01/25/2013 07:08 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Sean Curran, Choreographer, Uses Literature to Inspire Movement

I've only shared the stage once with the astounding Bessie Award-winning choreographer Sean Curran -- and I'll never forget it.

Sean, myself and our friend Mike were dancing back-up for a dear friend, singer Carl Chesna, at a funky downtown Manhattan club. Why Chesna, a gift guitarist/singer, needed dancers, I don't recall, but there we were.

When the lights came up, Sean, who had choreographed our little number, spun into action, expertly performing the dance. I, on the other hand, totally forgot the steps, but having done some stage work, started spinning around and kicking my legs. I think I also started to sing, which likely miffed Chesna. Our third dream girl, Mike, a newbie to the stage, just froze.

I recently ran into Curran at an East Village Rite Aide, and catching up before we both ventured out into the frigid NYC night, I told him about my trip to Dublin to do research for my novel-in-progress Three Brothers. Curran, as Irish as they come, began his training with traditional Irish-step dancing as a young boy in Boston, Massachusetts. He was delighted with the news of my trip and new novel in progress, and shared how he was inspired by literature in creating his latest dance opening at The Joyce Theatre Jan. 29.

The concept of literature as dance inspiration keenly intrigued me, since as a novelist I use all sorts of art forms in detailing and creating a manuscript. I was interested in how Curran used literature to turn out a dance, so I chatted him up.

Before we jump in, do you recall the night we did a back-up dance for Carl Chesna?
Yes! We were the "Chesnaettes"! I remember you and me wearing size-12 platform shoes I bought at the London shop Miss Selfridge and wigs we got on 14th street. Carl was the star of the show, but you and me and Michael were fierce.

How does literature influence your work?
Dante's Inferno (the first part of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Divine Comedy) was the jumping off place for the dance "Fire Weather" (the name of the dance I choreographed to the musical composition called "The Mission of Virgil" by Charles Wuorinen). But, of course, it is the music and actually visual art that inspired the movement making. I looked at illustrations of the Inferno by Gustave Dore and William Blake, and that inspired me to make a world and invent dance movements. Titles and phrases from the inferno helped too. Things like "Flight From the Three Beasts" and "Monsters of the Prime" and "Journey Through the Center" inform how I approach space and time in the work.

Did you ask your dancers to read Dante's Inferno or view anything in particular?
I asked the dancers to watch Astra Taylor's brilliant philosophy documentary "Examined Life" as research for their roles in my dance "Left Exit." I need to work with dancer/people who have strong opinions and ideas. I want them to have their artistic and political antennae out in the world. The thinking dancer is the more interesting dancer -- both in the studio and on the stage.

I like to ask at least one funky question so, what animal would your dance or dances be?
"Fireweather" would be a Komodo dragon and "Left Exit" would be a fox. The Komodo dragon because "Fireweather" has a section with monsters in it and a fox for "Left Exit" because it is a dance that is on the prowl and (hopefully) very clever.

How has your work evolved over time?
I feel like I make work to satisfy myself more now than in the past. I make work to raise questions I am thinking about. I want to rouse emotion in the audience. I now depend a lot on my dancers as they are my true collaborators. (The dancers are: Elizabeth Coker, Rebecca Arends, Jin Ju song Begin, Christina Robson, Winston Dynamite Brown, David Gonsie, Shane Rutkowski, Dwayne Brown, Aaron White, Michael Gonzalez, Michael Richman.) I have been doing this for a long time now, so I ask my dancers to solve movement problems and I use their phrase work in my composition. This also inspires me to move in a new way with different impulses. That is exciting to me as I am still very interested in learning how to dance and finding new ways to move. Dancing is an abstract visual language, and I like how modern dancers are constantly trying to speak an old language in a new way.

What's next?
My company goes on tour with the London-based all-male acapella singing group The Kings Singers doing a show we collaborated on called Travel Songs. After that, I will be directing and choreographing operas at the Kennedy Center, Opera Theater of St. Louis and Santa Fe Opera. I am also the associate chair of the dance department of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.