The idea for BURNAWAY originated from a front-porch conversation about the need for more dialogue about local art. Amanda Thompson of Zoetic Dance Ensemble writes this week’s edition of Our Front Porch, illuminating the artistic process behind a work of contemporary dance.
Zoetic Dance Ensemble recently completed Undone, an evening-length dance work with three creators/choreographers: Melanie Lynch Blanchard, Christina Noel Reaves, and Amanda Thompson (me). In typical dance concerts, there are individual pieces that assign one choreographer to each dance work. For our show, we listed the three choreographers at the top of the page and did not break out and title each section of the concert. Dance pieces flowed together to create one overarching narrative. Printed at the top of the program, a poem titled “Undone” set the context for the work. This program choice seemed like a gift we could give to the audience; its format would allow viewers to take in a complete idea and experience the ebb and flow of the entire work, instead of having them wonder where they were in the program order. Also, the choreographers felt that no one person would have full ownership of any portion of the show, thus emphasizing its collaborative nature.
Despite our efforts to communicate the show’s collaborative aspect, many people still wanted to know who was “responsible” for this part or that part, because, after all, someone had to be in charge here, right!? I was surprised by this reaction. I understand the matter of credit and its tensions. In the postindustrial world, however, where some artists have spent time stripping away hierarchy and creating shared networks to allow and encourage all voices, I find it interesting that artists and audiences have little understanding, or expectation, of collaboration and shared leadership.
Many of us are so eager to identify the lone genius. We imagine that such a creator dreams of all the big ideas and the perfect steps, then hires the perfect dancers to execute every move as instructed. To be honest, dance has not done a good job of explaining the complex process of making dance work. We often hide behind a name—Bill T. Jones, Martha Graham, Twlya Tharp. Do these lone figures truly reflect how dance is made? What if the genius is in the process?
Our collaborative process is a strong part of what makes Zoetic unique. It is the reason why this company is not named after one person, and it is exactly why so many audience members were excited about what they witnessed on stage. Process can be as important as the final product. Our process for creating dance empowers the dancers, trains them to create movement, and builds lasting relationships. The work reflects all the artists at the point they exist in their lives now. As the company changes, the work will change and evolve, too.
So what did collaboration look like for Undone? I can only describe from my experience; Melanie and Christina led the creation process as well for other parts of the concert. I began working with the dancers at a rehearsal with no idea of what movement would emerge. My goal was to generate movement that came from an authentic place, something that carried more weight than a shape in space.
I had one question: “When was a time you stood up for yourself?” I asked the dancers tell their stories and develop at least five gestures/movements to illustrate each story. I made video footage of them, watched the video, and created duets and solos from the recorded movements. The dancers helped shape the partnering in the duets and provided alternative versions of the base movement phrases—making a movement smaller or slower or faster, for example.
Melanie watched as I worked, and she suggested using live music. She found the musicians who created original music every night for the show. Ellen “cleaned” the dancers’ movements by pointing out details that I could no longer see because I had become focused on the larger picture (instead of details like, for example, whether dancers’ feet were pointed or not). Joanna, a dancer, came to me with costume suggestions, and then she made the costumes. Melanie and Christina also watched the movement repeatedly and gave me feedback.
My favorite comment was from Melanie. She said, “It’s too dense. It’s like mashed potatoes.” Which are good but leave you on the couch in a digestion coma. So I stripped it down.
Ultimately, I could have put my foot down at any point and said, “I don’t want to do it this way because it’s ‘my’ piece.” But if you are working in a collaborative manner, you are open—open to the unfolding of the work, open to the gifts that each participant presents, and most importantly open to ideas that are not your own but express your vision nonetheless. As artists, we are all trying to communicate clearly.
Why is collaboration part of Zoetic? It is not because of a lack of individual ability. We have all made work as individuals, and that process can be enjoyable. But collaboration, when everything clicks, makes work superior to the sum of its parts. Mixing different mediums or styles of movement can lead to unexpected and stunning results.
Facebook has made it possible for everyone to express themselves every five minutes. How can we, in today’s world, tell our dancers that they should be a mirror reflecting only what we give them? Collaboration trains dancers to become more versatile artists, ones who not only can embody a choreographer’s vision, but also bring their own voices to a piece. To work in this way reflects the world as it is today, which is connected and participative.
These efforts are not just about high-quality art, nor are they purely altruistic in nature. Artists get bored with themselves, and working with others is inspiring. We may have a tight budget, and collaboration stretches a dollar. We typically have full-time jobs, which make artistic collaboration a necessity. One person cannot do it all. Finally, it is only through this process that we can sustain the company beyond its founders’ departure.
So, the next time you see Zoetic perform, or see any show that has multiple creators, I hope you will take a moment to appreciate the collaborative process. Do not ask, “Who is the lone genius responsible for this work?” Ask yourself how many times they fought about the title, where the inspiration came from, and how the chicken-dance greeting card ended up in a piece about uncomfortable moments.
Want to know more? Zoetic Dance Ensemble will host an informational reception featuring excerpts from Undone with food and sparkly drinks at 2PM on Sunday, November 20, 2011, at Atlanta Ballet Midtown. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our Front Porch is a series inviting guest contributors to share thoughts on local art for open discussion with you, our readers. Check BURNAWAY every Tuesday for new surprises!