By Taras Berezowsky
Among his many influences in modern dance choreography, being Filipino is arguably Eddy Ocampo's most fundamental. As a young child performing Filipino folk dances in his native Chicago – well before a taste for hip-hop and break dancing developed – Ocampo learned how to move.
"It had a major affect on my movement vocabulary," the openly gay choreographer readily admits. "I don't see it, but every now and then, people say, 'Wow, you're moving so Asian.' It's not intentional, but it happens."
Perhaps also unintentional, but certainly undeniable, is Ocampo's success in the dance world. After being accepted to medical school following college, he changed course and started dancing. Having forged a long career with premier Chicago-area troupes – River North Chicago Dance Company and Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago among them – Ocampo graduated to a career in choreography. Then, in the summer of 2007, he entered Eisenhower Dance Ensemble's nationwide Choreography Competition.
"I submitted my video … and it won," Ocampo says, rather nonchalantly.
But winning wasn't a given, by any means. Eisenhower Dance Ensemble, or EDE, held its first annual competition that summer, experiencing a host of talented candidates and entries.
"We felt that Eddy's work would be a great fit for the company," says Laurie Eisenhower, EDE's founding artistic director. Southeast Michigan's premier dance ensemble will present its seventh annual NewDANCEfest on Jan. 17, including Ocampo's winning piece, "orion," along with the work of two other finalists. EDE ended up commissioning Ocampo's "orion" (a constellation) after premiering it in Houston.
"It was interesting because I didn't really know how EDE worked, but they were very enthusiastic, and were able to create beautiful work," Ocampo says. "EDE dancers measure up to the best dancers in Chicago. They were very polished, strong and very versatile."
That is high praise from someone who's garnered countless accolades for his choreography, including Dance Chicago's Outstanding Choreography Award. Ocampo didn't come into EDE's rehearsals with a predetermined plan, but instead started with a set of what he calls "entry points."
"We began with a beautiful piece of music by J.S. Bach, first of all," he says. "It's the type of music that makes you want to listen with your eyes closed. Then, of course, a story developed. It has a lot to do with falling in love, and also grabbing stars from above."
At one point, the dancers' audible, synchronized breathing creates a beautiful, otherworldly – you might even say celestial – effect.
"It ended up a lovely piece," Ocampo affirms.
As stunning as "orion" is, Ocampo maintains that it's nothing at all like his other choreography, which is more hard-hitting, contemporary movement. He is also quite fond of gesture, yet stops just short of getting "too fancy." "EDE works more with contemporary ballet, which I haven't really done. But ballet is actually where I want to go in my career, so my first experience with it – with EDE – was incredible."
Teaching has also become a vital component of Ocampo's career; important enough to gain him entry to the Filipino Hall of Fame in 2005 for his work as a master dance teacher. Although he mostly sticks to bestowing his moves and knowledge upon students in conservatories and master classes, he finds time for kids, too.
"Sometimes I teach master classes out in the community, and seeing the influence of TV shows like 'Dancing with the Stars,' there are so many more kids interested in dance now than there were 10 years ago," Ocampo says. "It's great to see many parents supporting their children's love of dance."
A continual challenge for Ocampo and the companies he works with, beyond recent struggles for funding, is to solidify the true definition of modern dance in the public's mind. Right now is actually a perfect time to do that, he argues. Despite dance organizations' budget cuts, there has never been a bigger need for entertainment, since people continue to spend money on what makes them happy.
"We grapple with people's perception of 'dance,' because so many people don't understand what it is," Ocampo says. "They assume dancers just dance around in a circle. But then they come to see us, and they realize they're being taken on an amazing journey."
7 p.m. Jan. 17
Troy High School Auditorium