FALLING FORWARD INTO NEW SPACES: In Conversation with Mary Armentrout

By Heather Desaulniers

September 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Why, What, When, Who and Where – life is full of these five ‘w’ questions. And that last ‘w’ (the where), seems of particular concern these days. From the prosaic to the logistic to the life altering, the question of where is constant: where will you eat, where will you park, where will you shop, where will you work, where will you study, where will you live. These questions certainly have a range of scope and importance, nevertheless they need real answers. But determining answers is only the first part of the where puzzle; next comes acquisition. Accessing ‘the where’ is a big deal. No one understands this more than the choreographer.

Choreographers have a deep and entwined relationship with their ‘where’, space. And like any relationship, it is a mix of good, bad and neutral. First, space is a need. Every dance composition has some space requirement: audition space, choreography space, rehearsal space and/or performance space. Second, space is a challenge. Getting the space you want for your show is a significant task. Booking space can be competitive, logistically arduous, and certainly expensive. After securing your space, then you must also navigate the chosen location’s rules, systems and protocol. Third, and perhaps most interesting, space has artistic and creative promise. Do you want space to play a collaborative role in your work? Could the architecture of a particular space contribute to or change the trajectory of your piece? Is it time for you to venture outside of your comfort zone, away from your familiar spaces and into a new venue (in either size or style)? Perhaps a new or different space may actually shape your creative process?

The New Stages for Dance grant program facilitates an active exchange between choreographers and space: addressing the need for space, the challenge of finding space and the collaborative properties within performance spaces. Administered by Dancers’ Group, the program assists individual artists and dance companies with space costs. Its specific focus – to invest in and encourage choreographic exploration in new venues, larger houses or for extended runs. And by promoting these performance space opportunities, New Stages for Dance is also speaking to some of the larger issues facing the twenty-first century dance community: audience development, increased exposure, artistic growth and arts management education.

As a New Stages for Dance grantee, Mary Armentrout is venturing into new territory for the premiere of fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together. A multi-disciplined, evening-length work for her company, Mary Armentrout Dance Theater, this upcoming project marks a new leg in Armentrout’s longtime study of space and its artistic implications.

Both as a solo artist and with her company, Armentrout has performed in a wide range of spaces. Each has revealed the deep power of location and setting. A room can transport a scene to an unexpected dimension; an outdoor environment can provide natural framing; an inanimate structure can quite literally speak to an audience. Over the past five years, Armentrout has focused her space/art experiments to site-specific work in smaller spaces and for a small audience. The up-close-and-personal nature and proximity of these performance installations have led to meaningful interdependent conversations between the viewer and the art. Still, additional creative questions were brewing. Armentrout was eager to push the boundaries of site-specific choreographic performance and try something different, “it felt like time to return to a more traditional theater, to work in a large physical space, yet still keep the audience small.” She was excited to discover and unlock the potential of these large spaces, considering how space can transform the work and how the work can transform the space, “what is a traditional theater space, what is possible within it, what can it do artistically – how can we re-define and challenge the accepted notions of what a space needs to be?”.

All the right forces were in alignment. Just as Armentrout was contemplating how site-specific work could meet a bigger venue and the proscenium arch, the New Stages for Dance grant was in its second round of funding. She applied and was fortunate to be one of nine San Francisco Bay Area recipients. Of the grant’s five venue options, Armentrout felt that Z Space in the Mission District was the most interesting and appealing for her new performance installation. fantasia upon tackles big subject matter and complex characters. With the project’s common theme of largess, a sizable venue like Z Space was just the ticket.

Building on material from 2010’s the woman invisible to herself, fantasia upon is a loosely autobiographical love story exploring identity, vulnerability, fear, survival and relating. Armentrout explains, “identity is unstable and fluid; love is mysterious and bizarre, and there is something special about the moment when love and identity truly meet; the unknowableness in each can lead to an odd calmness and serenity.” The love story’s two main characters (performed by Armentrout and Rogelio Lopez) are deliciously complicated with their own distinct humanity: quirks, traits and idiosyncrasies. Such multi-faceted characters require a unique approach to casting. As such, Armentrout and Lopez will not be alone in their portrayal; additional company members will join in to represent different aspects of these two individuals.

A collection of interdisciplinary vignettes, fantasia upon will unfold throughout Z Space, as the audience of thirty-five is led from one site to another. First up is a video prelude set amongst a living room scene in the Z Space lobby. Then, viewers will travel into the bare and deconstructed theater space, for the main body of the work (comprised of multiple sub-sections). This includes a central duet, which Armentrout describes as “the choreographic anchor” of the piece’s love story. Sculptural shapes and quiet movements speak of tenderness and affection while lifts and supports signal the going away and coming together that occurs in all relationships. Subsequent segments take their inspiration from this early pas de deux, developing, spiraling and disordering as only Armentrout can envision. Later, the audience will move onto the stage space where they will be guided through an auditory exercise.

Bringing fantasia upon to Z Space has been as much about Armentrout’s own personal growth as a working artist as it has been about the piece itself. And the newness has given rise to insight and questions. Like enrolling in a theater/arts management boot camp, Armentrout details the giant learning curve associated with a new space, “it is an occasion to increase your knowledge base – building time in the theater, building knowledge about how each system works, and most important, building relationships.” At the same time, there is a sense of the unknown. As the show’s run approaches, Armentrout is wondering – will the set amount of prep time in the theater be sufficient; will we be able to tech everything; will all the multi-disciplined elements work as expected; will the vision of the piece still hold true while all the details are sorted out? For Armentrout, the key has been embracing flexibility when working in different ways, under unfamiliar circumstances and with new people, “relinquishing control as you are learning.”

Most new performing art projects have some combination of terror and exhilaration. Add a new space to the mix and the risk level goes up. But so does the reward. As Armentrout shares, producing an original work in an unexplored venue is a chance “to imaginatively animate a new space in a successful and different way, in order to create a clear and moving experience for the participants and the audience.” Is it time for you to fall forward into somewhere new?

For more information about Mary Armentrout or Mary Armentrout Dance Theater, please visit maryarmentroutdancetheater.com.

fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together runs from September 11-13 at Z Space in San Francisco, with multiple show times over three days. More information at zspace.org.

New Stages for Dance is administered by Dance/USA in partnership with Dancers’ Group. Support for the New Stages for Dance Initiative is provided by MetLife Foundation.

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of In Dance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.