COLEctive Notions Democratizes Choreographic Process

Photo by William Frederking.

Collective, indeed. As many professional dance companies struggle with the usual difficulties of production on a shoestring budget (securing rehearsal and performance space, affording technical collaborators and paying performers fair wages, creating and executing a marketing strategy), The Dance COLEctive (TDC) Artistic Director Margi Cole offers her dancers the precious gift of production support with the creative freedom to develop their own unique ideas and voices as dancemakers.

TDC's COLEctive Notions, presented this past weekend at The Drucker Center, was produced and backed by Cole with her resources and creative mentorship as Artistic Director. This opportunity is one of the most generous and valuable gifts anyone could give an emerging choreographer. The production support could very well be earmarked for a project by Cole herself, or used to commission work from an outside choreographer, but Cole instead chooses to channel these resources towards furthering the choreographic explorations of her dancers--a pioneering and selfless approach towards cultivating new work for the company while nurturing new talent within the Chicago dance community.

The program comprised works by company members Olivia May, Katie Petrunich and Shannon Edwards, along with a special audience experience/experiment directed by Cole.

Olivia May's No Leaves, Tall Trees featured all eight company members, with four credited as dancers. The lights come up on a tableau with four performers seated, absorbed in independent and pedestrian-with-an-air-of-domesticity tasks. A candle is lit, a deck of cards shuffled, a newspaper leafed through, an ambiguous garment is knit and books are opened, perused and shut. Four dancers navigate their way through the scene to assemble in a line on the periphery, standing shoulder to shoulder. The dancers' personal gestures are interspersed with interaction and manipulation among one another. The incidental noise from the cards, books and newspaper forms an audio score, now louder and more rhythmic. The quartet devolves and the entire scene becomes a casual game of musical chairs among the four living set pieces and the four featured dancers. They enter in and out of duets and trios. The movement is characteristically TDC: developed with intent and performed authentically, connected to breath and grounded and above all efficient. The cream-colored lace dresses the four dancers wear are delicate and demurely feminine. Yet, they are completely unlined and paired with black underthings, revealing to us the private, intimate, even sexual, garments of womanhood. We are only offered a glimpse of the private world May has constructed and before we know it, the lights are fading and we have overstayed our welcome in the intimate story of these characters.

Katie Petrunich presents a duet: Running Parallel. The dancers are both women, but their distinct characters are made immediately apparent. Shannon Edwards is costumed in a classic chiffon, white accordion-fabric skirt and cardigan, with red lipstick. Julie Boruff is dressed in pants with a brown vest, hair slicked back. The gender dynamic remains ambiguous throughout the piece. As the piece begins Boruff stands upstage, and repeatedly adjusts the vest and performs an accumulation of gestures in place. Edwards occupies much of the rest of the space, the flow of her costume emphasizing her circular, ethereal movement. For quite a while, the dancers do not come into contact. The sound score features classic romantic tunes by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, among others, which situates these characters in another era. The duet progresses and the dancers make contact. They dance in close proximity, then further away, then back together. At times, there is something nervous and tentative about their relationship. Boruff fidgets with her vest; Edwards' gaze is attentive but discrete. Finally, their hands connect, Edwards is pulled in closely behind Boruff and they sway in a moment of tenderness. They break away and Boruff jogs in a large circle while Edwards follows chase. Is Boruff leading her, or running away? The two finally begin a movement phrase in unison, traveling along a diagonal. Dancing in parallel, not connected but traversing the same path. As the piece is brought to a close, Boruff reverts to her original position upstage center, begins again the adjustment of her vest, as Edwards slowly exits on the path they once traveled together.

Shannon Edwards' Chronicles of Nostalgia is a trio, begun immediately with spoken text. We are instantly bombarded with advice on how to get your mind off of someone. Suggestions include: "find a new friend," "avoid them," and "get busy," among others. This is not yet nostalgia; this is the immediate aftermath of a loss. These are the things we all tell ourselves or tell others in order to speed up a healing process for which the only true remedy is time. The nature of each dancer's loss is vague at first. As the piece unfolds, we learn details of their individual stories. Movement phrases appear to be built upon gestures pertaining to the narrative of each dancer's story of loss. We are taught what triggers each performer into moments of retrospection, rumination or grief. As in life, the triggers are often innocuous to the outsider--a techno song, reminders of birthdays and holidays, the Pledge of Allegiance. Right hand over the heart and the sound of children reciting the Pledge catapult one dancer into a state of acute grief. The audience intrudes upon this very private moment. The stories overlap and ultimately the sound score becomes a mash-up of earlier audio material. At once a trio and three solos, each performer has lost someone in a different way, but each experience moments of acute sadness, reflection, and yes, nostalgia.

The final ditty of the night was based on a recent site-specific work TDC performed as part of Audience Architect's "Dance: A Moving Canvas." Movement material was made up of several duets and trios, bookended by what Cole referred to as the "scramble." At this point in the evening, Cole addressed the audience directly, explained the project and the nature of audience participation to come. She chose a song at random from her iThingy, and we proceeded to watch a very chance procedure-y piece play out. The spirits of John Cage and Merce Cunningham would likely appreciate some of the performance elements: the dancers had not performed to the music provided before, the order of the duets/trios was improvised on the spot and the immensely talented COLEctive Notions lighting director/designer Jacob Snodgrass was given liberty to light the piece as he saw fit. Cole took the classic idea of "chance procedure" and added her own twist by then engaging the audience in the process. After seeing the piece once, audience members were encouraged to interpret and comment on what they had seen. They were offered the opportunity to alter the "rules" of the experiment. Many wanted the music changed, others wanted more aggressive relationships among the dancers, and the suggestion was made to layer the duets and trios in both time and space, and offer moments of interruption to the dancers. The final modification was for everyone to change seats. With seating on three sides of the performance space, this change in perspective offered a novel vantage point for each viewer. After the piece was performed a second time, there was opportunity for feedback. In all, it appeared the audience really appreciated the consequences of altering basic elements and having some agency in the process. Accessibility is key to growing audiences, and what better way to teach an audience how to watch dance, than to teach them how dance is made?

The Dance COLEctive is, of course, a play on Margi Cole's name, but as COLEctive Notions demonstrates, Cole is truly interested in the collective spirit of collaboration among dancers, dancemakers, and even audience members in order to create fresh work.

Follow TDC on Facebook and Twitter (@DanceCOLEctive) and tag #ChiDance to join in on the Chicago dance community dialogue!