Currently, I am an Assistant Professor of Dance at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and after three years of focusing on navigating the rocky shores of academic life, I have ventured back into professional performance and choreography. Through part practicality and part innovation, a new approach to making work has emerged for me. I know that the idea of long distance collaboration is not new, but it has enlivened a set of curious and uneasy questions in me. How can I possibly make new dances when the dancers and I live in different cities? Who has creative control over the project? Can I make a dance ‘outside’ the studio, and if so, what is it going to look like? When I started this process, I was nervous to step away from the specificity of movement quality and vocabulary that I was accustomed to in the studio, but excited to explore a new approach that would have to be rooted in intellectual dialogue, creative trust and interpretation.
I first began to consider these questions my final year of graduate school at Ohio State when my mentor, Karen Eliot (former Cunningham dancer and professor), invited me to create a work for her. The dilemma was that I would soon be living in Wisconsin and she would remain in Ohio. Karen and I worked furiously for four weeks fleshing out the movement language while our third dancer Robin Anderson was out of town. Soon I left, and Karen had a long list of ideas, some movement sequences, and a very rough sketch of how Robin fit into the work. We had yet to figure out my role in the piece! Based on our three years of intensive study together, I left the work in their capable hands and would not return for several months. What evolved over the next three months, The Mysterious Disappearance of the Second Youngest Sister, would become the foundation for a new way to keep my artistic life afloat while balancing the rigors of an academic teaching schedule.
Robin, Karen, and I continued our creative exchange over the phone and via emails. Engaging in deep conversations about the focus and nature of the work, the piece became unintentionally character driven. And with the time and space to be alone, each of us developed distinct, clear and complex characters that eventually merged to inhabit both a dense physical and psychological world. The performance was thrilling and the relationships forged on stage were unlike any I had experienced.
That was three years ago.
Inspired by the rich complexity of long distance collaboration, in 2010, I established a creative partnership with Chicago based artist Lucy Riner with whom I have danced with for 14 years. Our goal for RE|Dance is to make dances grounded in the principles of creative trust, openness, and uncertainty that I discovered while working with Karen and Robin. Our work explores personal, intimate human relationships. Yes, it seems odd to focus on relationships when you live far away from the other dancer. However, long distance collaboration provides us with the opportunity to investigate the deep emotional terrain of our characters in other mediums of communication outside of being in a studio together.
At the same time, Robin and I had been discussing opportunities to revisit The Mysterious Disappearance of the Second Youngest Sister. With Lucy taking on Karen Eliot’s role, and now all three dancers living in different cities (Stevens Point, Chicago, and San Francisco) there was a whole new layer of exploration and development. We discovered things about our characters in conversation that were not present physically. We re-examined the dancing to clarify the intention of our characters. We talked late into the night and maddeningly constructed long insightful emails. We exhausted ourselves in the studio during one precious weekend we were all together. The work has expanded in scope and our latest version will be presented June 2-6, in San Francisco. It mines the depths of our combined creative and intellectual energies.
As a choreographer, I enjoy the creative ways that intelligent dancers solve problems and how my thinking expands as I watch ideas blossom that I would not have considered. I have discovered a completely new and integrated way to making and performing dances. Is it rocket science, no, but it has revolutionized my thinking about our form and the ways we navigate, trust, and communicate throughout the creative process.
Join Michael, Robin and others to learn more about their long distance collaborative process during a panel on June 2 at 7 pm at KUNST STOFF Arts. The Mysterious Disappearance of the Second Youngest Sister will be performed at Dance Mission Theater, June 4, 5 & 6 in the production Standing in the Current co-produced by Spinning Yarns Dance Collective.