Dallas — Performing has always been in Julia Rhoads blood. The co-founder of Lucky Plush Productions, performing this weekend at Moody Performance Hall via TITAS, started with ballet at the age of 9 and graduated high school early after receiving a scholarship to attend the San Francisco Ballet school. She became an apprentice with the company after one year but suffered a hip injury that kept her out of the studio longer than anticipated.
Conflicted as to what her next steps would be she began her academic studies at Northwestern University. “I didn’t have a clear sense of what I wanted to study until a professor completely blew me away in a survey history course,” says Rhoads. “He brought every lecture to life, making connections between history, contemporary culture, and many other fields in a way that I had never previously experienced.” That love of history, of learning, and exploring the influence of societal decisions would eventually drive her creative process, but not until she found a new way of dancing.
While a senior at Northwestern University, Rhoads joined the dance theatre company, XSIGHT Performance Group, and was immediately taken by the collaborative devising process. XSIGHT dissolved a few years later, and to fill in the gap that she felt both personally and professionally, she soon began collaborating with her former company members, including Holly Rothschild, and they quickly formed a new performance group, Lucky Plush Productions. Rothschild left the group to pursue a career in Los Angeles, but Rhoads pushed forward, formalizing Lucky Plush as a nonprofit and making work her way.
Utilizing her education in playwriting and video design—which she gained while pursuing an MFA in Performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—Rhoads began creating dance theatre pieces that manipulated video, improvisation, and humor to produce works engaged audiences in a personal way. These works also placed the performers in the foreground as themselves, contributing to a developing trend in dance-theatre for the need and promotion of dialogue that is authentic and conversational, rather than poetic or presentational. We see work like this from Lloyd Newson of DV8 in productions such as John and Can We Talk About This? and Mark Dendy in his work, Labyrinth.
In her exploration of this sub-genre of dance theatre, Rhoads is defining her aesthetic by exploring how audiences respond to her balance of technical choreography, casual dialogue, and off-the-cuff improvisation. Further, she is continuously developing the performers’ role in each production and finding weight the cost of full release of responsibility and respective collaboration. “Collaboration is primary in my artistic process, and I don’t see this changing. However, collaboration in my work doesn’t mean that everyone has the same level of decision-making. While I work with the ensemble to develop the choreography and script, the overall vision and arc of each show are driven by me as I have very strong ideas and core values that inform the aesthetics of Lucky Plush’s work.” She also calls on fellow artist Leslie Danzig often who helps guide her through larger questions about content and form.
This dialogue loop, or editing tool, has allowed for Lucky Plush’s work to find a level of accessibility that engages the audience’s natural tendency toward curiosity. “Accessibly is central to my work, but not in a way that panders to an audience, or spoon feeds content. It’s my job as a creator of original dance-theatre work is to engage them in a way that is both thought-provoking and relatable,” says Rhoads. She does this by calling on one of the oldest forms of storytelling, showing the narrative arc.
The dialogue, choreography, and relationships between the performers all support the overall thematic arc and storytelling onstage, and she creates anchors, such as moments of comedy, for audience members to understand content, even when the work moves into more abstract languages like contemporary dance. “When people laugh, they lean forward. Laughter is also an important release when dealing with challenging content.”
Lucky Plush has experienced a great deal of success since its inception in 2000. In 2008, Lucky Plush received a national choreography fellowship and was named in Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2010. In 2013, Rhoads won the Alpert Award in Dance, which is given to one U.S. choreographer a year, and in 2015, Lucky Plush was the first, and only, dance company to receive the prestigious MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
Making their Dallas debut with TITAS, they will present Trip the Light Fantastic: The Making of SuperStrip, March 9-10 at Moody Performance Hall. The work follows a group of washed-up superheroes as they attempt to reinvent themselves in a non-profit think-tank for do-gooders. They hire a media artist to document their process and help them define their brand, but they struggle to achieve consensus about their mission while getting caught up in the circularity of meeting culture and questions about power. The characters undertake training missions that are highly immersive and feel like a video game, and each group meeting opens with the media artist narrating a video recap of the previous session, stylized as comic book frames.
Using a visual design that includes a mix of live and pre-recorded video, this multi-media, interactive work sounds like so many artists’ lives. “The show is funny and moving, the dancing is varied and evocative, the visual design is beautiful and immersive, and the characters are relatable and extremely charming,” says Rhoads. “I think that audiences will leave the theater feeling like they saw something that is unlike anything they’ve seen before, in the best possible way.”