Plano — Shannon Watters calls her experimental dance work just be. That’s right, the title is lower case with a period at the end, upsetting the normal rules of grammar and challenging my ability to structure an orderly sentence.
That’s the idea.
Watters aims to upset the normal rules of stage performance by, first of all, avoiding the stage as much as possible. At most stage shows, the audience sits passively and watches. Saturday at the Plano Courtyard Theater, the dancers stared back and smiled as they moved among the crowd, first in the lobby and later inside the performance hall.
The choreographer says she designed just be.—the culminating project of her Master of Fine Arts degree from Jacksonville University—to help dancers be more present in the moment, which is apparently harder than it sounds. Maybe the sensory overload of contemporary life is to blame for short attention spans. Watters theorizes that the problem is we’re always thinking about the future instead of following the Eastern philosophical imperative to “be here now.”
Whatever the cause, she came up with an exhilarating solution, however temporary. The close proximity of performers touching and talking to spectators kept both groups on their toes, focused and in the moment. It turned out that sensory overload can rivet attention rather than distract it, demystifying and personalizing the experience.
Well before the advertised 6 p.m. start, with a show second scheduled at 8, 18 of Watters’ students from the Academy of Dance Arts in Allen performed inside and around four frames set up along the walls of the L-shaped lobby, playfully mocking the confines of a proscenium stage. Dressed in black or nude-colored short tights and halters, topped with flesh-toned smocks, the dancers showed off thousands of dollars worth of ballet lessons, leg extensions, pirouettes and leaping jetés mixing with modern gestures and falls.
In a concession to safety and a modicum of orderliness, parts of the lobby floor were taped off as designated dancer areas. The piece formally began after Watters described her concept from the front of the concession stand.
The dancers eventually shepherded the audience into the hall, where a diagonal swath of seats had been removed to create another passageway and additional off-stage performance areas. The lead cast—Chad Geiger, Kendra Hibbs, Grace Ludwinski and Audrey Mitts, also credited as collaborators—moved freely between the stage, the aisles, the area in front of the first row and a mid-hall landing created by the missing seats.
In the first section, “be vulnerable,” Mitts soloed while a blurry, pixilated video of her moves played on the back wall. Lying on her stomach, she shot one leg straight up. The other sections, “be strong,” “be open,” “be here…now,” “be real” and “just be” featured a duet, two trios and two group dances.
At one point, a narrator intoned, “You may not control all events.” Rather than controlling the audience, Watters demanded its attention, knowingly questioning the usual standoffish relationship between performer and viewer.
» Manny Mendoza also writes about dance for the Dallas Morning News.