Everyday we move. We move forward, backwards, up and down. This movement is automatic. There is no need to sit and plan the steps we will take as each minute ticks by on the clock. However when the colorful lights come up and costumed limbs begin to move about a stage, every motion has months of planning behind it. This is choreography.
Described simply, choreography is a series of pre-determined steps set for a performance. Alone these steps mean little. Together though, they make an impression on viewers that strikes straight through to the soul. Dance makers have been impacting the lives of many through staged works for centuries. These pieces of art take three vital elements however: time, space and bodies. Unfortunately these things are extremely difficult to find in the major cities that attract dancers — even harder to find within an artist’s frugal budget.
Art needs time to develop, however time is something that most choreographers cannot afford. The opportunity to slow down and simply create is not an option. “For so many, especially in big cities like New York, Chicago and L.A., studio space is at a premium and it’s expensive,” says Neil Sapienza, Associate Dean of Fine Arts and Humanities and the Director of the School of Dance, Theatre and Arts Administration at The University of Akron. “Choreographers are exploring new work and they’re not quite sure what they need, so just the luxury of time and space in a studio is where it starts. [The center provides] the luxury of time and space — just to explore, fail, try again — without the fear of ‘I’ve got to put something on stage in three weeks.’”
Earlier this summer, Akron drew the attention of dance makers nationwide when it was announced that the Rubber City would be the home of the second national choreography center.
Following in the footsteps of the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC), which is housed in the Florida State University School of Dance, the newest choreography center will live in The University of Akron’s Dance Department. Despite being housed at UA, the center will operate as a separate 501C3 non-profit organization. “This is a center that will be housed at The University of Akron, but we really look at it as a national center that will tap into the rich dance resources of Northeast Ohio,” says Sapienza.
In the dance world, space is a precious commodity. Pam Young, the Executive Director of DANCECleveland says that it’s one thing that has been harder and harder to come by in recent history. “We started seeing a trend—as long as 15 years ago—where dance companies were really struggling to get work made. Dancers usually take space that no one else wants and turn it into dance space. Well, a lot of that space was in places like warehouses and those were becoming apartments,” says Young. Now trendy living space, warehouses are no longer an option as affordable space to create movement in.
When hunting for real estate, dancers have a few specific features on their wish list. The space must have tall ceilings for jumps and lifts. It must be fairly large, allowing dancers to leap, run and twirl through the space. When finished, a studio also features mirrors, a sprung wood floor and an excellent sound system. Finding all of these things in one package can be a real challenge in metropolitan cities like New York or Chicago, however Northeast Ohio happens to be rich in this particular resource. “There’s a lot of underutilized space that a dance maker could have access to for three, four or five days to work on [a piece],” says Young.
At the university alone there are seven high-tech dance studios that could serve dance makers from all over the country. For Young and Sapienza, this singled out Northeast Ohio as a great place to bring a choreography center. “We look at Northeast Ohio as sort of a playground for choreographers. Part of the success of a residency will be the upfront work with the choreographer, really finding out what it is that Northeast Ohio can offer them to help in their research and if it is a dance studio and a few dancers, great,” says Sapienza.
While the studios on campus will be available to choreographers, they will not be the only option when it comes to space to play in. The University of Akron boasts several theaters on campus, including Daum Theatre, Sandefur Theatre and E.J. Thomas Hall. Participants in the residencies will also be able to use space at theaters in Cleveland like Playhouse Square, or even in Youngstown, expanding the footprint of possibility throughout the entire area.
Carrie Hanson, the artistic director of a Chicago-based dance company called The Seldoms, utilized a non-traditional dance space during the first pilot residency earlier this summer on campus. “[Carrie] wanted to be more in the black box theater, working with lighting and working with production elements,” says Young. “The black box gives them a space to test ideas and that’s what they [did during their residency].” A black box theater is a space with no windows. This allows the team to experiment with lighting without contamination from outside light sources.
In the experimental stage, Hanson and her team were creating movements around a large curtain that stretched from floor to ceiling, filling the space with a malleable, but massive set piece. “We used this [residency] in a very technical way. Otherwise it becomes very risky to try and bring in a large set piece like this,” says Hanson. “I can imagine a lot of things and we can theorize about how it’s going to work, but unless you actually have it up in the air and the production people are figuring [everything out], it can become theoretical and not really work once you get it into performance week.”
