’s al-ready conducted several hundred interviews.

Falco was a pioneer of multimedia experimentation, collaborating with musicians, fashion designers, and other artists, and bringing everything from rock music and theatrical dialogue to elaborate sets, eclectic costuming, and humorous props into the dance universe. Before publicity was respectable for modern dance, he assertively promoted himself and his projects.

Nonetheless, it is against the odds that Sener has kept alive the spirit and sensibility of a brilliant, complicated, prolific trendsetter whose significance to 20th century culture otherwise might have faded. Falco belongs to an historically fragile cohort that longtime dance critic Clive Barnes has called “a lost generation of choreographers,” falling between early giants such as Martha Graham and later successes like Twyla Tharp. Falco’s work, growing out of a period of high energy in the arts and unprecedented government support for modern dance, crystallizes an era that can never be replicated. “It’s a time capsule—a ship in the night—a shooting star,” Sener says, delivering the hyperbole with fervent earnestness. “A point in time that was golden.”

Resurrecting dances last performed a quarter century ago is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Sener’s endeavors to preserve this heritage, but also the most tangibly satisfying. Given the ephemeral nature of live performance, the inadequacy of dance notation, and the rudimentary audiovisual record from decades past, Sener’s personal role in transmitting the Falco legacy has been crucial. Other than sporadically shot grainy black-and-white videos and spotty jottings and diagrams, the basis for bringing back these works resides largely in Sener’s mind and what he calls his “muscle memory.”

At Iowa, while expanding his own repertoire, Sener has restaged and appeared in two Falco pieces, both employing six dancers: “Escargot,” an ebullient, acrobatic work featured at the university’s 2003 Dance Gala, a showcase presented every November, preceded “Hero,” a fluid, lush progression of solos and duets accompanied by a stark, eerie soundtrack of Indian instrumentals and chanting, revived for the 2004 Dance Gala.

Sener handpicked students to work with him, not only for their technical abilities but also for their maturity and self-possession. Falco performers, all spectacular physical specimens, danced with a forwardness that was shocking for its times and that still looks bold. For “Hero,” in particular, with its erotically charged exchanges among constantly shifting partners, the Iowa dancers had to be able to handle overt sexuality.

They also had to be attentive and tenacious in the painstaking process of recovery and reinvention. The Iowa ensemble for “Hero” began rehearsals even before fall semester classes started, making constant references to fuzzy images from two different 1970s performances that had been transferred to DVD. Sener, dancing the part Falco originally developed for himself and passed on to Sener in 1980, combined elements Falco had added or dropped at different times to come up with a 27-minute version of the dance.

“The first phase is to try to copy the shapes,” says Carrasco, a principal dancer with the Milwaukee Ballet before coming to Iowa for grad school. “When you’ve succeeded in copying or imitating, then you can go for the essence, personalize it more. You have to make it your own.” Yet Sener’s experience made all the difference, he adds. “The ideal is to have an image of it and have someone who knows it. It still is memory in a lot of ways. It requires direct knowledge of the technique that was being used, what the approach is.”

Sener had come to New York City at age 20 from what he calls “a little white trash town” outside Hershey, Pennsylvania, after studying theater and dance at Penn State. Joining Falco’s company, which to him seemed “a kind of rock ’n’ roll dance group,” became his goal. “I went right in his face and said ‘I’m not leaving until you take me,’” Sener recalls. “Nine or ten months later, he invited me into the company.” Sener’s response? “I burst into tears.”

Years of living out of a suitcase followed, as the Falco dancers toured the United States and, increasingly, the world. Most of the company’s last three years of existence were spent in Italy; Sener vividly remembers how audiences in Rome received them with “complete adulation.”

When Falco disbanded the group in 1983 to focus on other projects, he entrusted Sener with handling the business aspects of that older repertoire. An additional decade of vibrant, imaginative productivity followed for Falco, from award-winning commercials for Bounce fabric softener to music video work with Prince, until AIDS brought an especially tragic coda to the company’s history. Sener names Falco dancers lost to the disease: “Billy, Juan, Bruce, Jean-Luis, Tony... eventually, Louis. Louis saw them all go before he did.”

With a sense of urgency following Falco’s death, Sener collected everything he thought important for safekeeping. Falco’s sister and executor, Anna Falco-Lane, credits Sener for his quick thinking. “He really rolled up his sleeves and got into the nitty-gritty,” she says during a visit to Iowa City to see “Hero.”

Two years ago, the Falco family set up a nonprofit foundation to carry on the conservation and promotion efforts. “Half the time, you feel you’re in a race with time,” Falco-Lane says. “What we do have is an attitude: you make up your mind and you do it.”

Falco saved practically everything associated with his career, from his high school yearbook onward, and kept extensive notebooks on every project. Falco’s keen sense of posterity was a biographer’s dream. Now, with the archives in order and awaiting final consolidation, Sener sees himself entering a new phase: while remaining available to supervise revivals, he will turn his attention to writing that biography.

Loyalty to Falco and the gravitas of the mission motivate Sener to go considerably beyond his mentor’s request to manage the repertoire. “He didn’t ask me to become the archivist,” Sener says. “He didn’t ask me to write a book. Those are things that I wanted to do, because I feel they should be done.” Although Sener intends to explore wherever the research leads, flaws and all, his deep gratitude for his own times with the company undoubtedly will be integral to the book. “I loved it,” he says. “It was my life. I lived it.”

Last fall, the week leading up to Dance Gala 2004 was a trying one for Sener. The previous weekend, his fellow faculty member Basil Thompson, away on leave, had died of sudden cardiac arrest, and news came also of the death from cancer of former dance department chair David Berkey, who had been teaching in Arizona. Sener’s parents had driven from Pennsylvania to see him dance for the first time in 21 years—the last time having been the Falco troupe’s final performance, a 1983 engagement at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, as the company “went out with a whimper,” Sener recalls. Anna Falco-Lane had come from New York for the full dress rehearsal and both performances of “Hero.” Having to be mourner, attentive son, and gracious host on top of administrator, teacher, and dancer compounded the pre-performance pressures.

But the moment of reckoning inevitably arrived. It seemed appropriate that the dance named after the sandwich was itself sandwiched between the two intermissions. Behind the lowered curtain at Hancher Auditorium, the black stage floor covering had been peeled up to reveal a white ground. The dancers limbered up, each wearing the first of three pairs of elegant silk crepe pants—the women over leotards, the men with bare torsos; between exits and entrances, their costuming would transform from pastels to deeper shades to lustrous jewel tones.

The dancers formed a sports-team huddle, six heads bowed together in anticipation. Before they separated, Sener exhorted, “Think of the ’70s, man!” Everyone laughed as O’Connor settled into a pool of light on stage right for her opening solo, Sener took his position in a dark corner soon to be spotlit as well, and the others sprinted to the wings. The curtain rose.