Take a broad brush to Bill Roden and you’ll come up with four ‘primary’ colors: music, photography, philosophy and performing arts. And he’s been around long enough—he sold his first commercial photo and began his freelance career at age 13 in Los Angeles—to have seen his second fascination undergo numerous technological advances. Multi-image slide projections have long since gone the way of the carrier pigeon. Computer graphics held sway during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Optical ran out of gas in the mid-‘90s. By then the digital era was well along.
“I wish I could live off the arts,” he says. Something like that might have been possible had he set up shop in a large metropolitan area. But like those of us living around the Monterey Bay, Roden made his choice for paradise no matter the sacrifices. (Photo by Alexandra Dawn.)
Decades ago Roden began a transition from still photos to moving images. He did projection backdrops for Carmel’s outdoor Forest Theater. He used multi-imaging for theater works in the late ‘80s. He worked with many Monterey Peninsula venues and directors, “from before Stephen [Moorer] got the Golden Bough.” Those were love projects. But he found commercial work essential to develop his business, New Dawn Studios in Carmel. “We do marketing, corporate work, agriculture, eduction and training, broadcast television, and golf,” even documentaries of surgeries. “When Alexandra Cousteau came to town we did the lighting and electric. Yesterday we shot a PSA for Tom North [author of the personal memoir True North]. And a lot of sports stuff with Jim Nantz, Superbowl spots, and audio production with [the recently late] George Reading.”
Roden started on violin at age five and today plays Celtic fiddle with his son. After graduating from the Harvard School in Los Angeles he headed off to Pomona College (the Claremont Colleges) where he majored in philosophy. As a young man he headed off to Harvard where he majored in philosophy. Once back in the LA commuter jungle he soon decided to pitch his tent at Shangri-La by the bay, the Monterey Peninsula. In area theaters he’s done slide montages, audio design, video productions, documentaries and other shows.
But since 1996, his work in the performing arts has burned brightest in his collaborations with Fran Spector Atkins’ SpectorDance. (The image that leads this article is from the gang-violence-inspired East West, SpectorDance’s most recent premiere.) Their first piece, Ocean-Bird-Rock-Sky (left), was seen at Sunset Center. When the World Theater opened at CSU Monterey Bay, they staged a dance production of Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. Work on East West actually began ten years earlier with the similarly-inspired Violence Project / Real Life Stories (below.)
The working relationship between Fran Spector and Bill Roden is “kick around ideas.” He says, “She will propose an idea, and we discuss the possibilities. Usually I’m the one to give it structure. I need to hang it on something.” The music selection process begins early with Fran taking the lead on researching music. “I start laying in the sound bites with music.” Then, “she listens and says I have a movement idea here.” He does the sound bed, she does the choreography. “Once we’ve got the audio bed built we start painting, layering the work together. That’s how we’ve worked together for twenty years,” he says.
Figures in the Dust drew on Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and included archival photography by Dorothea Lange. Common Ground (left) dealt with agricultural issues as expressed by farm workers, corporate farmers, local landowners. “We did our own research, firsthard” Roden explains. “No more secondary sources. It took our work in a new direction.” Border Crossing featured firsthand interviews from immigrants. These major projects tend to be spaced two or three years apart. “The one we did on corn, Maize the Golden Thread, covered 1000 years of history. We visited Ecuador, Illinois, Ohio, processing plants.” The next big one after that was Ocean (below right), with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) and was three years in development. “Its impetus came from Kyra Schlining at MBARI who saw great potential in science and dance to call attention to the mounting ecological impacts, climate change and acidification of the oceans.”
He adds, “My work with Fran has been featured at 2 TED-X events in Monterey, Ocean in 2012 and Common Ground in 2010.” (Ocean was also staged at the Smithsonian in Washington DC in 2013.)
What stands out in the collaborations between Roden and Spector Atkins is the “new direction” each of their works over the past two decades has taken. Each in turn has demonstrated the urgent relevance dance brings to our lives. When East West premiered at Sherwood Hall a couple of weeks ago, a member of the Salinas audience posed a question that Roden recalls with a certain reverence: “Can you tell our story back to us?”
All images except artist head portrait by William Roden