Young points to this ability to experiment with new ideas and concepts as a key component of the new center. “Really the center is matchmaking what a dance maker might need or want with what resources we have here,” says Young.
Art cannot always be created on a deadline. And even if all of the piece and parts come together on schedule, there is usually little remaining time to perfect the piece. This is the second element of the center: the time to create without pressure.
For The Seldoms, this was their first residency. “These opportunities are pretty rare — to go into a theater without the pressure of a performance and to be able to just experiment and figure a lot of things out,” says Hanson. Working with a large curtain of bras, stitched together to create triangular patterns, Hanson envisioned a set piece that could be integrated into the choreography. “We had to figure out a logic of interacting with it and how to both maximize the use of it, but not use it so much that it becomes gimmicky,” says Hanson.
Whether it was running to the hardware store for weights or just taking a break to sit down and look at the curtain, what The Seldoms needed more than anything was time to work. Having this time was actually a struggle for the company at first according to Young. “Because this was their first residency, they thought they were going to come in and [do] this and this and this. At some point, I think we said ‘there’s no pressure on you to try and do all of those things’.” With her encouragement, they slowed down and fully utilized the gift of time they had been given. “It took them a while to get to that [realization] — that it was okay to sit there and think. Nobody was expecting them to be moving all the time and then they found the value of space and time. They couldn’t get over how amazing that was,” says Young.
Philip Elson has been a dancer with Hanson’s company since 2008 and is also the technology and media coordinator for the company. In his opinion, the residency allowed the dance company valuable time that they seldom have. “It’s everything that we dream of when we have these large-scale ideas that we usually don’t have the time to explore or play with before we get into a theatre for a performance,” says Elson. Once on stage, Elson says judgment calls need to be quickly made about the choreography as a whole. “There’s a loss of potential.”
Some choreographers may need trained dancers to move, testing out new combinations of movement as they translate a piece of work from their imagination to the stage. For others though, what they need most are intellectual brains that they can pick. “Often a dance maker starts by thinking about a work through research. They want to know more about a topic and that becomes the inspiration,” says Young. Choreographers who have an interesting idea that they would like to flesh out, seek experts in that particular field.
This need for scholars and researchers adds to the list of reasons why a university is the perfect home for the national center. “We’ve got a full research university to provide research support, along with a school of music, a school of art and all of these smart, intelligent faculty and students who could be available as resources,” says Sapienza. “So if choreographers come in and are looking for not only time and space, but perhaps bodies to move, then we can provide them with trained bodies as well, trained students.”
Utilizing students at The University of Akron would not only benefit the incoming dance makers, but would also provide real-world experience for students. “Letting students engage with professionals in that way — that’s an integral part of being a polytechnic institute,” says Sapienza.
Though The Seldoms did not need any additional bodies on the dance floor, they made use of local academic resources. The company traveled to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the May 4th Memorial at Kent State to provide background information on the counter-culture theme they were working with.
Cara Sabin has been a dancer with The Seldoms for 10 years. While in Northeast Ohio during this residency, Sabin says that it was beneficial for them to get out of Chicago and explore what this area has to offer. “It’s been really great that we can develop work rather than just going to perform work,” says Sabin. “I feel like we’ve gotten to work in a way that we haven’t before – with some collaborators, with the structure. [The residency] pushed us to make things we wouldn’t typically make in our home studio.”
Building the foundation
The center is currently in its infancy though it has been in the works for many years. The first few steps included a Blue Ribbon Panel — where the interest for the center was confirmed and the need was echoed by many — and two pilot residencies, which began with The Seldoms and concluded with choreographer John Jasperse.
Next on the docket is securing a five-member board to run the center. According to Sapienza and Young, this board will be made up of two representatives from the university, two from DANCECleveland and one from the Knight Foundation. This board will need to lay a lot of groundwork before the center can truly get off the ground. “Funding from the Knight Foundation has been pledged, but they need to see a lot of documentation signed off on prior to making any kind of award,” says Young. A pledge of five million dollars will be distributed to the center through a fund that will increase each year by a million dollars for five years.
The creation of choreography at the center is an exciting prospect for those in the dance world. “I can feel [this] national group of really amazing people collectively holding their breath hoping that this is really going to launch; this is really going to happen,” says Young.