On Modern Dance: Choreographers' showcase at the clarice smith performing arts center
I often hear my peers (and mentors) in the small and relatively close-knit dance community in the DMV bemoan the lack of critical discourse surrounding our form, complicated by the problem of audience -- if we’re the only ones seeing the work, how do we breathe new ideas into our community? How do we get a perspective outside of our own to push the rigor of the work we’re making?
As is true for much of contemporary visual and performing arts, interdisciplinary work is commonplace. Thus, it’s imperative to note parallels and differences in practice and themes of work between modern dancers and other creative workers in the DMV region; increase the rigor of conversation and feedback processes in the DMV modern dance scene by introducing voices outside of the immediate community; and heighten the visibility of modern dance in the DMV region and make interesting connections between creative fields that could lead to future collaboration.
On Saturday, January 27, I attended the 35th Annual Choreographers’ Showcase at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. Chloe Bensahel, textile/ multidisciplinary artist and Halcyon Arts Lab fellow accompanied me to the showcase. Before the show, I spoke with Chloe about her work and her history with dance.
Sarah Greenbaum: Tell me a bit about your background.
Chloe Bensahel: I was trained as a textile artist. I work primarily in the medium of textiles, sound, and installation, and I’m really interested in looking at cultural identity and how we define ourselves collectively in our various cultures. I’m looking right now at Jewish history specifically as an interesting case study for how different cultures coexist.
SG: What is exciting to you artistically in this moment?
CB: I’m working on an installation right now that’s going to be a multiple-part weaving of striped menswear shirts. I was looking at why Holocaust prisoners and, historically, prisoners and outsiders wore stripes. It turns out that it actually comes from a line in the Old Testament that dictates that you must not mix two materials in one garment. It was mistranslated historically into two different colors and became this symbol of the outsider and the undesirable.
I’m also working with sound, recording people speaking about their experience of where they’re from and how they feel about it, and collecting these intimate recollections of their own cultural identity.
[I’m] in this fantastic fellowship, the Halcyon Arts Lab, for nine months; I’m allowing myself to explore various disciplines, and how I can also nurture and develop this multidisciplinary practice. Textiles are extremely symbolic, and can be applied to endless realms. I call the recordings “sound tapestries” because I think that textiles are intimately linked to how we speak to one another, and how we transmit from mother to child, and also between generations.
I’m interested in how I can communicate the things that I’m looking at and think through the lens of making garments again, which is something I haven’t done in a while. I trained as a fashion designer, as well as in textiles. So I’m pretty excited to be also experimenting with garments. With the implication of garments, of course, comes the implication of the body. And the absense of the body, or the presence of the body, depending on which way it goes.
SG: So that’s a good segway into your experience with dance.
CB: Absolutely. I went into fashion design because I was fascinated with the human body, and how we connect to our own bodies, you know, culturally and physically, I think I grew up without any representation of my cultural identity in the culture I was living in. I grew up living in DC, in the states, with really big curly hair, in an era when Kate Moss and straight hair was all the rage. They were all about these very beautiful white blonde Americans with very straight hair, and I was fascinated by how we relate to our own bodies, and how garments are this border that act as spheres for how we deal with our bodies.
I was always really interested in movement. I’m very fascinated by all forms of performance, for sure. I look at garments a lot in performance. Even in films, for example, I’m very aware of the garments people are wearing, and how garments are these very specific tools in the realm of performance to either communicate something, aggravate it, or completely draw attention to the body and not to what’s on the body.
SG: When you hear modern or contemporary dance- what comes to mind?
CB: In San Francisco one of my friends works with Anna Halprin, and is an amazing performer. There’s this visceral relationship to the audience, like you walk out of there and suddenly you’re more aware of your own movements because someone has moved in a certain way that has opened up your perception. Kind of like when you go to a yoga class and someone does a crazy trick and you’re like, damn, that body can do that!
SG: What are your expectations from this show, and of dance in DC?
CB: You know, I grew up in DC going to performances at the Kennedy Center, so I really only saw ballet or opera. So I’ve never encountered any dance in DC. I think I just come at it from an artistic point of view. What are some of the aesthetic decisions being made, and how does that fit in with what’s being displayed? And then the choice of the dancers, and just how they interact in space. What does that mean to me, and how does that make me feel? I’m really excited to see some bodies moving. That’s pretty much my baseline expectation. Beyond that I love aesthetics and I love beauty, so I hope it will be an aesthetic experience for me.
