By: Loraine Ritchey
Picture: Cowal 1973
The first and last ( to date) native born American to win the Adult World Championship at Cowal Highland Gathering, Hugh Bigney. Readers of this column in "DANCER" will remember Hugh as the young man whose teacher Vera Miller Patterson showed him the reason why he was dancing in the World's that year. The year was 1973, also the occasion of Hugh's 18th birthday. Whilst birthdays have come and gone, Hugh continues to refine and stretch as an artist.
Before the adult dancer there was the little boy; born and raised in Boston MA Hugh began his dancing career: "My goal was to be like Mr. James L. MacKenzie (World Champion, Cowal, 1951,1952,1953) a legend in the world of Scottish dancing. Later I would be his student for two summers at the Gaelic College in St. Ann's Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. I remember watching him dance close to one hour, while the legendary Seamus MacNeil played the bagpipes or accompanied him with "puirt a beul" (mouth music). I am still amazed at his vitality and strength for a man who was then in his 60's. Mr. MacKenzie taught me how to love the dance at any age- "Dance is for everyone!!"
Hugh's parents then looked for the Highland teacher who could continue to bring to young Hugh the love of Highland. " My parent's were leaving a competition, Ocean City, New Jersey, the year 1967, where Hugh had just won his first championship, upon meeting up with 'Jamie Jamieson' (profiled in "Dancer" March 1997) being pleased with my performance that day they said to Mr. Jamieson "didn't Hugh dance well?" the reply "mechanical". It was later that I realized exactly what he meant and that it wasn't a compliment!"
The task fell to one Vera Miller. Mrs. Miller or V.P., as she is affectionately known was at that time teaching in a small city on the shores of Lake Erie, Lorain, Ohio. "Vera, has had the greatest effect on my work as a dancer, more than just the Highland, she taught me proper alignment and how to tap into the physical strength that I have as a male dancer. When I saw John Scheslinger's film Madam Sousatska, I thought immediately of my relationship with Vera. She taught me to be an artist in everything that I do, not just when I was performing, and yes! I was that young impatient boy!! A few weeks ago I was speaking with my parents, who summed it up, "you went to Vera because she was the best Highland Teacher in North America!" Vera unlocked my potential. There is no quick fix in achieving excellence. I recall spending one solid week on the first step of the Sailor's (Hornpipe) trying to get it right. I would work more than eight hours a day in Vera's kitchen. She would come and go, teaching between the activities of her day. Vera would say "be where you are supposed to be, on the count, but make it look effortless". This is how I became a champion, and like most dancers I had other activities. I was the star of my track team in school, team captain, and vice-president of my class. I was a good student and attended church daily! To find time to practice I would get up before 6 each morning and work. I still do this!" At the age of 18 (the youngest to do so) Hugh won the Adult World Championship at Cowal. "Having accomplished my goal, becoming a World Champion like Mr. James L MacKenzie my career as a Highland Dancer was complete."
Hugh may have achieved one of his goals but his dancing certainly didn't stop. 1977-81 found Hugh as a dancer with Ballet West, 1981-91 the soloist and principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, musical theatre productions including 5th Avenue Musical Theater Company, (Seattle), Theater Under the Stars (Houston), Houston Grand Opera (Houston) and the National Tour of Annie Get Your Gun (1994-95). During 1997-99 Hugh teamed up with Jerry Kraus. The modern dance duo of ' bigney/kraus dance' came into being. " During the three years of our collaboration Jerry shared his unique style of released movement and natural technique.
Working closely with another artist can give birth to brilliance or chaos…During 1998 while collaborating with Jerry Kraus I became interested in rogue elephants and their behavior. Further investigation revealed a 200- year history in the United States, full of stories of murderous rampages and changed names. The story of Mary and Sparks Circus is perhaps the most compelling, containing rich material for movement and sound studies." This ultimately led to the work "Two Portraits" (Charlie Sparks and Murderous Mary), although not completed as yet, this original work by Hugh will be premiering next winter.
The year 2000 finds Hugh at work "returning to his roots as a solo artist with a full-length work to an original score of spoken text, ambient music, and digital sampling. "against the needles" is the realization of almost one year of movement studies based on tidal patterns along the wilderness coast of Washington state. In order to be freed from the predetermination of technique, Hugh has utilized mediation methods during the creative process, allowing the natural rhythm of the movement to dictate the choreographic structure. The natural phrases that developed during the months working against the Quillayute Needles have melted together in a 50-minute solo to a score of original music, spoken word, old recordings, and samplings of birds, whales, eagles and the Needles themselves." It seems that Highland hasn't totally finished with Hugh as Hugh will also premier live with "against the needles" 'Gigue (to James L) "with droning, bass laden score, this short work stretches Scottish dance technique to places that James L MacKenzie never dreamed it would go. Relying on breath phrasing and the imperfect, half-beat rhythms that make Highland Dance so interesting." 'Gigue' (to James L.) is conceived as a work for both live performance and the Internet. A video of this short work is being added to the "crokesus" website this summer, "in this way I can share the dance with everyone".
For further and more in-depth information on "against the needles" you may go to Hugh's Webb site . I will forward any correspondence on to Mrs. Vera Miller Patterson.
Mrs. Patterson, has continued teaching champions including Sandra Scafate who won the Junior World. I was fortunate enough to have had Mrs. Patterson teach my own child from time to time
When she would return to Lorain and give workshops for another of her students Susan Hoffman. My impression whilst watching her teach was her absolute love of the dance and teaching shone through her eyes. Her whole being lit up with the great joy she was experiencing teaching those children, she communicated her love of Highland and the Scottish culture, not through words alone.
Jamie Jamison Foundation, 3205 Coachman Road, Wilmington, Delaware,19803 USA
Questions and comments Loraine Ritchey,1127 W.4th Street, Lorain, Ohio, 44052. Tel 440-246-6046 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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