Choreographer Carley Conder was just a child when she first learned about Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic architecture. “My mother was in love with his work, so whenever we traveled, we would go to see his houses,” she says.
Today, Conder heads CONDER/Dance, a contemporary dance company based in Tempe. Recently, the company premiered one work as part of an evening of dance at Taliesin West. That’s the Scottsdale home and studio complex Wright established in 1937, which has since been named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“I’ve been going to Taliesin West since I was a young child,” Conder recalls. “I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal for everyone.”
This month, she’ll present a single piece inspired by Wright during the Breaking Ground dance and film festival happening at Tempe Center for the Arts. CONDER/dance launched the annual festival 13 years ago, and it’s been a staple of the Arizona dance scene ever since. The piece is called in the direction of the unknown.
The title was culled from a comment Wright made about his experiences at Taliesin West. Conder says her research into Wright in recent years helped her better understand his personal and professional life.
“As an adult and aging artist, I was excited to see a creative legacy spanning 90 years,” Conder says. “As a 46-year-old fighting to stay relevant, I was fascinated to see his creative rebirth and resurgence as a 70-year-old.”
Even so, she recognizes the complexities at play.
“I had a little bit of trouble with him as a person, because he was a strong personality and could be a jerk sometimes,” she says. “The interesting part for me personally was thinking about what is the artist and what is the man, especially in the age of the #MeToo movement.”
At first, she grappled with whether and how to address the many contradictions in Wright’s life; even as Wright was designing houses, his own home life was marked by turmoil ranging from infidelity to accusations of abuse. “I wondered whether we should lean into them or ignore them,” she says.
In the end, Conder decided to narrow her focus to Wright’s life and work while he was at Taliesin West, during the final two decades of his life. By then, Wright had married his third wife, who was a dancer. Their daughter became a dancer as well.
Both his wife and daughter followed a mystic named G. I. Gurdjieff, who explored the connections between consciousness and movement. “He used some odd movements, which I reference in my dance,” Conder says.
Of course, most of Conder’s inspiration came from Taliesin West and Wright’s organic architecture. Conder spent time with her dancers in the desert, for example. Then, she created movements that reflected the sensations they experienced there.
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“I really made a commitment to create an entirely unique movement language for this piece, because I didn’t want to draw on anything that I had done before,” she says. “I use language a lot when I choreograph, but this time I realized that it all had to be visual.”
Now, she’s eager to share the results.
“It’s been daunting trying to create something that pays homage to Wright’s work,” she says. “I hope it reflects his audacity, charisma, and sense of discovery.”
Breaking Ground is scheduled for Friday and Saturday, January 24 and 25 at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 West Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe. Tickets are $18 to $28. Visit conderdance.com.