The CONCEPT Series; Caffeine, Cake and Concert Dance

By Sonia Reiter

December 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

What if going to a dance concert were more like going to the movies? You could sit back and relax, eat and drink and, get to see all the action up close. With the upcoming performance event “The CONCEPT Series,” produced by RAWdance’s Artistic Directors, Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein, we may get our chance. On December 1 and 2 RAWdance, with invited guest artists Project Agora, Hope Mohr, Vispo Dance and Nol Simonse will show work at the James Howell Studio in the Duboce Triangle while audience members shuffle their chairs, drink coffee, eat cake and watch the bodies move just a few feet away.

The idea was first born when the company, who has been making and performing work in San Francisco since 2004, held a company benefit performance at the Ailey Studio in New York City in December of 2006. The evening had a party-like atmosphere with guests sipping wine and snacking on hor d’oeuvres while the company performed excerpts from their repertoire within the same small space. As Rein explains, “Somehow the combination just clicked and the audience really embraced the intense physical dancing within the more casual atmosphere. And when it came time for the Q&A, people jumped right in with their perceptions and questions.” This reaction suggested that when audience members are allowed to experience dance in a more causal atmosphere they are, as Rein noted, “both engaged and at ease enough to really discuss what they’ve seen.” Rein and Smith returned to the Bay Area with the image of a relaxed and responsive audience in their minds. Creating a similar atmosphere for a night of performance in their own San Francisco seemed like the next step.

RAWdance has rehearsed at the historic James Howell Studio on and off for the last couple of years and Rein and Smith decided it would be a great place to host “The CONCEPT series.” Not only is the studio right down the street from their apartment, it is also cozy and homey and would help to set the mood for a casual salon-like atmosphere. In addition the small size of the studio would allow (and perhaps force) the audience to be intimately aware of the dances and the dancers. Smith explains, that “as choreographers we love the endless possibilities one can get from high-tech theatrical productions, but we also feel that there is something truly special about doing work so tangible and so close. It’s a different work when you don’t try to hide the sweat.” The studio is named for the former Joffrey Ballet dancer, James Howell, who died of AIDS in 1982. He created the 45-minute ballet, Ritual: The Journey of the Soul, which many consider the first performance piece about AIDS. With its rich history and neighborhood location the studio was a great fit for an evening of dance focused not only on high quality performance but also on the cultivation of
a community around it.

In addition to new work by RAWdance, Rein and Smith wanted to feature artists whose work they knew to be, as Rein says, “innovative, high quality, and creative.” They invited local artists Hope Mohr, Project Agora, Vispo Dance and Nol Simonse to participate and then directed them to create work with as little constraint as possible. Rein and Smith felt that the low tech, casual setting was a great opportunity to take risks, the “chance to take an idea and run with it,” says Smith. Along these lines, RAWdance developed a duet that was originally part of one of their longer pieces to see what would happen when it was given a chance to stand on its own. Hope Mohr took an excerpted duet from her upcoming, Moment of Being, which will premier at Dance Mission Theater in March 2008. The duet was made through exploring listening as a catalyst for heightened awareness. Vispo Dance decided to present touch(ReConstruction), a trio choreographed by Erin Okayama, which investigates the textural changes to the body brought about by plastic surgery. In the spirit of risk taking, Project Agora’s and Nol Simonse’s performances are to be determined.

Smith and Rein also encouraged all of the artists to make use of James Howell Studio’s unconventional space. The room is long and narrow with wooden beams, two brick walls and one bright orange one. The artists are allowed to ask the audience to move their chairs into whatever arrangement will be best for the work. For RAWdance’s featured premier Accused, they plan to create a room arrangement similar to a fashion catwalk with audience seated on two sides of the long room, the dance sandwiched between. Rein hopes that this will “provide not only an immediacy and closeness to the dancing, but also a different level of intimacy among the audience.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area dance scene where a new show goes up every weekend, the audience comes (or doesn’t come), the artists hopefully break even and it is all over in the blink an eye, the business of making dances can sometimes feel a bit futile. Creating an event that is low cost, low tech and gives the community a chance to come together, not just to watch the show and go home but perhaps to also get enough of a caffeine buzz to talk about what they’ve just seen, seems like a pretty great idea.