About Rowe’s Wooden Dimes
Performing Isn’t Work. It’s a Lifestyle. It’s a Calling.
“One thing that’s helped me through COVID-19 is experiencing art, and people creating these worlds that others can escape into from their homes,” says choreographer and director Danielle Rowe. The world Rowe has created to escape into in the new dance film Wooden Dimes is a riveting, roaring, ’20s, art deco, backstage realm.
Rowe’s original inspiration for the piece came from the Orpheum Theater, where her ballet had been scheduled to be performed while the Opera House underwent renovations. “The Orpheum was built for vaudeville, and I thought it would be beautiful to have a piece that would tap into the architecture of the theater,” she explains. Rowe developed a story about a married couple, Robert and Betty Fine. As chorus girl Betty rises to stardom and Robert remains stuck in a dull, repetitive job, struggling with insecurity and despair, their relationship inevitably shifts and evolves. This intoxicating yet dangerous 1920s theatrical world is encompassed in the ballet’s title, Wooden Dimes, an evolution of a folksy American saying from the early 20th century urging caution against swindlers: “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”
When SF Ballet’s 2021 Season became entirely digital, Helgi Tomasson proposed that Rowe’s work become a film. “Shifting gears was thrilling to me,” says Rowe, who felt her original concept would translate well. Wooden Dimes may be the first repertory season ballet Rowe has created for SF Ballet, but it is the fourth dance film she has worked on since the pandemic began. It’s a medium that’s well suited for her creative process. “I’ve always storyboarded and thought about where I want the audience’s focus to be,” she explains.
Rowe used the unique rehearsal environment—a combination of in-person rehearsals following strict protocols in compliance with the San Francisco Department of Public Health guidelines and Zoom collaboration—to bring Wooden Dimes to life. As Director of Photography Heath Orchard watched via Zoom, a camera in the front of the studio showed a wide view of the rehearsal. At the same time, Rowe circled around and among the dancers filming with her iPhone (also connected to Zoom) close-ups and camera angles that moved with the dancers. The stark difference between the wide shot and Rowe’s phone footage illuminated, via technology, her unique vision of the ballet. “I had a particular angle in mind when I was choreographing it,” she explains. “With film, you can take it to another level, showing the shift of an eye, or a hand holding another hand, little intimate moments that you don’t necessarily see in a theater.”
COVID-19 restrictions inspired Rowe and her collaborators, costume designer Emma Kingsbury, lighting designers Jim French and Matthew Stouppe, and composer James M. Stephenson—who created an original score for the ballet—to find unique ways to bring Wooden Dimes to life. Rowe trimmed the number of dancers in the work and cut a big chorus number completely. “Instead of having lots and lots of dancers, I looked at using fans and mirrors to create the illusion that there were more dancers,” she explains. Filming took place on the Opera House stage, with sets by Alexander V. Nichols designed to suggest dressing rooms, rather than filming in actual dressing rooms. “I wanted to make sure that it’s the choreography and the incredible artistic talents of the dancers that tell the story,” says Rowe. “What I love about dance is that you can tell stories entirely through the movement.”
Rowe’s own movement vocabulary, a blend of classical and contemporary styles, is rooted in an acclaimed performing career with Australian Ballet, Houston Ballet, and Netherlands Dance Theater. “The traditional classical ballet language is my foundation and something that I have great respect for,” she says. “The Australian style of dance is rooted in the Royal Academy of Dance—it’s English, a little more reserved and restrained, with pure technique. I was also transfixed by the fearlessness and the excitement of the American style of dancing, and when I moved to Houston Ballet, I was able to sink my teeth into that. Then I transitioned into contemporary (with Netherlands Dance Theater). All of these influence my choreography.”
She also welcomed the input of SF Ballet dancers into Wooden Dimes. “Being physically in the room with these dancers, because they’re all so incredible, I wanted to see what they had to say as well,” says Rowe. “I gave them information about the characters, so they could offer what they thought those characters would do.”
As the character of Betty bursts into stardom, the film gradually shifts from black-and-white to color, with the evolution of her relationship with Robert also reflected in the choreography. Rowe chose to echo movement phrases, performed quite differently, in the ballet’s two central pas de deux. “Dancers of the caliber of Sarah [Van Patten, who dances as Betty] and Luke [Ingham, who dances as Robert] are not just great technicians, but also artists who are able to bring emotional complexity and detail to the work,” says Rowe.
The film is also a love letter to a backstage world that has been almost completely dark—and sorely missed by performers—since the pandemic began. “It seemed right to pay tribute to the theater right now,” says Rowe. “I wanted to look at that space between what I call the real world and the magical world of the theater. Particularly the dressing room space, where you put on makeup, change your hair, and transform into somebody else. It can consume you as a performer—there’s an energy and shared experience in that space that’s like nothing else.”
Has she witnessed similar relationship arcs to that of Betty and Robert? “Yeah, I have,” says Rowe, who is married to SF Ballet Principal Dancer Luke Ingham. “I think if you speak to any dancer, actor, actress, or musician in a relationship with someone who isn’t in that world, they’ll agree. It’s wonderful, because it brings you back down to earth. But at the same time, it can be really, really difficult, because for a lot of performers, it’s not work. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a calling.”
Wooden Dimes was part of the 2021 Season, streamed March 04–24.
by Caitlin Sims
Header Image: Sarah Van Patten in Rowe’s Wooden Dimes // © San Francisco Ballet