NEW YORK — When choreographer Jack Ferver began thinking about creating a new piece last summer, devastating memories of his childhood overwhelmed him.
“I found myself going back to the beginning,” he said, “and my life as a gay kid and being abused by my peers.”
Ferver, whose mix of dance and theater carries a visceral punch, had already agreed to collaborate with Marc Swanson, a visual artist whose works have been shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Saatchi Gallery in London. But they didn’t know then that they had suffered the same isolation when they were gay kids growing up in rural America — Ferver, who is 33, in Wisconsin; Swanson, who turns 43 this month, in New Hampshire. Once they began talking, those experiences became central to their piece, “Two Alike,” a solo performed by Ferver against Swanson’s maze-like set of mirrors and dark wood. The Institute of Contemporary Art and Summer Stages Dance at Concord Academy will co-present the work at the ICA Thursday night.
As the dance begins, Ferver lies on the darkened stage, lithe and fawn-like in a beige tunic. “In my dream, they are trying to kill me,” he says anxiously, referring to characters from the 1985 movie, “Return to Oz.” (In the film, Dorothy goes back to Oz after a witch and the Nome King have ruined it.) “I feel I might have heart failure,” he continues, running through the set as if it were a haunted forest. “Fail-u-re. You are a failure.” By the end, he stands before the audience visibly exhausted.
“I mix humor and tragedy,” Ferver said over coffee with Swanson at the Rubin Museum cafe a few days after the New York premiere at the Kitchen in May. “But I had no idea how this would wreck me. I went all the way.”
Although “Two Alike” is far more physically demanding than his previous pieces, such as “Rumble Ghost,” “I Am Trying to Hear Myself,” and “Death Is Certain,” which typically mined his personal history and pop culture, he always throws himself completely into his performances. In a New York Times review of his “A Movie Star Needs a Movie,” Claudia La Rocco wrote: “Those of us watching are implicated in his physically raw, violent works. We can’t look away, and naturally, we don’t want to.”
It was dance that helped transform Ferver’s difficult early years. At 13, he started classes with a teacher influenced by Martha Graham; later he left home to spend his senior year of high school on scholarship at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. Coming to New York after graduation brought even more relief. Hoping to act and dance, he won a role in the 1999 movie “Outside Providence,” and was called for a couple of commercials, work he still does occasionally.
“I won a scholarship here and a scholarship there and thought I was driving New York like my own private car,” he said. “But I wasn’t driving anything, not even myself. I thought I would arrive and get an agent and be in another movie right away, but I had no [demo] reel, no one knew who I was, and I was goth and dark and acted older than 18. I remember casting directors saying, ‘It’s just so hard to believe you as a young person.’ So I studied at the Graham school. At that time New York was very wild. And I was very regimented but also very wild. It was fun. It was scary. I grew up in New York.”
Ferver soon made a name for himself and by 2007 was presenting full-length works at venues like PS 122, the New Museum, and Danspace Project. Currently, he is collaborating with Boston native Joshua Lubin-Levy — his director and dramaturge for the past two years — on a piece called “All of a Sudden,” inspired by Tennessee Williams’s “Suddenly Last Summer.”
As he usually does in his pieces, Ferver began “Two Alike” with movement. “I always start subconsciously,” he said. “Part of the reason for me to be a choreographer is because language, which I prize and love so much, can’t always communicate everything. In fact, it can lie. Movement, as my dance mom Martha [Graham] said, cannot.” He rehearsed alone, asking Swanson and Lubin-Levy to come in now and then to watch and comment.
Swanson and Ferver met in 2008 and immediately hit it off, with Swanson inviting Ferver to his studio to see his work and Ferver asking Swanson to his performances. They developed a strong friendship. But that didn’t mean that Ferver wasn’t anxious about working with a set, which he had never done before.
“He likes everything stripped down to the bare minimum,” Swanson said.
“Zero to the bone,” Ferver underlined.
The choreography and text evolved along with the set, which changed as they worked on it together in preparation for the premiere at DiverseWorks Art Space in Houston last September. And while Ferver is trained primarily in contemporary dance, “Two Alike” includes ballet phrases that would tax experienced ballet dancers.
Ferver originally wanted the text for “Two Alike” to consist of articles he had published in the Swiss art magazine Novembre, one about rape and the other concerning a lover’s turmoil. Lubin-Levy was not a fan of that notion.
“I thought they were a terrible idea,” Lubin-Levy said. “Too obvious, too on-the-nose. You have to abstract the personal in order to let people into your experience.”
So Ferver went home and wrote an entirely new text, basing it on the conversations he and Swanson had had about their childhoods and adding a fantasy story, inspired by “Return to Oz,” a favorite film of his youth. “As a child, I’d created worlds to escape into,” he said, “so using ‘Oz’ came naturally.”
Ferver draws on movies as a creative springboard because they have meant so much to him. He hopes they also allow him to connect with a broad audience. Concerned that people will think that “Two Alike” speaks only to a specific population, he said, “Marc and I don’t want anyone to think that we believe only gay kids suffer. After every performance, audience members come up, gay and straight, who say they identify with the isolation and fear that we felt. That’s my intention. I make my work so that people don’t feel as lonely as I have.”