Seattle choreographer Mark Haim's precocious start, midcareer withdrawal and, now, zany triumph with "This Land Is Your Land" at Seattle's On the Boards.

Share story

It’s not often that you see a grown man doing off-kilter hop-skip steps around the dark, swank lobby of the Sorrento Hotel.

But for Seattle choreographer-dancer Mark Haim, that seemed the best way to recall the moment of inspiration that triggered his piece “This Land Is Your Land” a few years ago when, while out on a stroll and listening to country tunes, he suddenly found his walking pace giving him ideas for a dance.

Seattle audiences got a glimpse of “Land,” in all its minimalist absurdity, at On the Boards’ 2010 Northwest New Works Festival. What they saw: a dozen dancers doing a seemingly simple catwalk strut that soon became complicated by nutty stage business involving props, costumes, lack of costumes and subtle alterations of gait that owed a thing or two to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

“Land” — which, beneath its witty antics, meticulously explores incremental change over a steady pulse of time — has been expanded for “X2,” a double bill of Haim works running at OTB Thursday through next Sunday.

Its companion piece, “The Time” (set to music by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen), takes the opposite approach, dropping a single insistent beat for “different senses of time” that don’t feel cyclical or smooth in transition.

Unexpected reversals and unconventional transitions have characterized Haim’s career, which has included commissions from the Joffrey Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), Ballett Frankfurt and other high-profile companies. Not bad for someone who didn’t start dancing until age 17 and who, after early success as a choreographer, dropped out of the dance scene for a number of years.

A Long Island native, Haim started as a classical pianist, attending Manhattan School of Music preparatory division, entering competitions, giving recitals. But he caught the dance bug in high school when he performed in musicals. He’d been serious about dancing for only three months when he got into the dance division at Juilliard.

How, one wonders, did that happen?

“They needed men,” he laughs.

Choreography fascinated him from the beginning, something he attributes to his strong musical background. (“You see music,” he says, “and you see movement to it.”) Still, he didn’t expect to be a choreographer right out of the starting gate.

Two things led him that way. An injury put a damper on his dancing just after he graduated from Juilliard. And he had a strong advocate in Martha Hill, founder of Juilliard’s dance division, who recommended him as a choreographer.

His first breakthrough came with “Settings and Clearings,” a 1985 piece staged at the Riverside Dance Festival that Haim will revive this summer at Seattle Theater Group’s “Dance This!” youth dance showcase. Hill also connected him with Joffrey 2, where a workshop piece he did led to an invitation from Robert Joffrey himself to set work on the main Joffrey company — immediately.

“Things started happening really quickly,” Haim marvels. “Everything went kind of crazy.”

A subsequent Haim piece for Ballett Frankfurt’s William Forsythe caught the eye of the assistant of legendary choreographer-director Jiri Kylian, and within months Haim had a letter from Kylian, inviting him to make a piece for NDT.

“I kept looking at the letter,” Haim recalls, “trying to see that he meant the second company, because I just couldn’t believe it.”

But, no — Kylian wanted him to make a piece for the main company.

“At this point I was 26,” Haim remembers. “It was going quickly.”

The jitter in his voice as he says “quickly” hints at what came next.

After numerous other commissions, plus three years as artistic director of Portugal’s Lisbon Dance Company, Haim felt “burned out” and wanted to come home.

“I really craved some alone time,” he says.

He left Lisbon in 1990, and by 1993 all his commissions had dried up. “I just stopped pursuing things,” he says, “and let the momentum of my name roll to a stop.”

His withdrawal, he feels, was crucial to creating his signature piece, “The Goldberg Variations.”

Three years in the making, this 80-minute solo debuted to great acclaim at the American Dance Festival in 1997 and traveled across the U.S. (including two sold-out shows at the Kennedy Center) as well as to Russia and Korea. It was revived at On the Boards in 2006 and was most recently seen in Seattle at Bumbershoot in 2009, when a tag team of dancers split Haim’s original solo among them.

“Goldberg” blended humor, mathematical precision and exquisite beauty in a highly varied package — and finally let Haim realize a longstanding dream of performing.

“Thirty-six years old,” he crows, “and now I’m dancing!”

Haim’s move to Seattle came in 2002 when he was an artist-in-residence with the dance program at the University of Washington.

“I thought it would just be for a year,” he says. “I’ve been here ever since.”

While he’s no longer at the UW, he’s deeply immersed in the Seattle dance community. At 50, he’s in a spot oddly similar to the one he occupied in his 20s: working on freelance dance commissions and “traveling too much.” (In November, he brought “This Land Is Your Land” — minus its nudity and a few controversial props — to Beijing.)

Now intrinsic to the local scene, he brings a sassy, genial warmth to Seattle stages, along with some fresh and intricate theatrical ideas.

His aim, as he puts it, is to keep “trying new things.”

Michael Upchurch: