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A Brand New Dance

The A.O. Movement Collective will perform Saturday, Aug. 11, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Aug. 12, at 7 p.m. at The Jack Guidone Theater, Joy of Motion, Friendship Heights, 5207 Wisconsin Ave., N.W. Washington D.C. Tickets are $15 adults, $12 student/senior. Sarah A.O. Rosner, a graduate of St. Andrew's Episcopal School and found of the collective, answered the questions.

Explain the premise of the show:

The main premise is that, by working with CrossCurrents Dance Company, the A.O. Movement Collective is able to create and perform new work over the summer. This might not sound like a huge deal, but since it takes so many resources and connections to run a dance company, most choreographers don't have a chance to show their own work (let alone produce a whole show!) until years after they graduate from college or grad school. Through this program, I'm allowing my dancers and myself a chance to work professionally at a much earlier point in our careers — the result is incredibly cyclical in a way — everything we do gives us more experience, which in turn makes us better, smarter artists, which makes our work better, which in turn opens us up to ways to gain more experience! As an artist, that's the best thing you can ask for. This show is a showcase of sorts — it features work from three AOMC choreographers (Ashley Byler, Vivi Amranand, and myself) as well as a collaborative piece, and a special performance from CrossCurrents Dance Company, and shows a cumulative presentation of all the work we've done since the end of May.

Why did you choose these dances?

An exciting thing about this show is that all of our pieces are premieres (whereas some of what we presented last year had already been performed in other places). It's simultaneously exciting and terrifying, because there's no way of telling at the beginning of the summer what your end show will look like. For example, I started this summer choreographing one piece, and through the course of the summer realized that I wanted it to be five separate pieces that were all related, but scattered through the show. I know we learn a lot from the pieces as we make them — they show us what we're going through and what we're interested in at the moment as artists. In some ways, these pieces are autonomous of each other in the sense that they don't tell a singular story, or focus on a particular subject. This makes sense, as they come from different choreographers and feature different dancers. However, it's also interesting to look at how they intersect. One of the main themes that came up this year across pieces was the idea of exhaustion. Debra Kanter (co-director of CrossCurrents Dance Company) and I have been working together for going on nine years now, and we're always both amazed and somewhat tickled by the fact that whatever pieces we're each making at the moment, no matter how different in terms of process, tone, look, or dancers, is almost always "the same piece" in so many ways. When you work with people this closely, you start working on the same levels without necessarily noticing it. It's one of my favorite things about making dances.

What were some of the challenges when putting together the dances?

This summer has been full of challenges (as was last summer, and as I'm sure every summer will be!) but I ultimately see that as a good thing. We're working on a tighter schedule than last year (the show is a week earlier, and we started a week or two later), and since it's our second season, I started the summer wanting to make it bigger and better than last year, despite the time crunch. We've been successful in that; last year we produced one one-night show — this year we're doing a two-night show, and we've also had two "community showings" and an "evening of art" through the summer. It's so much work though — more, I think, than anyone would imagine.

One of the best and most unique things about our company and the program we run is that the dancers are the ones in charge of all of the AOMC's business and upkeep. It's not like a summer dance intensive program where the dancers dance hard all summer and then perform — we're learning how to run the business side here. So we're creating and sending out fundraising mailers, planning events, hosting community events, balancing the budgets, everything. I find it to be a lot of fun, but the hardest thing is probably finding enough time to get everything done. Running a company is really a full time job, but it certainly doesn't pay like one. So add on to all the dance work a job (I'm working three besides this one) and family life and time with friends, and that's it — you find yourself not really having a "summer break" so to speak. And that's challenging on more than just one level — I'm more than with giving up my summer to do this, but it's also a challenge to find young dancers (our dancers range from 11th grade in high school to a few years post-college) who have that type of commitment and energy. I feel extremely lucky to be working with the dancers that we have this year. It makes me excited about the future of dance to know that there are people like these who are not just artistically talented, but also have that push in them to keep working and keep working.

