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Flash Report, 9-4: What I Did This Summer
Branchin' Out at Dance Theater Camp 2001

By Andrew Simonet
Copyright 2001 Andrew Simonet

PHILADELPHIA -- Maybe dance and theater are not on a continuum; maybe they don't meet in the middle at "dance theater" or "movement theater." Maybe they are branches off of the same tree -- branches whose tips are near each other, but who in fact have been growing separately for ages. Maybe there are foundational differences that are best bridged not by "moving closer," but by returning to the shared trunk and starting a new branch.

In the words of Mark Lord (Potlatch Plays & Spectacles, Last Monday Performance Series), theater artists who try to move closer to dance often use movement as "wallpaper:" Let's all move "like this" (usually naturalistically, sometimes abstractly) the whole time as an interesting backdrop to our talking. Similarly, dance artists often use text as wallpaper, an unchanging insertion that is read "like this" (usually flatly, without discernible intention or shaping) as an interesting explanation of our dancing. The dynamic invention and subtle discernment dance artists bring to movement and theater artists to text is often lost as we try to meet in the middle.

Philadelphia's Dance Theater Camp 2001 offered crossover practice in the working strategies of dance and theater, and exploration of the vast and lovely bastardized branches of dance/theater hybrids.

A little history: Dance Camp began in 1995 as a month-long artist-run festival for choreographers. Dance artists from Philadelphia (plus a few from New York) spent a month teaching each other classes and workshops, and creating and showing new work. At a time when we all worked day jobs, and devoted our rehearsal time to preparing for specific gigs, we saw Dance Camp as a chance to immerse ourselves in dance all day for a month, and to remain process-oriented. Dance Camp has always been entirely artist-run and free to all participants, as campers handle all the work of running the festival: teaching, scheduling, cooking, cleaning. Everyone has ownership over Dance Camp: if there is a problem, fix it; if you want to do something new, just make it happen.

Over the years, Dance Camp has taken different forms in response to the needs and desires of the participants. In 1999 and 2000, we went for two weeks to Earthdance, a rural dance center in Western Massachusetts, to get campers away from their daily lives. This year, we changed Dance Camp into Dance Theater Camp: four weeks of classes, workshops, work groups and showings for 53 artists working in dance, theater, and dance/theater hybrids.

In Philadelphia, many performing artists work in such hybrids: New Paradise Laboratories, Pig Iron Theatre Company, Headlong Dance Theater (that's the company I co-direct with David Brick and Amy Smith). And collaborative/collective companies such as Moxie, SCRAP, Pig Iron, Phrenic New Ballet, The Bald Mermaids, Headlong, Group Motion, and New Action Theater are the norm. There is a lot of overlap and exchange between the dance and theater communities, and a lot of love.

In the first week of DTC, our "boot camp," we immersed in dance and theater. David Disbrow, recently named co-director of the always righteous Theatre Exile, used his version of Keith Johnstone's status work ("the conscious manipulation of our level of dominance") to introduce us dancers to acting. In theater improvisations, he pushed us to establish character not by building a static identity, but by working it out socially. In Disbrow's words, "Consistency is the heart of bad acting." I began to realize something: Real acting has nothing to with the shoddy high school theater that had driven me to dance. (Many actors spoke of the moment in college or acting studio when they realized this.) Good acting, like good dancing, is awake, present, and honest. Like a trained dancer, an actor must let go of his or her habits (vocal, emotional, relational) to be able to enter a character freely and responsively.

Our daily vocal work and contact improvisation reinforced this. We dancers found the support to speak and sing down in our diaphragms, freeing our voices as the actors were freeing their bodies by finding their center. (There was an interesting bit of controversy as we strove to find a shared place of dancerly engaging and actorly relaxing of the abdominals. Hope was placed in the psoas.) Opera-trained James Sugg of Pig Iron taught a combination of classical vocal work and the work of Slava, a Scandinavian company that sings while running and lifting heavy objects.

After Boot Camp, we began checking out each other's branches -- how do you actually work on a piece? -- with an eye to starting some new ones. In his two-day workshop, Mark Lord took us on a concise tour of his branch. First, he had each of the 20 participants walk, pick up two heavy cases of bottled water, carry them across the space and put them down. Lord noted that this task-like Judson Church moment was a touchstone to him, a theater artist, and to many of the choreographers in the room. "Now," he said, "let's ruin it like we do in the theater world." He gave us the opening to Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," a play he says he despises and has deconstructed. In the first scene, Willy returns after driving around all day, a failure carrying his sample cases from the car to the house and proclaiming: "It's alright. I came back." Again each performer tried this moment and this line, and we marveled at the difficulties, pitfalls, and habits that emerged. What had been simple, elegant, and physical became imitative and laden as unrigorous acting filled out the salesman story. As performers, we now had both too much and not enough information. With this bad acting in mind, we moved on to Lord's acting work, exercises focused on "manipulating our ability to concentrate" -- his definition of performing. I kept thinking of that Judson moment, the passionate grandmother in our artistic family trees from which our work had split off. Why did I find it more beautiful without the "motivation?"

Much traditional theater training emphasizes intention and tactic. But in dance, we make choices/choreography for abstract, spatial, or other hard to pin down reasons. In a wonderful synthesis of these worlds, Whit McLaughlin, director of New Paradise Laboratories, talks about "emotional weather," the set of circumstances and energies surrounding a person. In his brilliant DTC workshop, he worked to provoke an awareness of this weather (it is pre-intention, pre-character) through solo repetitive action and then through entering someone else's weather. This work, like New Paradise's beautiful performances, is a wild synthesis of the physical and the narrative. I found it very hard and very exciting -- not a meeting of Dance and Theater, but a mysterious new branch of the tree. And throughout the month of Dance Theater Camp, New Paradise company members such as Lee Etzold, Matt Saunders, Jeb Kraeger, and Mary McCool constantly manifested this intricate hybrid of movement and character. One of the great joys of DTC was getting inside the working processes of other artists and then dancing/acting/creating/writing with them in other contexts. Gaps in my understanding of Whit McLaughlin's "emotional weather" were filled intuitively, physically by dancing with his performers who embodied it.

There were so many amazing classes: Nichole Canuso's "Contact Into Choreography," Emanuelle DelPech and Dan Rothenberg's "Clowning," Maggie Siff's "Generating Text," Christy Lee's "dance Repertory for Actors," Myra Bazell's "Technique For All," Mauri Walton's "Use Your Faults, Use Your Defects," and Daivd Brick's "Complexity, Repetition, and Grief." And throughout the month, campers formed ad hoc work groups to make quick and dirty pieces, some of which have led to full-on future collaborations.

At "Tears n Beers" on the last night, we drank, cried, and made toasts. Theater promised to stop using slow motion, and Dance swore we would never blankly recite poetry. And Dance and Theater held hands. And my friend Meg says she saw them making out in the woods.


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