Professor Keith A. Thompson trains "thinking dancers"

Keith A. ThompsonChoreographer Keith A. Thompson grew up in a military family. But the idea of the dancer as a rhythmic soldier, mirroring prescribed movements and regurgitating patterns, seems to leave him cold.

“I love to have conversations with dancers about subject matter,” says Thompson, a recent addition to the Mason Gross School’s Dance Department. He also helms his own company, danceTactics Performance Group, and serves as rehearsal director for Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. “It gets pretty emotional. If they’re working with me, and they don’t connect to me as a human being—if they don’t know me as Keith—there’s only a certain amount of distance we can go.

“If we open up . . . that investment goes even deeper,” continues Thompson, a member of Trisha Brown Dance Company from 1992 to 2001. “And trust—that enriches the movement. What we’re doing is very intimate and intricate. How do you achieve these things if you don’t connect on a deeper level?”

Thompson began his training relatively late, as a student at The Ohio State University.

“I knew nothing about dancing,” he says. “But my roommate said: ‘You’re always dancing around the room; I dare you to audition.’ ”

Thompson says he “connected to the rhythms” of jazz in his college dance classes but detested ballet and modern. He dropped out of school and spent a few years in Minneapolis as a computer programmer. He spent nights studying dance, which eventually led to a spot in the city’s Zenon Dance Company and the end of his computer career.

“I walked into my boss’ office and said, ‘It’s my birthday, and I’m quitting,’ ” Thompson recalls. “I said, ‘I want to be a dancer.’ ” Eventually, he nabbed a full scholarship to The Ailey School in New York City.

But Thompson credits Trisha Brown with nudging him toward artistic maturity.

“Trisha trained me to be a thinking dancer, not just a doer,” says Thompson, who is collaborating this semester on a project with actor Bill Pullman. “A thinking dancer is a dancer who takes initiative and is making choices. They will run with their imagination, which gives choreographers not just one appetizer but a platter to choose from.”   

Mason Gross dancer Myssi Robinson says Thompson is keen on nurturing “thinking dancers” himself.

“It is not enough to mimic,” Robinson says of Thompson’s approach. “He requires that his students also understand the origins and complexities of each movement exercise. This process of . . . verbalization was very challenging.”

Thompson admits that he still struggles with “promoting myself and patting myself on the back,” but that Brown fueled his confidence.

“I felt she valued my opinions, trusted my outcomes and didn’t toss them away,” says Thompson, who has performed internationally as a professional dancer for some 25 years. “She allowed me to be me and not be the mimic. If you trust a collaborator and feel they trust you, you allow yourself to be more vulnerable.”

Establishing trust among his dancers seems to be working. Robinson recalls her first impression of Thompson: “He seemed very relaxed, yet slightly nervous, which was endearing . . . He is tuned in to our experiences as students.”

Ideally, Thompson says, his dancers emerge hungry to seize on a movement, absorb it, embody it—maybe even wrestle with it.

“The most important thing is knowing that they’re trained but [also] knowing that there’s more,” Thompson points out. “They can take ownership of their learning. Don’t just listen, but challenge me.”

Catch students performing Thompson’s choreography at DancePlus Spring, April 20-29, 2012, at the Victoria J. Mastrobuono Theater.