It's also challenging to manage being the head of the program — the dancers have put a lot of trust in me, and I feel a big responsibility to them, to produce a good show, to run a strong company. Additionally, we've been blessed by an incredibly supportive group of audiences and fans who really allow us to keep working. We want to give them a great show; we want to show them that they made a good choice to support us when they donated at our fundraiser or bought tickets to the show. It's something to work towards, and ultimately, I think that everything we're having to push through as a company is just making us stronger and stronger.

What stands out the most about this production?

Well, there's a lot that exciting about this production. Most noticeably, the fact that this is a group of young artists working at an adult level, producing work that's challenging, fresh, and sophisticated, is very exciting, especially considering that the area's dance scene seems to be starting to expand. This is the next generation of dance, and getting to be part of that while it's just getting started is always exciting.

Additionally, this is a show that brings a lot of different communities together, and that's always such a great thing to be involved with. We have the connection between CrossCurrents Dance Company and the A.O. Movement Collective, and we're excited to have CrossCurrents be presenting a new work (choreographed by Darcy Mandell) in our show. I think that it's great that we have the crossing of age groups as well. There is so much to be learned on both sides from working together, and I think that it makes both companies stronger. Additionally, we're introducing educational communities to each other — three of us (myself, guest artist Ashley Byler, and choreographer/dancer Vivi Amranand) go to Sarah Lawrence College, Lillie DeArmon is at Manhattanville College, and Sarah Lokitis goes to JMU. Combine that with the high school dancers, and you're starting to get a real mix of viewpoints, backgrounds, ages, experience — it's great!

I also believe that the work that we're presenting is excellent and will speak for itself at the shows. We have some pieces that are a little "out there" but very quirky and fun (Ashley Byler's "Blessing" involves film projections, hats with ears, and the song "Edelweiss" and Vivi Amranand's "Day" is a meditation on time that's framed by kitchen appliances!) I'm excited for my pieces too — I think that they resonate on a very human level, and they create a web that helps hold the show together. I can't wait to share with everyone all that we've been working on!

What is your favorite character/most challenging dance?

All the dances are challenging for different reasons. Personally, I see myself as a choreographer rather than a dancer (although I am dancing in a few of the pieces), so for me the most challenging part — that middle time when you're still making the dances and you have to ask yourself "what is this? is there any value in this?" — is already over. Some of our dancers are pretty intense though. One dancer, Lillie DeArmon, is in every one of the AOMC's 8 pieces being presented. And given that the show has themes of exhaustion and working I'd say that's a big challenge! She'll be exhausted, but I have faith in her — she's an intense performer!

Personally, I'm looking at Ashley Byler's piece "Blessing" as my most challenging one — we have to sing and dance at the same time, and some of it is improvisational — it's a lot to think about at once, and it's definitely a challenge not to laugh!

What has been your favorite moment while putting together the performance (either on stage or backstage)?

Wow, it's actually really hard to choose. Working with this group of dancers has been really wonderful. It's a great group, both in terms of movement and in terms of personality. It's fun to get to work with advanced dancers and beginning dancers in the same rehearsal — it makes you work harder. It's nice because we all get along really well outside the studio as well, so we have a lot of fun. Preparing for our fundraiser/arts evening was a lot of fun, because we were all running around at 100 miles an hour getting everything ready, filled with this great nervous energy and excitement. The fundraiser was a huge success, and I think a big part of it was that we were allowing ourselves to have fun with it. Artistically there have been a few great moments for me too, working on my new piece. The more I work, the more I see that the dance really makes itself — as the choreographer you guide it and shape it and ask it things, but the more you can stay open and see what's there rather than forcing it, the more it gives you. I've had moments this summer where I think something will look one way, and something completely different but unimaginably beautiful comes out instead. It tells you about yourself too. You think to yourself, "Oh! That's how I really feel." It can be really breathtaking. Very humbling.

What are the goals of the A.O. Movement Collective?

Our goals change a little from year to year, but the basic premise stays the same: provide young artists with a chance to work at a professional level. Push them as far as they can go. Make them better artists, better arts businessmen and -women, simply by giving them more experience and more chances. This year, we had specific goals of making the season bigger and better — community events, a bigger fundraiser, a new Web site, a two-night show — and we've been incredibly successful. It will be interesting to see how the company evolves in the next few years. I graduate from college this coming May, and after that I'm planning on going full-time with the company and working in this area. Helen and Debby (CrossCurrents Dance Company Co-Directors) and I haven't really talked yet about what that means for the summer program — whether it will continue as a youth-focused program, or will be something else completely, but I'm excited for whatever happens. I've made such great connections with the dancers and artists in this area that I feel like it would be hard for me to leave. On the other hand, I'm making more and more connections in New York, so I'm a little torn. Either way, I'll be dancing, I'll be running the A.O. Movement Collective, and we'll be making new interesting work.

On some level, it feels like the underlying goal is always to make enough money so that you can afford to do what you love, and in this case that means promoting the company so that we have enough financial freedom to present performances and new work. I think that this is what makes the program great — the youth involved with this program are all learning how to build the business to support something that they love. On the other hand, the main goal is always about the work. Is it new? Has this ever been done before? Is it evocative? Is it a scream or the feeling of being tickled? Is it a political protest or a lullaby? Why are we doing this? These questions are unanswerable in the hypothetical, so the only way to ask them is to keep working. So maybe that the real goal of the company: keep working. Everything else is just to support that.

How did the Collective come to be founded?

I started dancing at St. Andrew's Episcopal School, and Debra Kanter is the head of the dance program there. When I started dancing, I had no experience and not a lot of talent, but Debby says she saw something in the way I thought about dances and planned them out. She kept nurturing me and pushing me to work harder and get more training, and through her love of dance and choreography, I was brought into a life of dance. Eventually I started taking modern technique classes with Helen Hayes, who has a long and beautiful friendship with Debby. Through the two of them, I absorbed most of my foundational dance knowledge, and my senior year I ended up apprenticing and eventually dancing for Debby and Helen's company — CrossCurrents Dance Company. After a year at college at Sarah Lawrence in New York, I was determined to find a way to keep making work and gaining as much experience as I could. I wrote up a proposal for Debby and Helen that was the foundation of what the program is today — basically saying that we would use CrossCurrents's unused studio space and they would mentor us as a youth company, in turn giving them further community connections and a fresh look at dance. They were both incredibly supportive of the idea, and we spent about a year planning and bringing it to fruition in our first season, the summer of 2006. The first season was largely made up of people I knew — three friends from Sarah Lawrence came to live in D.C. for the summer and dance in the company, and I also enlisted dancers that had danced in my pieces when I was at St. Andrews. After the company's success in it's first year (we were able to have a show at the end of the summer and pay all the dancers for their summer of intensive work) we were able to return to our respective schools and report how it had gone, and so naturally people were excited about supporting it and staying up to date with the company this year. One cool thing about the company is that we're able to keep people involved in the company through our Web site, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, etc. even if they can't come to a show. Because of this, we have a fairly large following in New York, which is nice because I show work there as well for school. It's exciting that I can post a dance/film that I make online (watch for the next one sometime around Thanksgiving) and someone in Australia can send me some comments on it. It's just another way that we're about to cross boundaries and bring different communities together.

For this year, we were able to expand more, and held an audition at the beginning of the summer. The result is that I don't have a history with a lot of the dancers, but I have been entirely impressed by them. To devote your whole summer to something like this is a big thing, and the artists I'm working with this summer are mature beyond their years.

Have you ever danced?

I dance at school (we don't have majors, but I'm concentrating in dance and film) and in the D.C. area when I'm home and I have time to go to class (which isn't as often as I'd like), but my main love is choreography. Although I guess recently arts management has begun to sneak in there as well. Dancing is great because you can completely push your body, but once you get into a zone you're utterly at peace. But I tend to like dancing in class better than actually performing, so I let the other people in the company be the main "dancers."

What do you hope the audience will get out of the performance?

