Choreographer Haim scales his "Mount Everest of dance"

What does it mean to be "a choreographer's choreographer"? Ask Mark Haim, deemed exactly that by The New York Times in 1997.

"I can't really answer it definitively," he says, "but I interpret the comment as a way to say that a choreographer could appreciate the structural concerns and solutions in my work more than a dancer or nondancer might."

Haim's theory will be put to the test next weekend, when he remounts "The Goldberg Variations," a much-heralded solo piece he premiered in 1997. The dance is based on Bach's 1741 composition by the same name (to be played live by pianist André Gribou), and as such consists of 30 short solo variations.

Currently the Artist in Residence at the UW Dance Program, in his youth Haim was trained as a classical pianist, which was how he initially encountered Bach's challenging piece. "When I first heard the recordings I thought, this is kind of boring," Haim confesses. "But then I listened more and started to think, what if I could make a dance to that? It became this sort of Mount Everest of dance."

It took more than three years, but Haim made it to the summit and has since performed the work around the globe. Up to now, "The Goldberg Variations" has remained a solo, but this time Haim is making a radical departure: He has set the piece on five local dancers for two of the three On the Boards performances. (Haim will perform the entire piece himself on Friday night.)

While Haim has made structural alterations to the piece in the past — such as doing the variations out of order, and even letting the audience pick the order the night of the show — he has never before incorporated other performers.

Will a work intended as a one-man solo have the same impact when performed by several dancers? "With one person, there's a progression in the piece," he says. "It starts out more technical and becomes more revealing, moving toward more emotion." Nonetheless, Haim believes it will still work with the expanded cast (featuring Tonya Lockyer, Sean Ryan, Amy O'Neal, Ellie Sandstrom and Jim Kent).

"It's very self-contained — it's like a book of short stories," he says. "The collection is a progression but it still works as individual stories." It helps that Haim has tremendous faith in his dancers. "I picked these five dancers because I thought they'd connect with the solos in their own ways," he says. "I give them notes leading toward a replication, but I still want them to be who they are."

One of the main challenges Haim cites is pacing. "I created the variations with recuperation in mind," he says, noting the need for rest in an 80-minute solo. "But since each of these dancers has had time to rest, they come out and give it their all. I've had to ask them to take it down a bit and fill each chapter with it's own sort of energy."

Realizing some of these solo variations are 12 years old, Haim laughs a bit, adding, "I've never been bored. It's endlessly fascinating."

Brangien Davis:

Dance preview

Mark Haim: "The Goldberg Variations," 8 p.m. Thursday-April 1, On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $18 (206-217-9888 or