Tony Kramer: A Jack of all trades and a master dance teacher, choreographer
BY ELAINE RAY
It's four days into a new month, but Tony Kramer's calendar is still on April. With "Spring Migration" to co-direct, classes to teach, students to mentor, choreography to fine tune, saxophone to practice, not to mention a new baby to dote on, who has time?
Kramer, an instructor in the dance division for the past 12 years, teaches jazz and modern dance, choreography and improvisation. He's the one the department counts on to make sure the lighting and other technical details are taken care of during division performances. In addition, he recently co-taught a drama class with Patricia Ryan called "The Actor's Toolbox" and was one of four university faculty who taught a weekend continuing studies course on creativity. He's got one weekend Migration performance under his belt and another to get ready for on Friday and Saturday.
"He has so many talents," says dance division coordinator Susan Cashion. "In his teaching and all of his duties at the university he just reaches out."
Kramer was 20 years old when he took his first dance class, unheard of when many dancers do their first pirouette at 5. Back in the early '70s, Kramer says, he was "skulking" around campus, playing accompaniment on his trumpet for dance classes, when he decided to take the floor. Cashion was his first instructor.
"The advantage us late starters have is that we don't know that we can't do it. So we choreograph right away and try to be artists," says Kramer, 47, with a laugh of someone who's practiced at deep breathing. "I think it helps to have fewer preconceived notions about what exactly to choreograph. It seems to have worked on a number of people."
It seems to have worked for him. Over the years Kramer guesses that he's choreographed at least 40 dances. About eight of those have been set to music he composed.
Kramer earned his bachelor's degree in music from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Then, he "joined the circus," touring with a Salt Lake City company called Wimmer, Wimmer and Dancers. When that troupe moved to Philadelphia two years later, Kramer headed for Oregon. "I wasn't quite ready to be an East Coaster," says the La Jolla native. In Corvallis, Kramer found himself in good company. "Suddenly there were more waiters and bartenders and waitresses in that town than ever before. I made a living working and dancing." Kramer co-directed the Oregon Dance Theater with Stanford alum Carol Soleau and earned a master's degree in dance from the University of Oregon.
As a performer who toured primarily in the Western states, Kramer says there is a difference between East Coast and West Coast dancers. It's a lot like the topography of the two regions.
"It's a spatial thing. You can feel the openness and freedom of space and because of that it's really sweeping and uses a lot of space. New York dancers have a more condensed, complex and denser style," he says. Still, West Coast dancers still strive to emulate the trends on the other coast. "The dance world is very New York-centric. It's funny being a West Coast dancer. To many people I never existed."
Just before Kramer completed his graduate work at the University of Oregon, Cashion traveled there to encourage him to apply for an opening on the faculty here. I thought that he would be a tremendous acquisition to the program," she says.
Cashion continues to appreciate his gifts. "Because of his music background, he comes with a dimension that is lovely for the program. The other thing that I think is constantly demonstrated is his rapport with everybody with colleagues, musicians, with other faculties. He is just a person who is so sensitive to others: caring, demanding in a way, but it's all with such incredible nurturing," Cashion said.
Kramer enjoys working with students who he says seem always willing to try things they haven't done before. "Throughout the 12 years I've been here, my impression is that these are really open-minded quick people and in general have a great time dancing. They really learn fast, which at first is kind of scary. It means I'd better have more to teach than I thought," he says. "Many of the people come to my classes for relief and release; to take that consciousness out of their heads and move it into their bodies. So I get to see people in a stress-reducing situation rather than a stress-building situation." Kramer adds that he also sees a more nonverbal side of students that other teachers might.
Cashion praises Kramer for his ability to keep up with new trends and bring them back to his classes. One of the techniques that he has brought to campus is a modern dance trend called contact improvisation, in which dancers improvise while making contact with other dancers.
"Tony went out and researched it and brought it back to Stanford," Cashion says. "It shows his ability and his willingness to go out and nail new forms and encourage our students to work in them."
Those who see "Spring Migration," which will be performed Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. in Roble Dance Studio, will get a taste of contact improvisation in Kramer's latest work, "Subterranean Suburban Sublime." It's a piece inspired by a series of paintings Kramer's sister did for a show about narrative. Kramer describes the paintings as "fractured moments out of a mystery. The paintings are slightly spooky. It all had to do with the neighborhood I live in now" in Redwood City.
In Kramer's piece, dancers roll and strut, growl and crawl. The costumes skirts, pants, dresses in bright reds and oranges were not his idea. He had suggested black for uniformity. "All those women thought I was being kind of boring," he says. "The thing that the red connects to more than the imagery is the energy of the piece," he says.
In addition to contributing a choreographic work to "Spring Migration," Kramer also is the annual event's co-director, with dance division instructor Diane Frank. The show features seven pieces choreographed by faculty and students that run the gamut from traditional modern to flamenco and tap to hip-hop.
Doing a show like "Spring Migration" is quite a challenge, Kramer says, given the demands on students and the limits on the availability of rehearsal space. "Here everyone is so busy that just to rehearse is a major accomplishment. In Flagstaff, we'd rehearse every night and go to Bob's Big Boy afterward and somehow still go to college. There's just a lot of competition for the students' time here." Several years ago, Kramer adds, Roble's hours were cut back and the facility is now open only until 10 p.m. instead of midnight. "The 10 to midnight time was the time when many a modern dance was made. It's much harder now."
There also are a lot of demands on Kramer's time as well. Four years ago he took up the saxophone, which he practices every night. And five months ago, his son, Reuben, was born. Reuben and Kramer's wife, Julie, are regulars in Kramer's classes in Roble and father and son often are seen together around campus.
In addition, Kramer has been credited with upgrading the sound and lighting systems in the dance division. "I try to make the technical part be general enough to be useful for all kinds of dance purposes and fluid and easy enough to use. The technical side of things can be such an overwhelming job that it steals your whole love of putting on a show," he says.
Kramer seems most comfortable when there are several things going on at once. "I am really just naturally a generalist. As soon as I stop paying attention to one thing I start paying attention to something else. I know that if I eliminated some of those things from my repertoire I'd probably be better at some of the others. But it's part of the nature of theater to be a Jack of all trades."
Sometimes, Kramer says, "that
diversity thing" is a bit overwhelming. "Like some days when I'm
putting gas in the van and peeling tape off the [dance] floor, it
is difficult to really feel that I am part of a teaching staff at
Stanford University. But then I'll just have to stand up and teach
a class." SR