Bulgarian-born surrealist choreographer translates pain into movement.
Tzveta Kassabova holds three masters degrees and has been, at various points in her life, a gymnast, a physicist and a meteorologist. It was, in fact, a PhD program in meteorology, at the University of Maryland, that brought her to the United States from Europe, in 1999. But after completing enough work in the degree to earn her master’s Kassabova, who still exudes a boundlessness of energy rare of someone in middle age, abandoned her schooling to move to New York and follow her dreams of becoming a dancer.
For anyone else, such a move may be folly, but for Kassabova the seemingly sudden change in direction not only made sense, it also succeeded. “I had been pursuing both [dance and science] for a long time,” explains Kassabova during a recent interview at Salt Lake City’s Rose Wagner Theater. “They kept existing together in my life for years and it didn’t make sense anymore. I wanted more expression and New York City became too big of an attraction.”
After a summer spent at the internationally renowned American Dance Festival, in Durham, North Carolina, and after earning an artist-in-residency from The Yard, on Martha’s Vineyard, the Bulgarian-born contemporary dance choreographer launched full on into a new career that has earned her, among many recognitions and honors, the Metro D.C. Dance Award (2008), the Prince George’s Arts Council grant (2009) and Maryland State Arts Council Award (2010 and 2011). In 2012, Dance Magazine described Kassabova’s movement as “surreal, as if Salvador Dali himself painted her into existence” and included her in their list of 25 to Watch.
In 2014, she accepted a teaching position at the distinguished liberal arts school Middlebury College, in Vermont, where she stayed until this fall when she will begin a new chapter as a professor in the theater and drama department at the University of Michigan in Detroit, teaching aspiring actors the art of movement.
But, before moving half way across the country and launching into a new teaching position in a new department, Tzveta Kassabova agreed to spend two weeks, last month, in Salt Lake City setting one of her most intimate pieces of choreography, Opposite of Killing (2010), on the six dancers of the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.
“Every time I work with this piece it’s new,” says Kassabova who has restaged the piece a handful of times, recreating it each time from a skeleton concept and fitting it to the unique style of each company. Originally, Opposite of Killing was a solo work inspired by her mentor, choreographer Ed Tyler, and created a year after his sudden and shocking passing at the age of 42. “I love the solo,” says Kassabova who still performs the original version, “but I felt there were bigger ideas that I couldn’t do in that format.”
To fulfill her vision, Kassabova expanded the piece into an ensemble dance while working with students from the New Bulgarian University in Sofia, in 2010. Since then, despite constant changes to the details of the choreography, Opposite of Killing has retained the original depth of emotion that ranges from aggression to sorrow to confusion.
“[With Opposite of Killing]I ask the dancers to forget they are dancers and to bring their humanness to the stage rather than the bodies they have been training,” says Kassabova.
One week into the two-week residence, Tzveta Kassabova was more than impressed with the receptiveness and keen interpretation shown by the Ririe-Woodbury dancers. “The other day [with Ririe-Woodbury] we tried a section and everyone was crying,” recalls Kassabova. “It’s important, even if audience doesn’t cry, that the dancers understand the layers of feeling they are expressing.”
Katherine Pioli is CATALYST’s associate editor.