Last week we took advantage of some late afternoon sun and ventured outdoors to an empty storefront across from Sullivant Hall. Bita, Mel, and Anna took some time to explore the space on their own, focusing on the internal sensations of their bodies while becoming familiar with the new space. Then, I asked them to craft a score for themselves based on what was emerging for them. One of the things I’m experimenting with in my choreographic strategies is how much control I need to have over the process. Because I’m working with experienced dancers, I feel that I can allow the process to be determined partly by what the dancers are experiencing and interested in. I then moved across the street to watch them in this improvisation for about 15 minutes.
Overall, the exploration at this site was fun and fairly easy for them to navigate. Here are a few ideas that started to emerge:
- Audience/Public Participation- Because we were on a sidewalk with a lot of foot traffic, questions about how the dancers should (or shouldn’t) interact with passersby immediately arose. This question of the fourth wall between performers and audience members seems to be a quintessential aspect of doing work in public spaces. Each of the dancers adapted to this particular idea differently in their first exploration. Mel held an open focus, often making eye contact with pedestrians, sometimes interacting with them, while still maintaining a performance-quality presence. Anna seemed a bit more removed, focusing more on her own experience and interacting with the materials of the space itself. Bita often made eye contact and “broke” her focus often by smiling or laughing with people as they passed. The most common way for the dancers to engage with the pedestrians was to walk alongside them for about 5 seconds until they had passed the storefront. To my surprise, no one really stopped to stare at the dancers or ask what they were doing. This space seemed primarily a place for travelling through, not a place to stop and see. As such, it seemed especially striking when the dancers engaged in intimate gestures such as hugging each other. The street is not a place where one typically sees human connection. A hug is something more often experienced in a doorway, a bedroom, a more secluded space.
- Memory- The concept of memory cannot be torn away from space and place. The reality is that a space does not become a place because of its components (air, objects, light, people, function,etc). It becomes a place because a human being experiences it in body and mind and forms a relationship to it. A memory emerges. What is becoming interesting to me about this project is how much of our lives is spent without relationship to the spaces we inhabit. We put our blinders on, plug our headphones in, let our thoughts ramble on inside our head and rarely notice how we’re feeling in our bodies inside this environment that we’re not even paying attention to.When we first arrived at the storefront, Bita admitted that she had never noticed it before. Mel and Anna instantly remembered that it had been a slice pizza place only a couple years ago, and they also recalled a memory of someone in the dance department who had lived above it for a period of time. In less than five minutes, we had created a place in our minds from a space we all typically ignore on a daily basis on our way to Sullivant Hall.
What I’m curious about is if this practice of improvising in public spaces can help us become more comfortable in our own skin, reduce isolation, and decrease the stress of external stimulation. We know that as a society we are riddled with anxiety, sometimes for good reason, but what would happen if instead of walking around our neighborhoods with our guard up, we allowed our bodies feel safe? There’s a fine line to this obviously, because the world isn’t safe (see my next point below), but I’m curious about the mindful practice of relaxation in relationship to space, and how this might transform our daily surroundings into more meaningful places in our lives.
- Gender- When I moved across the street to view the second, scored improvisation, I immediately felt cognizant that these three dancers were all young and female. Something about watching them from far away, and the fact that they were dancing instead of walking, made them seem more vulnerable. I expected someone to catcall them or honk their horn, which did happen towards to the latter half of the improvisation. When I brought this up to the group afterwards, Anna recognized that the horns honked at them because they were intentionally asking to be seen. The car drivers were responding to the dancers’ waves, gestures, and eye contact. (I had asked them to explore a bit more with interacting with pedestrians when they were crafting their second score.) In reality, this was probably a pretty safe adventure for these women, but I recognized that female bodies, especially female bodies engaged in non-pedestrian movement, in public spaces could potentially spark a different way of viewing movement that we normally see on stage or in a studio. In public spaces, I have little control over how I want these bodies to be seen.
Back in the studio, we developed a tightly scored improvisation based on an idea that emerged on the street. While we were working, Anna asked if what we were making really had anything to do with what we experienced on the street. I’ve been thinking about it all week, and have been circling around some ideas. In setting something for a traditional format on a stage, of course something will be lost from our initial experience at a site. But not everything.
Our bodies carry the residue of every single thing we experience, and I want my creative process to allow those residues to emerge. It may not be visible, but I know that Anna, Mel, and Bita moved differently in the studio because of our time spent on the street. They made different choices. If we had simply stayed inside and pretended to be on a sidewalk, we would have come up with something totally different. For me, the purpose of this project is less about crafting a way for audiences to engage with these places, and more about allowing my creative process to be infused by places that are normally foreign to dance makers. I don’t know how, but I know that something of those places will emerge in the work itself, even if only in our minds (myself, Bita, Anna, Mel) as memories.
In thinking about what it means to do community-engaged work, it feels important to me that we recognize dancers as a special population, and a particularly transitory one at that. Dancers are constantly moving around to new cities for school, projects, gigs, whatever. It can be exciting, and also isolating. I’ve lived in Columbus for about 6 months now and most of it still seems unfamiliar to me. Perhaps this is one small way that I and my dancers can stake a bit more claim in the space we’re inhabiting.
Here’s what we made: