Dallas — Last year, Muscle Memory Dance Theatre took a risk that paid off immensely with Made in a Day, a process in which choreographers and dancers embarked on the ultimate experience in chance and process to create a live performance with very little time on their side.
In that inaugural event at LIFE in Deep Ellum, the theme of time turned into the cohesive thread that defined the experience for most involved. With around 12 hours to complete the process, creativity explodes, risk abounds, boundaries blur, and comfort zones become non-existent. It proved exhilarating for all, so much so that a second go-around was certain.
Fast forward a year later, and while the abrupt time frame still had a huge impact, another relevant idea arose.
A big trend in many circles is the concept of mindfulness. So many things fracture our attention and focus, such as technology, consumerism, a need to multi-task, to be a jack-of-all-trades, or to simply survive and make a living. The arts world is a shining example of that. Since it’s a notoriously low-paying, unstable employment choice, the vast majority of artists bounce around to different gigs (some non-arts related), in addition to juggling demands of family and home life. Also, the wide range of opportunities in the arts (including the pro-bono ones) tempts those to experiment and seek out different experiences in and outside the field.
A glance at the 32 dancers, five choreographers, and others who said yes to this process reveals students, parents, employees from various fields, all from different parts of the Metroplex and beyond. They balance school, children, work demands, and travel logistics with their passions and love of dance, and as most of us know, when the brain is stretched, when conflicts arise, something has to give. Oftentimes, the process and work of being a dancer suffers amidst this split focus.
M2DT Company Manager and Made in a Day director Meghan Cardwell-Wilson developed the idea of this yearly event to allow dancers and dance professionals a time to simply focus on dance, on the work of building and presenting their art. By carving out a mere three days to devote brain and physical energy to one thing, they bring a moment of mindfulness to their normally hectic worlds.
The parameters remained unchanged. Cardwell-Wilson and Artistic Director Lesley Snelson curated a group of five choreographers who would not know the size of their casts or who their dancers are until the process began. Rehearsal time is spread over two days, but only adds to about 12 hours before dances undergo a brief tech rehearsal and are performed in front of an audience.
Some logistical changes from last year include improvements in the technical preparations and a live, random drawing from the list of applicants for the final pool of dancers.
With such a novel idea, the challenge seems to be how to keep it innovative year after year. They could decide to change the parameters of the experience, make a part of the process arbitrary (such as choosing the music for each choreographer), or reveal twists throughout the time frame. But innovation is already built into their model. By choosing different choreographers this time around and (by nature of the casting) setting on a different group of dancers, the process and products are bound to be noticeably different each year.
With last year’s show, I didn’t really give much thought to how these works would fare in a different context, and while I maintained that perception as I walked into Friday night’s performance, the potential and viability of each piece kept sticking out in my mind.
Wayne S. Smith’s Through the Perilous Nights, We See…(memory buffer register edition) began with Brandy Niccolai-Belfi and Nick MacMahan in a sensual (albeit one-sided) duet. Three other dancers emerged from the upstage, and the dynamic changed with loud steps and a frantic quality. The performers maintained quite of bit of contact, at times rough, conveying perhaps variations in perceptions of each other. Lovely shapes appeared throughout the choreography, with many motifs repeating. Sarah Maggard demonstrated an especially strong attack. The work, which included a few creative uses of the unique stage layout of LIFE, contained a cohesiveness that could easily transfer to a traditional concert.
Birds were on the brain for ‘Tis the Wind and Nothing More by Ann Robideaux. Beginning with bird noises and a playful recitation of “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” the theme remained with fowl-like hand gestures and other avian qualities. The five dancers (Kiera Amison, Candace Craig-Hardie, Anna Ferreira, Amy L. Jennings, and Tarah Tristan) displayed a remarkable commitment to the movement given the short amount of time in which to process the choreography.
Short, spastic movements turned into slow, graceful maneuvers, with a spellbound quality. Some exhibited a sense of power, while others provide a softer execution. Other bird references came with an obvious nod to the “Little Swans” variation of Swan Lake and a pigeon-toed stance. Given all the aspects—cast cohesion, execution, choreographic elements—this one was the best. If a patron had wandered in, oblivious to the concept behind the event, they would never know how quickly this came together.
Although that piece stood out, the same could be said about all. Amanda Jackson’s Through the Millwell featured something new to this event—live music. Brittany Padilla joined seven dancers on stage, providing a nice groove and rhythm to the dance’s notable unison parts. The nine dancers retained an intense, slightly nonchalant focus, and all the while deliver a marked engagement to the performance. This one contained more partnering than others, an impressive feat given the time it usually takes in rehearsal for smooth execution. Many in the group displayed a lovely fulfillment of movement pathways.
After an intermission, Emily DiFranco presented the most abstract piece, floating on my crashing waves. Running longer than the others (or perhaps it just seemed that way), she introduced quite a few concepts and qualities. Although it came together at the end, the middle took a convoluted path to get there. Having the smallest cast, the dance began with Ashley Hopson, Stephanie Ramirez, and Natalie Trollinger simply breathing together, with one of them holding a string of lights. They separated into simultaneous solos with varying motifs, one spiraling, one articulating, another losing stability and control. Deliberateness melded into flinging and flicking motions with reckless abandon. A large vocabulary and qualities caused one to focus a little harder on the progression, but one thing that always stood out was Trollinger’s separation from the other two during the bulk of the dance. The group’s reunion at the end, all with lights this time, delivered a satisfying conclusion.
Just as the first dance began with a strong duet, so does the last one. In Michelle Moeller’s Mesh, Colby Calhoun and Elisa De La Rosa demonstrated a strong connection and ease of partnering, like they’d been dancing together for years. More dancers entered, executing a phrase with canons and pickups for a mesmerizing effect. This one also contained quite a bit of partnering, as well as a good sense of risk. A feeling of urgency prevailed with the thrumming bass in the music, and Moeller’s spatial patterns created a striking visual with the eight dancers on stage. As with the others, the choreography contained a good potential for future use.
A major commonality among the works was a sense of community and a connection with other people, which squarely fits in with the modern and contemporary notions of communicating on a human level. This obviously came through in the movement choices, as many of the works conveyed that concept with similar partnering motifs, but it went beyond the choreography. As the dancers spoke on their parts in this process, a major theme for them was the connection.
As Hopson put it, “Dance brings people together, and in this moment, there’s no time to be shy.”