Douglas Nielsen stands on the balcony of his apartment in the Ice House Lofts by the railroad tracks in downtown Tucson. A train is clacking by practically under his feet, its rusted metal cars a blur of mustard yellow and maroon.
"I love the sound of the train," he shouts above the din. "It's like a lullaby."
One day, a circus train parked right under his windows, he says, and he watched the acrobats and clowns and trapeze artists lounging around outside. Yes, he admits, he was almost tempted to run away with them. But that's not too likely now. The choreographer/dancer/teacher is delighted to be back in Tucson after an absence of 20 years.
"I love Tucson," he exclaims, calling down from his 6-foot-4 height. "It's such an artistic community. I love the Loft Cinema. I love Casa Video. All of it. It just makes sense to me."
Nielsen, once again a modern-dance professor at the UA School of Dance, re-introduces himself to the community this weekend in Works of Art, a modern-dance concert staged by NEW ARTiculations Dance Theatre at the Pima Community College Center for the Arts.
He's choreographing a new piece, "HEAR SAY," on seven NEW ART dancers, including Katie Rutterer, an MFA student in the UA School of Dance.
"To work with seven women made an interesting dynamic, because I still challenged them to lift each other and to work with power," Nielsen says. "I put them in high heels, character shoes. It brought a whole life to it. It's inspired by some vintage Laurie Anderson I found. And I found a minute-and-a-half piece by Lou Reed about New York conversations.
"I wanted it to be about how people talk about each other. It's not really a part of humanity that I appreciate. People who talk about people, it's a waste of time. Ideas, we're going someplace."
Nielsen's "HEAR SAY" is just one guest piece on the program. Jennifer Kayle, an assistant professor of dance at the University of Iowa, provides the other, "Beauty Head," also performed by the NEW ART dancers.
In an e-mail summary of the piece, Kayle writes, "Starring in the work are seven dancers, and seven doll heads from a popular department store. By featuring these girl-toys, I am attempting to ... highlight the contrast between real bodies and the somewhat vacant image of beauty we are asked to emulate."
It's not all serious going, however. Kayle uses "campy exaggeration, silly spoken texts and amusing interactions with the dolls."
Co-artistic director Tammy Rosen also stages a premiere, "Seaweeds," meant to conjure up the feeling of floating in water. Swimming through the ripples are Amanda Morse, April Greengaard, Renee Blakeley, Yvonne Montoya, LeighAnn Rangel-Sotomayor and Jacque Wiley.
Dancer Amy Barr-Holm's "Deliquescent Unison" is a series of three duets that look at the ins and outs of partnering. Greengaard made a large group work, "Ode to Song," inspired by the opera Rusalka. Blakeley's "Colpevole None" is a two-part work danced by Laura Reichhart, Montoya, Barr-Holmes, Greengaard and Morse. It's about guilt and letting go.
Nielsen last taught at the UA in the late '80s, when the dance program was just a small "committee on dance." He was happy in Tucson then, too, he says. He did some work with 10th Street Danceworks and helped Keith Collea restore the theater in the Historic YWCA on University Boulevard.
But he got an irresistible job offer. American Dance Festival called and asked, "Could I go to China and blueprint the first modern-dance company in China?" The only possible answer was yes.
He spent the next 20 years traveling around the world teaching modern dance, primarily in post-Communist countries. As recently as last summer, he taught in Mongolia, but he's also worked in studios from Estonia to Chile, Russia to Australia, Scotland to Canada.
And ADF is honoring him this June with a major award, the Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching. (Linda Tarnay, chair of the New York University dance department, is also receiving the prize.)
A popular teacher at the UA, to which he returned in January 2006, Nielsen brings a sense of joy to the classroom. He creates three new combinations for every single class, rising early on teaching days to work them out on his own in about 90 minutes. And while he teaches, he moves right along with the students, keeping up an almost nonstop patter about dance history, art and life.
In a recent class, he had the dancers do the famous Death stomp from Kurt Jooss' anti-war piece The Green Table.
"I told them what it was--that phrase came out of Death. That's from Green Table. They should know that. I danced that in Israel."
Though he didn't come to dance until the age of 23, Nielsen learned fast from such teachers as Donald McKayle and Bella Lewitzky, and moved quickly into professional work with Gus Solomons, Pearl Lang and Paul Sanasardo in New York, and Batsheva Dance Company in Israel. He formed his own Douglas Nielsen Dances in 1982.
A lover of all the arts, he collects contemporary art, particularly photography, and his loft is crowded with images ranging from Joel-Peter Witkin's lovely Mexican hermaphrodite to Jock Sturges' charming Irish children. He recently brought his grad students to the Center for Creative Photography to see Richard Avedon's photos of the West. Everything and anything is grist for a dance, he says.
The trains outside his home helped inspire a transportation work he staged at the UA last fall, and it's hard not to see the architectural geometries outside the same window as part of the dance-architecture collaboration he's readying for an April show at the School of Dance. And "HEAR SAY" takes its shape partly from its downtown surroundings.
"We rehearse every Sunday morning over a bar on Congress," he says. "I love to walk in there Sunday morning (with the place) smelling of the night before and going up the steps. I suppose I could have rehearsed at the university, but I knew the dance I'd make in the loft would be different than a dance I'd make on campus.
"I get the Sunday New York Times, and we rehearse and then read the paper after. That is church," he says with a smile. "It's my church."