Dallas — Art gives human beings endless possibilities. The exploration of our world, thoughts, feelings, and conditions and the potential methods of creative communication allow for an infinite number of artistic works, all of which could easily evolve, shift, and meld into a vast number of permutations of the original. Ask any artist if they’re completely satisfied with a given work, and rarely (if at all) will you find an honest “yes.”
Yet, we are bound by deadlines, and patrons that desire to see a product, however finished or unfinished. Time will forever be a limiting factor in creative exploration.
So why not roll with it? What happens when you take those time constraints to the extreme, and how are the participants in the creative process—the choreographers, dancers, and audience members—affected?
The theater scene has frequently experimented with this idea in 24-hour festivals, such as the one Plano-based Rover Dramawerks has done in the past, where writers, directors, and cast come together for one day of creation and rehearsal before performing for an audience. Our area, though, has yet to see dance take the same chance.
Muscle Memory Dance Theatre, a modern dance mainstay in Dallas, took risk-taking to a new level with Made in a Day. They invited five guest choreographers to create, rehearse, and perform a dance within a day. Sounds neat, right? It gets better.
Event director Meghan Cardwell-Wilson and M2DT artistic director Lesley Snelson put out an open casting call for dancers. The only requirements were that they had to be at least 18 years old, be available at certain times over three days, and most importantly, have a willing, open spirit, submitting to a totally different creative experience. Twenty-nine dancers said yes, not quite knowing what they were getting into.
At 1 p.m. on Thursday, July 21, dancers, choreographers, and crew gathered at LIFE in Deep Ellum (the company’s home for the last six years) to begin the process. Each choreographer then drew a piece of paper that told them how many dancers would be in their piece, and a second drawing of names gave them their dancers.
So, the choreographers went into this process not knowing how many dancers they would have, the demographic makeup of the cast, or their abilities. It takes the postmodern notion of chance in the choreographic process to a whole new level.
Each group rehearsed for the next six hours, went home for the evening, then reconvened the next morning for several more hours of grueling work on unforgiving floors. Choreographers turned in music at the beginning of the day, and programs went to print before the dances were even finished. Tech rehearsals began at 4 p.m. with only 20 minutes allotted for each dance, and the curtain went up at 8:30.
I stopped by LIFE on Friday about 3:30 p.m., as the dancers and choreographers had finished studio rehearsals and were preparing for tech. To say that they were exhausted would be the understatement of the year, yet, a sense of pride, satisfaction, and determination rose above their fatigue and pain. A glance around the room revealed dancers at many stages in their careers, from college students, to those just starting their professional careers, and also seasoned dance veterans.
The beauty of this process was that it eliminated frequent logistical limitations that many performers face, such as scheduling, travel time, and the length of a typical rehearsal process. Instead of committing several weeks or months for a show, the participants had to simply set aside times during three consecutive days (a second showing happened on Saturday night) at a time where schools and companies are on break.
The natural draw of the culminating performance as an audience member, then, was discovering what comes out of this pressure cooker. Considering the aesthetic of M2DT and the choreographers they chose, an entertaining, audience-friendly performance would probably not be on the menu. Rather, it’s a time for patrons to peek inside the kitchen, recognizing that the process is as important, if not more, than the finished product.
The evening opened with A tender provocation by jhon r. stronks, which used text from Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” and a few bars from Tori Amos, all mixed by dj chicken flava. Seven dancers in casual, pedestrian costumes spent the dance in exploration. Improvisational-style movement had them investigating subtle movements of their own bodies, the space around them, and the movements of others. Most of the vocabulary was more contemplative, with a few moments where the dancers’ maneuvers expanded out further.
In talking about this work, stronks said he challenged himself to not come in with anything prepared but found out how difficult the task was. “As it got closer, I tried to give myself ways out of the challenge by coming in with things that I knew worked.” Another interesting thing about this piece was that despite the interconnectedness of the Dallas dance community, no one in the cast had ever met.
Jennifer Mabus’ where the street lamps are broken took a different turn with more athletic and complex vocabulary. Dressed in cream costumes and moving to music by David Lanz and Maya Beiser, the artists traveled with a more frantic sense, being driven by sounds or text spoken by the dancers. Out of the five, it was the most audience-friendly.
The show directors did a nice job of finding an eclectic mix of choreographers that still fit within the framework of the company. The mood of the concert drastically shifted yet again with Jake Harkey’s the seers. An electronic drone sprinkled with an occasional high-pitched voice offered no grounding or rhythm for a very odd piece featuring a trio of females. Subtle isolations transitioned into more spastic movement, as the dancers exhibited somewhat pained expressions. Their looks of struggle, however, diminished as movements looked more like a groovy dance party, and Harkey really threw everyone for a loop when one of the dancers ended the piece in a banana suit.
Given its cohesiveness, Elisa de la Rosa’s hypnotizado proved to be the most impressive. The dancers passed around a pocket watch, which they used to hypnotize each other. Fierce facials and a sense of abandon to the movement made the work quite intriguing. Out of the five, it delivered the greatest contrast in timing dynamics.
And time was its center. The choreographer, who came in with nothing to start the process, was inspired by the fact that there was so little time in this process. “We get so trapped in clockwork,” she says, “I was nervous to get started, but once we were in it, I forgot about time. We just made movement.”
The last work, Artisanship, came from Sarah Gamblin, and what stood out the most about her dance was the vastness of it. It had the largest cast (nine dancers) and even though it wasn’t the longest, it seemed to have the most movement phrases, transitions, and spatial patterns. It wasn’t until this piece that I realized what an undertaking this was for all 29 dancers to remember everything.
The maneuvers began with a flinging motif and then transitioned into signature Gamblin movement. Because she’s been on faculty at Texas Women’s University since 2002, her influence is seen across the Dallas dance community. Thus, the work had a familiarity that stood in compelling contrast to the sound score, which was a recording of a physicist discussing theories of relativity and the cosmos. Later, we found out that it was a recording of her father.
Although only one of the pieces had time as its theme, the concept weighed heavily on all the choreographers, and the process brought out some interesting ideas.
Gamblin said, “I started noticing the politics of what and how we edit. I noticed my process, and how I think about all the things that could be.” Yet, because of the time constraints, there’s no time to explore; decisions have to be made. Her dance also wound up being longer than expected because there was no time to edit.
There was no room for second-guessing or doubt. Harkey said, surprised, “I found my voice in the process. I’m normally doubtful and quiet, but there’s no time to debate with yourself.”
Mabus echoed the sentiment by stating, “I had a realization of who I am as a dancemaker and a person. With such a short amount of time, there’s no room to judge. Time actually sharpened the process.”
The dancers also had something to say on the experience. On why she took the plunge, Devin Hill said, “I knew I’d be uncomfortable. I like to understand things quickly, and this allowed me to trust and surrender to the process.”
Ada Palacios reiterated this idea of just going for it. “I’m not going to think about it, I’m just going to do it.” She also remarked on how quickly everyone bonded throughout this shared occasion.
Made in a Day had such a profound impact on the participants that M2DT is already planning for next year. It’ll be fascinating to see how the logistics evolve to keep the spontaneity, unexpectedness, and risk alive as the event grows year after year.