Sharing the Artistic Journey

By Heather Desaulniers

December 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Erin, Eric and Kat in in a bath tub
Photo by Kegan Marling

LET’S CONSIDER today’s contemporary dance performance in terms of what is ‘shared.’ Phrase material often comes from a shared process between choreographers and dancers. A collaboration requires shared contributions from different fields. Performances themselves are an opportunity to share an artistic experience with an audience. Then, there are shared evenings. Companies and artists joining together, to co-present a program with different choreographic voices. When a shared program is done well, it’s possible that these individual voices may speak even louder.

For two weekends this December, EmSpace Dance and detour dance are teaming up for one such endeavor at NOHspace in the Mission (SF). This double bill introduces a world premiere from each group: EmSpace Dance’s Whether to Weather, conceived/directed by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and detour dance’s Beckon, co-created by Kat Cole and Eric Garcia. While Stuart, Cole and Garcia have worked together in the past, this is the first time they are partnering as co-presenters of a shared program. The project is filled with the spirit of newness – new cooperation, new logistic possibilities, new artistic avenues and of course, brand new dance.

Sharing a program definitely has benefits. By working together, groups can split financial demands, dole out organizational duties and maybe even reach a larger audience base. This pragmatism was certainly part of EmSpace and detour’s decision to team up. “From a practical perspective, I’m always looking to do shows in a way that is sustainable for my company,” says Stuart. A joint show can open doors and put options on the table that otherwise might not be feasible. In the case of EmSpace and detour, Cole has seen that “being together has allowed us to take production risks, like doing a longer run.” Sharing a bill is a smart move. It’s no surprise that it is a common model with emerging and established dance artists alike.

But pragmatic concerns were only one part of this co-venture. EmSpace and detour were also interested in the creative puzzle that is ‘the shared program.’ How do you maintain the artistic integrity and distinctness of each piece while still crafting a cohesive evening? How can the entire program, as a whole, translate to audiences and not feel like a random juxtaposition of work? Early on, EmSpace and detour found that the pairing of Whether to Weather and Beckon had some interesting things to say in response to these artistic questions. Each dance was following its own path while broad through lines (in form and in content) were also emerging. And these through lines were becoming connective tissue for the show.

“Esthetically, it [the program] is Dance Theater, but we are representing two versions of what Dance Theater can be,” explains Garcia, “and relationships have been surfacing as a common theme, but again from different directions.” A shared program, speaking of independence and interdependence. “Though the work is different with different viewpoints, there is something kindred about its blend of dance and theater, abstraction and pedestrian movement,” describes Stuart, “and the whole evening explores how we relate to people as romantic partners or potential romantic partners, whether long-term, short-term or even, unwanted.”

detour’s Beckon tackles the latter case–the unwanted relationship. With such a big concept, Cole and Garcia decided to mine their own lived experience, and focus on two phenomena, catcalling and cruising. They asked the hard and vulnerable questions. How do you feel when you receive unsolicited attention? Have you ever perpetrated unwelcome advances towards another? How is it different when a queer person of color is catcalled or cruised? While very personal, these situations are also shared by so many in their daily lives. As detour continued to examine this tricky subject matter, a larger narrative began to crystallize. In Garcia’s words, at its core, Beckon is about the complicated world of desire, “it looks at how race, sexuality and gender relate to the power dynamics of desire, whether wanted or unwanted, savory or unsavory.” Four story threads bring this narrative to life, told through an abstract interdisciplinary mix of text, vocals, soundscores, characters and non-linear vignettes. And the movement and choreography is a diverse tapestry, mixing pedestrian gestures, primal, aggressive impulses and balanced, tender supports.

For Cole and Garcia, Beckon is not only a new performance piece, it also signals a new chapter in detour dance’s greater journey, a move away from the more light-hearted and quirky. While Beckon still has some of these elements, Garcia shares the significant shift that this dance has forged, “in doing this piece, we have re-focused the model of our company towards our identity as queer people of color, and it feels right to be making art with this intention.” detour is poised, ready and excited for what this new artistic season may bring. “This [Beckon] is the start of finding what that will look like; the bridge to that new space,” adds Cole.

Stuart is also navigating a new artistic path with EmSpace’s Whether to Weather, experimenting with structure, form and discipline. Two world premieres, both revealing new creative directions. Yet another example of how December’s program is steeped in shared-ness.

When Stuart began this work, she made a conscious choice to move outside her creative comfort zone, “often I work in abstract vignette-based forms and I wanted to challenge myself with a different approach.” So for Whether to Weather, Stuart wanted a set structure to work in, a narrative container to fill up, “I collaborated with a playwright [Brian Thorstenson] to create interlinked stories, two romantic relationships with consistent characters and a narrative arc.” The first storyline reveals a long-term ride of connection and disconnection, while the second captures passion and companionship in the shorter term. And as the title suggests, changing images of climate and season frame the various periods in each relationship. Stuart opted to communicate one of the stories with theater and dialogue and the other, through dance.

With choreography and theater playing these equal parts, EmSpace’s Whether to Weather is what Stuart refers to as a “dance play,” with the theater aspects being “the most ‘theater’ thing that I’ve done – actors playing characters, speaking dialogue written by a playwright” and the dance portions “even more dance-y than usual, with modern release movement and a lot of partnering.”

Both fields hold great importance for EmSpace Dance and for Stuart. Over the past five years, she has noticed that as a choreographer/dance director, there’s been a shift, a move further and further into the theater arena. Whether to Weather has provided a platform for her to expand skill, exercise vision and share in both disciplines simultaneously.

After spending the past year developing these two dances, EmSpace and detour are prepping for the final leg of this shared artistic journey. With the December show just around the corner, Cole and Garcia hope that audiences enjoy the interdisciplinary flavor in Beckon. But at a deeper level, their wish is that the work may provoke a moment of self-reflection, where the viewer can personally identify with and recognize themselves in the narrative themes. Likewise, Stuart hopes that viewers find pleasure in Whether to Weather’s movement and words. She is eager to see how the piece connects with people’s emotions and what kind of thinking/feeling response it might draw, “how we relate is complicated and watching something about a relationship helps us to exercise our empathy – this shared evening hints at that.”

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.