Have camera, will travel

Wandering choreographer Bill Iha turns his talent to photography

THE BILL PLEASE “Vines w Hair” (detail), shot in Chico in 2000

THE BILL PLEASE “Vines w Hair” (detail), shot in Chico in 2000

Photo by Bill Iha

Dancers don’t sit still when they talk. I notice this while meeting with professional dancer and choreographer Bill Iha. As he speaks, his hands slice through the air, his shoulders rise and fall, he leans forward and back, from side to side, moving always with a grace that is lovely to watch.

We are sitting in Moxie’s Café, where a selection of 41 of his black-and-white photographs is now being shown. Iha (pronounced EE-ha) is in his 40s, but he’s in such buff shape that he can get away with wearing a snug tank top. His body isn’t ideal for dancing, however: His legs aren’t long and his feet aren’t “pretty,” he tells me, which is why he could go only so far as a ballet dancer and turned to choreography 15 years ago, after one year with the Sacramento Ballet.

He’s a freelancer, traveling to various cities to work with dance students by teaching them his routines. That’s what first brought him to Chico more than a decade ago—an invitation from Chico Community Ballet to prepare some of its students to perform in the Keeping Dance Alive! production.

For several years he did this, and each production featured as many as four of his dances. I reviewed dance for this publication at that time, and I remember that, while there were always many fine works in these shows, his were easily the most consistent and dependably satisfying as artistic creations. The also were good for the ballet company, forcing its young dancers to work in other styles, such as jazz and modern dance.

Now he’s moving into photography as an art form. He continues to work as a choreographer and teacher, and in fact had three pieces in last weekend’s Summer Solstice Artist Celebration at the Senator Theatre, but increasingly he’s focusing on pictures as a way to expand his artistry and also make a living.

Bill Iha in rehearsal for a dance performance last weekend

Photo by Tom Angel

It’s a tough road to take. The world is rife with would-be art photographers. But Iha has shown the discipline and talent to succeed in a demanding medium. And this Moxie’s exhibit suggests that he is bringing similar discipline and his considerable native talent to bear on his new form. These are intriguing pieces, and some of them are downright stunning.

Bill Iha is a wanderer. “You’re a Gypsy,” his mother once said to him. “They left you on the doorstep.”

He’s been in 49 states and 27 countries, 23 of them in the last five years. He’s worked in 15 different states. As a child, he was a self-described “Army brat,” the son of a Japanese-American soldier-father and an Austrian mother. He went to 13 different schools, many of them in Europe. His home, he says, “is the road. I feel best there.”

For “the moment,” as he puts it, he’s based in Chico. This is where he comes when he’s not traveling, which he does about 30 weeks out of the year. And this is where he’s been developing his growing skills as a photographer. He started taking pictures in 1994, but in the last few years he’s been taking classes at Butte College with Geoff Fricker and the late Bill Lovi, learning the equally important skill of making prints.

Figure studies dominate this show, and they’re all a pleasure to look at if only because most of the models are young and beautiful. I ask Iha why this emphasis on the beauty of youth, and he says it’s simply because young, beautiful people like having their pictures taken without clothes on and older people don’t.

“Genevieve Sitting II,” Los Angeles 1999. “I saw Genevieve in a parking lot,” Iha says, “and knew instantly that she would be great on film. I had to think very quickly. In those five seconds I found a way to walk up to her and get her to believe we could make incredible images”

Photo by Bill Iha

Besides, he points out, some of his models are older and not exactly beautiful. This is particularly true of the photos that aren’t strictly figure studies. These include what might be called his “tutu” series—three photos of nude male and female models wearing ballet tutus—and about eight documentary-style photos taken in Japan and on a recent trip through eastern Europe and the Ukraine.

The tutus are props Iha carried along on his travels, and every now and then he’d ask models to wear them for a shoot. One of them, “Prague Duet in Tutus,” showing a man and woman facing the camera and affecting pliés while wearing only the tutus, is especially charming.

Several of the travel pictures are also strong, though the selection here is too small to give the group cohesion. There’s a marvelous shot of the dancer Robert Conn in mid-air, with the walls and ceiling of the room seeming to amplifying the sheer height of his leap. Another shot, of two children in a doorway in a Ukrainian village, is lovely in the way it captures the magic of the moment.

Still, the figure studies dominate the show, and here Iha is at his best and also facing his greatest vulnerability. The finest of these pictures are remarkable exercises in contrasting tones, composition and juxtaposition of imagery, but they suffer simply from being figure studies, an overworked genre.

Still, they’re gorgeous pieces. Many are of young women in natural settings. A picture shown here, “Vines with Hair,” is a good example of his approach. The play between the woman’s long, richly curled hair, her translucent skin and soft curves, and the hanging vines generate an immediate frisson. The picture looks easy, but in fact Iha shot for almost two hours before the light was just right to get this image. None of his figure studies come easily, he says. He actively pursues them, searching out locations, finding models, shooting and printing.

“Waiting” (detail), Santa Barbara 1998. Unseen here is that the man is standing on a railroad track that curves away from him and the two women.

Photo by Bill Iha

My own favorite is “Lydia on Porch I.” The model is a young dancer Iha met in Chico and was set to photograph when she got an offer to dance in Europe. When she came back, she was still willing to be shot, but by this time she’d had breast cancer and a mastectomy. They did the shoot anyway, and the result is a stunning photograph.

She’s half-reclined on a rough wooden porch, completely nude, her head bald from chemo treatments, her eyes closed peacefully. She’s leaning into a black pillar to her left, where she’s rested her left arm. Her head lies against her left hand in a sweet, vulnerable way suggestive of the Virgin Mary in a Pietà. Her right arm, in contrast, is held straight out to her right, the fingers pointed. The rough flooring beneath her and a pillar of bricks behind her offer dramatic contrast against the whiteness of her body. Compositionally, it’s extraordinary.

At first one doesn’t see that her left breast is missing. A shadow line falls right where the nipple would be, eclipsing that side of her body. It’s beautiful, and then one notices the scar and what’s missing from her body, and it’s still beautiful—but in a way that transcends pure esthetics. It alone is worth a visit to Moxie’s.

“Two Ukrainian Children in Doorway,” Berdychev, Ukraine 2001. The old doorway is typical of the town, which is very poor, Iha says, but with “beautiful people.”

Photo by Bill Iha

This is Bill Iha’s last photo exhibit for a while. He wants to do a book next, he says. Many of his models work as waitresses, and he meets so many waitresses on his travels that he wants to do a book about them. And he’s also thinking of expanding his tutu series into a book.

He’s determined to make photography work for him, to become a successful artist in this medium. As he says, if any art form teaches discipline, it’s dance, with its endless repetitions of movements to get to where they are effortless. "It taught me that I can evolve through work," he says, "and that’s what I intend to do."