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Flash Perspective, 6-20: The Mentor
Working with Alison

By Rebecca Stenn
Copyright 2006 Rebecca Stenn

(Editor's Note: On Wednesday, Alison Chase confirmed to the Dance Insider that her employment as a director of Pilobolus was terminated in October. Without asking her opinion on the current situation, we thought it would be useful to get Dance Insider features editor Rebecca Stenn's insight on Chase. A founding member of Pilobolus Too, Stenn worked with Chase for six years. Prior to that, she spent seven years with Momix, directed by Pilobolus co-founder Moses Pendleton.)

I can't comment on the early days of Pilobolus, because I obviously wasn't around at that point. (I was three years old when Pilobolus came into being, which gives us all an idea of the longevity of the organization, a testament to all of the directors and others -- dancers, administrative staff, and beyond -- who made this incredible company remain a creative force, vital and strong, as long as it has been, and which it continues to be.)

What I can comment on, though, is my time with Alison Chase, which took place during my years as a founding member of the duet company Pilobolus Too, along with Adam Battelstein. I jumped at the chance to take this job, a two-person touring company, performing what I think are some of the absolute gems of the repertoire (solos and duets) in a 70-minute show, all over the world. And teaching every imaginable population and having a great deal of autonomy along the way, i.e.: Decisions had to be made on tour all the time that Adam and I were expected not only to make, but to make correctly, on the spot. It was an invaluable learning experience for me, one that would later prove incredibly helpful in running my own company.

The original idea for a Pilobolus duet company came from the duo team of Alison Chase and Moses Pendleton, who, in a program of solos and duets, toured Europe (especially Italy) to rave reviews. Classic pieces like "Shizen," "Alraune," "Moonblind" and others made up the program. When I started dancing with Momix in 1989, as a 21-year-old, I would hear legends about the duo team of Alison and Moses. I was always fascinated. Video-tapes of their performances were astonishing. The pieces were so athletic, bizarre, mesmerizing, magical. It was somehow lodged in my brain that I would, someday, follow in the footsteps (if you will) of these amazing dancer/choreographers.

The first rehearsal I had for Pilobolus Too was with Alison, at her studio, which was then located just outside of New Haven. She picked me up at the New Haven train station and as we drove to the studio, I became immediately disarmed, won over, by her easy manner. I'll never forget that rehearsal, learning the solo "Moonblind" -- it pretty much sums up for me what working with Alison was like for the next seven wonderful years. She was sweet, funny, and incredibly demanding in the best way possible. "Do it again," she would say with a smile, for the tenth time. "That's not really it," she would say with a smile, and a sweet, genuine smile it was; it just also said, "That wasn't good enough yet; make it amazing." And you would somehow find it in yourself. From Alison I learned stamina and grace. She (and Moses as well) taught me how to work hard, harder than I ever imagined possible. Years later, after a Pilobolus Too performance at the Joyce Theater, Alison said to me backstage after the show, "The image of you onstage is burned into my retina." It was one of the most meaningful compliments I've ever received.

Creating work in the studio with Alison was a particular joy for me, as it was always wonderfully surprising and unpredictable what would come out. Once, we were scheduled to start work on a new duet for Adam and I to add to the repertoire of our show. As is usually the case with a new Pilobolus work, the more dancers to improvise and gather material with, the merrier, and there were a number of couples in the studio with us, working away. My husband had been listening to a lot of Astor Piazzolla at the time; one of his band-mates had given him a few CDs. I brought these to rehearsal with me, just for fun, for something to improvise to. (Alison encouraged us to bring music, props, costumes, whatever helped us to get lost in the full-out creativity of the moment.) Somehow the piece began to unfold, and we got completely attached to the tango music. In true Alison form, the tango became a love duet for an ape and a woman, a little King Kong, a little crazy, totally organic and weird.

Another creative period took place at her studio on the beautiful, rugged, craggy coast of Maine. It was a real treat to head up there in the car with the other women in Pilobolus. It felt like a road trip and we would get marvelously, inappropriately lost on the unmarked, windy roads leading to her house. We were working on a solo, a piece we later called "Femme Noire." I shared Alison's love for long, gorgeous, sexy black dresses and over-sized hats. But in typical Alison fashion, the hat we ended up using became so large and exaggerated, that the piece became a play on (among other things) the audience not being able, almost ever, to see the dancer's face. It was the perfect way to create mystery; subtle, understated and strange.

Alison is a mentor to me in many ways, not the least of which being that she has raised three amazing children, all while giving 100 percent to her duties at Pilobolus (choreographic, administrative... the list goes on). I'm about to have my second child and I often turn to her for advice -- mostly questions like 'How did you do this?' And mostly I think it is her sense of humor, and her enthusiasm that gave her the fortitude to achieve all that she has over the years. She is a creative force, a whirlwind. She is funny, irreverent and loving. I'm thankful to have had the chance to work with her as long and as closely as I did.

Rebecca Stenn is founder and director of Rebecca Stenn Company (formerly Rebecca Stenn/PerksDanceMusicTheatre)


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