I hope that the audience enjoys the show, and is somehow energized or inspired by it. I think the best thing you can do as an artist is push people to create more, whether the creating that they're doing is art, or business, or making connections with people. For my pieces, I hope that people are touched by them, because they are quite emotional for me, but I think I'd be happy with any type of reaction, as long as it makes them feel something strongly. I can't really speak for the other choreographers, but I think that the general feeling for modern dance (at least for our company) is that as long as it provokes or moves you or makes you think in some way, there's really not a wrong way to look at it.

Dance (modern dance especially) is so tricky, because so many people feel like they "don't know how to watch it" — it's a little like modern art in that sense. So one of the things that we try to do is bring the audience along with us in our process. At our "community showings" through the summer we've talked with our audience about the process and let them see the ways we build them, so some of the people who will be coming to the show saw them where they were just little fragments of movement — that's incredibly exciting to me! I also try to reiterate that there's no wrong way to look at modern dance — whatever you take from it is the right thing to take from it!

Have you worked with any of these dancers before?

Some yes and some no. Vivi and I go to Sarah Lawrence together and she's been in a few of my pieces — she's one of the most amazing dancers I've ever seen or had the pleasure to work with. Additionally, Ashley Byler (our guest artist) just graduated from the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence this past May, and I had been a dancer for her for a year. She's really quite brilliant (and I don't use that word lightly), she has the ability to make work that is intricate, crazy, intelligent, and natural all at the same time. She also crafts pop culture in many ways, which is something that I've become obsessed with after working with her. Last, Trevor Johnson (who last year was our photographer, and this year also joins us as a dancer) was in my class at St. Andrew's ('04) and danced for me in a few pieces while I was getting my start there. We were high school sweethearts, and are now back together, and it's really an interesting experience to make a dance with someone who you know so well, especially since all of my dances are usually about things that I'm experiencing in my life. It's great to have someone as a dancer who understands exactly what I'm trying to say with my work, and who I can bounce ideas off of.

What do you enjoy most about dancing?

It's hard to pinpoint one thing. I 'm a workaholic, and so I love the peace that dancing brings me — it's very cathartic. I can be pushing my body to do things that are near impossible, pushing it to go faster and harder than I think it can, but it gives me a certain calm that I can't find anywhere else. But choreographing is really my love. I love creating worlds, telling stories, and finding the exact movement that says something so clear and detailed that you could write paragraphs and paragraphs, and never pinpoint exactly what that feeling was. Dancing is so visceral and real, whereas words are representative. You can say things with dance, with one perfect image, that just can't be conveyed in words. It might take you a lifetime to find that perfect gesture, but when you find it, it's the best feeling in the world.

How did St. Andrew’s Episcopal School help you become a stronger dancer?

Well, without St. Andrew's, I don't think I'd be dancing. I'm not the traditional dance body type, and I started relatively late to be aiming for a professional career, but Debra Kanter was such an amazing mentor, it was easy for me to develop a love of dance because she's such an amazing teacher. She never gave me the answers, she always made me figure them out myself, and we still laugh about how mad I used to get that she wouldn't just fix my piece even though it would make it better. That by itself taught me so much — and I think she also presented me with quite a model to base my work ethic off of. She's one of my best friends to this day, and I am glad (although not at all surprised) that we've been able to continue our friendship through college and still find ways to work together.

St. Andrew's also gave me a great network and community of friends, teachers, and dancers who have remained involved in the company. In the company's first year, members Katie Nesmith and Kimi Hugli (both '06) had both danced for me at St. Andrew's. Trevor Johnson ('04) was our resident photographer and graphic designer, and Peter Stuart ('04) had danced with me his senior year, and started helping us with fundraising and business consulting. Trevor is now dancing with us and Peter is still helping us with our business, as well as starring in a new dance/film that I'm working on. This year we also gained dancer Connor Voss, who will be a junior this year at St. Andrew's. I'm still close with my friends from high school, and they're incredibly supportive of the company and come to all our shows. A handful of them danced for me in high school, so it's great to have a feeling of history still connected with the company. I greatly value my time at St. Andrew's and it's wonderful that I've been able to keep in contact with so many people in that network. The school has also been incredibly supportive of letting people know about our performances, which I appreciate greatly. I have been guest teaching Debby's classes from time to time when I visit, and I hope to stay connected to the school.