On the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, Riley Watts walked into a Portland City Council meeting wearing an American flag hoodie that he’d just purchased at Renys. Surrounded by politicians, he stood in the middle of the formal chamber, turned on a small Bluetooth speaker to his remix of Axel F and DANCED.
“The political climate in general was super stressful,” he recalls, “and I wanted to make a political statement in some way. I thought, ‘Why can’t I wear the flag? Why does it now just have to be a symbol of nationalism?’ I’m a Democrat, I’m an American, and I’m really proud to be from Maine.”
The mini show was part of Creative Portland’s Arts in the Chamber program, designed to showcase the city’s artistic talent. In addition to falling right before Election Day, Watts’ appearance coincided with the first Portland Dance Month, which Watts founded to highlight dance events all over the city.
“The Council didn’t know about it,” he says. “It was in its beginning steps. And the room felt extremely charged—I felt like I was embodying the political tension we were all feeling at the time. So I decided to dance my face off, show them why dance matters, put some energy into the room.”
It’s hard not to be energized by Watts’ dance style. An intensely physical performer, Watts is able to contort his muscular frame into positions that would test the limits of a Stretch Armstrong doll. Given the athleticism of his artistry, it’s not surprising the 34-year-old Bangor native started as a gymnast before finding his way to dance.
“I watched the ’92 Olympics and fell in love with the women’s floor exercise because they were dancing to music, as well as tumbling and being acrobatic,” he says. “It was an obsession. I had a VHS tape and watched it over and over and over.”
Watts started gymnastics soon after, but grew disappointed by the lack of opportunities for male gymnasts to dance like their female counterparts. “They just flip around,” he says. “It’s totally gendered and silly, as far as I’m concerned.” He found a free boys ballet class at the Thomas School of Dance in Bangor and was hooked. After his sophomore year of high school, Watts’ dance teacher recommended him for the Joffrey Ballet’s Summer Intensive program in New York. “That’s when it clicked that this could be something that I do—not just a hobby. I could feel myself growing into a stronger identity as a dancer.”
After two months in New York, Watts found it difficult to return to Bangor; he transferred to the Walnut Hill School, a boarding arts high school in Natick, Massachusetts. That’s when he discovered the work of choreographer William Forsythe.
“I saw ‘In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated’ at Boston Ballet,” he says, “and it was a life-changing moment for me. I was so shocked that there was ballet in the world like that. There was something about the physicality, the aesthetic. It’s difficult to describe—but I think that’s precisely why it was so moving. I thought, ‘This is the kind of dancing that I want to do.’”
Juilliard followed, and with it the opportunity to work with renowned modern choreographers, including Forsythe. “I had the good fortune of doing a piece of his in my sophomore year,” says Watts, “and we connected. He told me to stay in touch with him for possible future work. It was like a beacon—it kept me motivated.”
The young dancer was eager to work with Forsythe’s company in Germany after graduation, but the choreographer suggested he get some real-world experience first. He did just that, performing with Bern Ballet in Switzerland and Netherlands Ballet. At 25, Watts contacted the choreographer again, and was offered a contract.
But five years later, Forsythe stepped down as creative director and moved to Vermont to pursue other projects. “My dream job dissolved,” says Watts. “In that same year, I also went through a terrible breakup and moved apartments to a different city in Germany. So it was a really intense year of big life changes.”
Watts soon landed another dream-come-true gig: touring a Forsythe work with French ballet star Sylvie Guillem, one of his icons as a teenager. But the grueling travel schedule, coupled with everything else going on in his life, took a toll. “I was totally burned out, depressed and heartbroken, and didn’t have the energy to keep living in Europe,” Watts says. “I needed to feel my feet on the ground, to come back to where I was from.”
At the end of 2015, after a 15-year absence, Watts returned to Maine, washing ashore on Peaks Island where he spent a month at the house of a Juilliard friend, recuperating. “I needed to rest,” he says. “I needed to heal. I woke up on January 1st, 2016, and looked out at the snow and the ocean and the trees and thought, ‘OK, I live here now.’”
He found an apartment in Portland through friends of friends and with it, a welcoming community. He also took six months to get his bearings, living on the money he had saved from touring before returning to dance as a performer and guest artist at universities.
A couple of years ago, Watts started choreographing ensemble works, as well as performing solo improvisational pieces. “I wanted to be the facilitator of the tone and atmosphere of the room. I usually start from the external first: design the space and then see what kind of dance happens because of it.”
Watts refers to his solo pieces as “Veil Iterations,” based on the Hindu concept of the Veils of Maya. “It’s about questioning the filters through which we perceive reality without necessarily knowing it,” he says. “Each time I create something, it’s another ‘veil’ that I’m attempting to see for what it is.”
Most of these performances incorporate bent copper-wire sculptures, which Watts creates specifically for the space in which he’s dancing. “I think of them like thoughts—traces of my state of mind,” he explains. “As an artist, I’m really invested in the relationship between psychology and movement. And because I’m an improviser, all the sensations and thoughts and perceptions that I’m having are then put into that performative context.”
It’s not uncommon for those thoughts and sensations to center on depression, a condition that lingers in the shadows of Watts’ otherwise ebullient personality. “I’ve dealt with depression for a long time,” he says. “It’s a big part of me. I feel like it makes me the artist that I am. Dark stuff comes out—it has to. It helps me in the way that I’m working, which is about exploring my mind through dancing.”
Watts’ mental explorations take other artistic forms as well. In addition to creating sculptures and remixing music for his performances, he also makes line drawings and has begun experimenting with digital and video art. “Although I’m primarily a performer, the music and visual-art components are almost like choreographed prototypes or like other perspectives,” he says, “other angles on what it feels like to move as an artist.”
When he isn’t creating or performing, Watts tirelessly promotes dance around the state. In addition to founding Portland Dance Month, which this year runs from Oct. 4 to Nov. 23, he is a performance adviser for Portland’s SPACE Gallery, has served on the advisory council for the Bates Dance Festival and sits on the board of Bangor Ballet. This summer Watts will be at the Hewnoaks Artist Colony in Lovell to “dream up a new project centered around creating in Maine,” followed by the Bates Dance Festival, where he plans to make a video work and begin conceptualizing an installation performance to be debuted on the college’s football field in 2020 as part of Maine’s bicentennial.
Watts will also continue touring “A Quiet Evening of Dance,” a program created by Forsythe last summer in Vermont and produced by Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London.
“It’s a very intense lifestyle,” Watts says. “Every month I go somewhere international; it’s dynamic, but it’s also inconsistent and sporadic. I go through these highs of being on tour and having incredible creative experiences, and then the curtain goes down, the show ends or the tour ends, and I go home and there’s a crash. I’m trying to figure that out still to this day.
“But dancing involves every part of me, and it’s sublime,” he adds. “The way that I’m able to feel what life is through dancing is almost transcendent, beyond words. It’s why, for me, dancing is really beautiful.”