Talking with A dancer with Exploratorium acumen


Name: Ben Levy
Age: 33
City: San Francisco
Position: Choreographer, founder of LEVYdance


J.: You founded LEVYdance in 2002, shortly after graduating from U.C. Berkeley with a degree in dance. How did you get interested in choreography and movement?

Ben Levy: I grew up in L.A. and started dancing in high school when I got involved with a group that went around to surrounding elementary schools to promote dance shows. The director was really great about promoting dance as a masculine thing to do. She helped to create a culture around it, so that it was seen as masculine and powerful to be in a dance company. In high school, dance was seen as something that was cool to do, and when I found out I didn’t need to do laps around the track in P.E. anymore, that sealed the deal.

Ben Levy

J.: When you are choreographing dance movements, is Judaism part of the equation?

BL: In Judaism, I think there is a strong desire to share experience; to share knowledge from past experience and in some cases, to make sure some things do not repeat. Sharing a story is a Jewish value, and I’m using the human body to tell and share that story in as direct a way as I can. I don’t know any other way that you can express that story, except for body to body. Our work is about human intimacy and connection — and the very context of sharing stories is a very Jewish concept.

J.: How do you affiliate with Judaism?

BL: It doesn’t feel appropriate to put a label on it, but my Judaism is very close to me and I think very spiritually. I had a bar mitzvah and I like the ritual and the intersection of practice and culture. In some ways, I celebrate the cycles of Judaism, such as the High Holy Days. I think the yearly cycle of things can be helpful — I use it to check in and take stock and keep active with the things that are important.

J.: You’re currently working on a collaboration with another Jewish choreographer, Loni Landon of New York–based Loni Landon Dance Projects. The performance will be Nov. 6-9 at the ODC Theater in San Francisco. What’s it about?

BL: It’s something that is not done in the American dance scene all that often. Loni and I both have dancers from our respective companies working on a cohesive body of work for seven weeks. Artists often have no time or space to come together for creative processes for this amount of time. Instead of slapping a work together, we have seven weeks to share resources and collaborate, and our artists can maximize the potential. We are figuring out our creative cultures and processes, and that creates immediate intimacy.

J.: You have a participatory installation at the Exploratorium in San Francisco right now called “Comfort Zone” (up through Nov. 3). It lets people explore dance, group dynamics, collaboration and social boundaries. How does it work?

BL: We created algorithms that could track where the body is in space and how fast the body is moving —  whether it’s fast or still. And we created animations that respond back to you — body composition changes color and gives you feedback. The exhibit tests your level of comfort and asks you to touch a partner. It’s basically a game of what your boundaries are and asks you, “What’s your comfort zone?”

J.: You began the project as artist-in-residence at the Exploratorium in 2011. But it’s your first work in a museum setting. What kind of challenges did that present?

BL: It’s very different from theater because you don’t know what people need or how they will respond in a museum.

J.: So how did you adapt when you were designing it?

BL: I could experiment literally on the floor. What do people find interesting and what do they respond to? Physical contact? I became very interested in how people respond in physical situations. For example, the exhibit looks at how you’re moving, and it can help to tell how you’re feeling in that moment, even if you’re not speaking. I came up with the idea that you have an avatar that mimics you depending on how you move.

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