The performance was two hours long with a 15-minute post-show discussion. Six choreographers were featured; these artists were curated from an audition that took place in September 2017. In my post-performance conversation with Chloe, we touched on four of the works:
The Tipping Point, choreographed by Ryan Bailey and Maia Schechter, a crisp, detailed duet with suggestions of tension in relationship, each performer wearing black mesh tops with form-fitting black shorts, exploring line and action-reaction inside their individual bodies as well as within their partnership.
Roarshock Convoy, choreographed by Sarah Beth Oppenheim, another duet between two vivacious, physical, quirky women clad in deep purples, both with half their hair in a knot on top of their heads and the rest braided down their necks, featuring four more stagehand pseudo-performers who helped create shoestring theatrics with minimal props.
Canon, choreographed by Ronya-Lee LaVaune Anderson, in which Anderson works her way through a stage covered in books; her fellow four performers chuck these books at her from all directions while reading their title or quoting directly from them; Anderson’s movement is powerful and contemporary in nature and she wears a handmade robe over nude underwear.
[Panic] Room, choreographed by Tarik O’Meally, features five performers responding with varying degrees of agitation, and later horror, to a designed sound score with clips from the news and from horror films; they tug their muted, coordinated costumes, filling the space one moment and shrinking as small as possible the next.
SG: What are you walking away with following that performance?
CB: Well I thought it was great. Not everything was my aesthetic, obviously, but it was nice to get what felt like a snapshot of the range of different things that happen in the performance world. And noticing some little things that were like ah!
SG: What were some of those "ah" moments?
CB: Well, I thought aesthetically the first performance [Tipping Point] was really great. I thought their relationship to the sound was the tightest -- there were moments where their bodies had an interaction with the sound and moments where they didn’t. Also really great dancers, I really enjoyed that.
And then I loved Ronya’s performance. She was wearing a handmade garment -- I was like, ah! Really exciting to see someone put on a handmade garment during their performance. And then using spoken word as part of her performance was really cool, really fascinating to me. I was really struggling between those two for my favorite performance.
I also had so many questions. I wanted to ask, specifically, for example, why Sarah Beth chose the 80’s as the influence for the garments the performers wore. And the hairdos that were sort of reminiscent of like 80’s punk, almost. I really wanted to know why that was. It was really fascinating to notice, and bear witness to the range of things that are available.
SG: Did you have other questions about any of the works? Or things that left you wanting for any reason?
CB: Yes, I would have loved to know what was Ryan and Maya’s relationship to sound, and why they chose that specific, quite digital sound to be talking about something as intimate as their relationship, as opposed to using like human voice, or something more melodic or quote-unquote-romantic, or if that was a conscious choice.
I was curious if Tariq is influenced by contact improv... what’s the role of his own movement in the work that he does, and how does his experience show up in working with other people?
And then for Ronya Lee, I was curious about why she chose the dance that she chose. It was quite a contemporary dance, and she could have been a full on ballerina that’s more of an object. But she chose to humanize it more. I’m curious about why that is, and how she chose those movements.
SG: And in the other direction, how this more Eurocentric movement vocabulary fits into the conversation she’s having about these literary works that are the cannon versus works that are more focused on African American or black experience.
CB: Yeah, her work is very relevant. And I just think being an African American woman in performance is really, really interesting, especially right now. And talking about education in the United States is always really powerful.
SG: Were there moments that you connected this show to the work you do? What struck you in parallel conversation with your practice?
CB: This was not part of the performance technically, but having them talk about their performance at the end, it really made me want to have more conversations with choreographers, and also start to think about movement as an extension of my practice. It’s funny, I think people are very discipline-shy when it comes to having crossovers, delving into other practices, but I love the intimacy with which they work.
In the visual arts, there is this very thick set of interpretations and filters that one goes through to get from the feeling and the idea into the rendering, whereas when you’re working with the body it’s just direct. It can be felt or not felt by the audience, but whatever is going on, and the way that you need to move and process whatever you’re going through, is direct. That level of directness, so to speak, is something that I’m really interested in touching, just for myself. I really want to touch that within my own practice.
On Modern Dance is an experiment in cross-disciplinary conversation focused on increasing the visibility of modern dance and upping the ante for dance discourse in the DMV. Interviews arranged and conducted by Sarah Greenbaum, DMV-based performance maker and Artistic & Community Program Manager of Dance Place.
Photos by Mukul Ranjan