These past few weeks, among other things, have found some of us here at Dance Exchange (and some of our DX family) spending time with our good friends from the north: Single Carrot Theatre! Single Carrot Theatre (SCT) is an ensemble theater company, based in Baltimore, that performs a mix of their own devised work and repertory. We’ve had some smaller shared experiences in the past and became really excited about the idea of spending even more time together, sharing some of the ways in which we make and perform. To do this we received some generous funding from the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET), which allowed us to come together a couple of times for what we’re calling ‘company-to-company sharing sessions.’ We then hosted a couple of public gatherings as a way to share some of the exciting findings that emerged in our time together.
Below is Part 1 of a 2-part series, where Kellie Mecleary, interim Artistic Director, reflects on our time together and shares some interesting thoughts on the intersections of dance and theater, and Dance Exchange and Single Carrot. Stay tuned for more…
~Matthew Cumbie, Resident Artist
The past month working with Dance Exchange has been a really positive, generative experience for Single Carrot Theatre. It has been a process of forming new relationships, re-engaging with some of our fundamental techniques, and re-opening ourselves to ways of thinking about making art that we as a company don’t always get to consider.
The plan was simple: each company would ask the other company to share aspects of their techniques or processes that would be beneficial to the other. SCT asked Dance Exchange to deepen our understanding of their Critical Response Process, share techniques for working with differently-abled performers, and share tools that they use to generate new material. Dance Exchange asked SCT to share techniques for performing and generating text. We came together twice in November, splitting the time so that half of each meeting was led by one company, and half the other. Over these two periods, we started to notice some striking similarities and differences in the exercises we were sharing, as well as the goals of these various exercises.
One thing we really started to focus on and explore was this spectrum that we seemed to be moving back and forth on: a spectrum that toggled between the concrete and the abstract. In our respective work, both SCT and Dance Exchange move along this spectrum over the course of our processes, but I think each company has a resting place where we feel most comfortable. SCT’s is closer to the concrete end, which is due in part to the fact that we work in a medium that privileges story-telling above all. And this trickles down into our performance techniques: as actors, we are always working to identify our goals, and looking to do something specific to our acting partners in order to achieve our goals. Dance Exchange seems more comfortable with the abstract, with beginning in a place of not-knowing, and not doing or saying anything specific at all, but instead trusting that the relationships that exist in the room and the histories that exist in each dancer’s body will generate interesting material.
I think this is one of the larger differences between dance and theater in general, and Dance Exchange and Single Carrot in particular. While SCT has certainly experimented with non-linear storytelling and even moved into non-narrative-based work at times, the company is generally more focused on telling some sort of story through theater. And I think that is the norm for theater: at the center of a play, more often than not, is a story being told. Dancers have more freedom to communicate and express aspects of life without the burden of a tale to tell, and regularly do. Therefore, Dance Exchange’s improvisational exercises felt more open to abstraction. Carrots’ improvisational exercises often began in an abstract place but then moved quickly from abstract to concrete – for example, we conducted an exercise where we split up into groups and created tableaus (frozen images), and then asked another group to tell us what story they saw unfolding through the tableaus. We then worked to further develop this story through the tableaus. But the storytelling element was key in the development of the work. Whereas Dance Exchange’s exercises focused more on adding simple rules that had less to do with narrative, and more to do with one’s physical relationship to another person and to a space. Whether or not a story arose out of these improvisations had nothing to do with the improvisation’s success or failure.
In addition, we were delighted to find similarities and crossover in some of our exercises and techniques. We ended up focusing on two sets of exercises from each company’s repertoire that seemed like they could speak to each other, in both simple and significant ways. For example, in our first session, SCT introduced ‘blank scenes,’ where actors are given a simple set of text (in this case, the numbers 1-10) and then asked to play out scenarios with their acting partners, exploring the fundamentals of the GOTE technique (stands for Goal, Obstacle, Tactic, Expectation. More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GOTE). Dance Exchange also has a 1-10 exercise, involving improvising movement with a partner and incorporating some fundamentals of partner work, such as weight sharing. We decided to see what would happen if we combined these two exercises. We played around with variations that asked people to employ specific intentions and scenarios, and then less specific intentions and scenarios, moving along the abstract to concrete spectrum, to see what would happen: what proved exciting, surprising, challenging, etc. The more we played, the more possibilities we discovered, and the more challenges we encountered.
I do want to note here that one of the things that was really exciting about all of our sessions, that a member of the Baltimore theater community (Aran Keating) pointed out to me after our last session, was that everyone in the room was asked to play around with some style or technique that they didn’t have a ton of training in, that they weren’t necessarily comfortable doing. The dancers were less comfortable ‘acting,’ or using their voice, us actors didn’t always know what to do with our flailing limbs in the movement exercises. This shared comfort/discomfort made for a much more open, playful environment: a bunch of professional amateurs trying new things together.
One of the things these sessions offered each company has been the opportunity to imbue our thinking about our work with some of the other discipline’s rules. What happens when you think actively about what stories you may or may not be telling through movement? What happens when you add intention to movement or speech, when you add a goal of doing something to or achieving something in your movement partner(s)? What happens if you try to explore an abstract concept or an emotion through theater, instead of tell a story? When in a process is it valuable to work in the abstract, and when is it useful to move towards the concrete?
I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring these questions, and many more, with Dance Exchange in the past couple of months, and I look forward to continuing to explore these questions in future collaborations.
~ Kellie Mecleary, Single Carrot Theatre