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.
~Matthew Cumbie, Resident Artist
As we were wrapping up this past weekend with our last session, we had to cut a conversation short; a conversation that I was sad to walk away from because it was so fueling to some of my own curiosities and questions that have been bubbling up since working with SCT. Our entry point into this conversation was in questioning the role of the relationship between linear and abstract narratives: when does a narrative, of any sort, enter into a process? How do either of those serve the work? How much weight do you give one over the other, and how does that inform the process of making? These questions, if you zoom out a bit, are also indicative of a larger conversation that began to happen on our way out the door: the similarities, differences, and possible overlap of making theater and making dance.
We say this, now, as if they are different things. And when you look at their histories and their audiences and even, to some degree, their training practices and methodologies I suppose that is to some extent true. But if you look at the essence of these forms, I’d be hard pressed to tell the two apart. Theater is an ephemeral, performative art that relies on dramatic elements and storytelling to create an aesthetic experience. Dance is an ephemeral, performative art that relies on dramatic elements and storytelling to create an aesthetic experience. Oh. Moving beyond these most basic analysis’, we find that the difference lies often in those dramatic elements employed and, in the case of modern dance (to be specific), the kind of storytelling that happens.
Theater is a form that conventionally relies on dialogue and the spoken word to convey much of what needs to told; there is a linear(ish) narrative that is played out over the course of however long you’re there. Modern dance is a form that lives in the body, and the storyness that unfolds is woven together often from abstract images and vignettes and happenings on stage. As a viewer of modern dance, I feel it’s often left to me to make meaning and craft a story from what I’ve just seen, and that could be significantly different than what my neighbor saw. To further illustrate this point, just earlier this year there was a video on Youtube that went viral called “How to Watch a Modern Dance Concert” that speaks to the abstract nature of modern dance and provides tips on how to be a fully invested and informed viewer.
What’s interesting is that both of these forms ask the performer to rely on their body, their moving and speaking body (perhaps with different emphasis), in relationship to others to engage in telling some sort of story. Curious about what happens when you bring the two together, each organization shared some tools and information specific to how we work/make and some of our organizational beliefs, and then turned around and combined some of those in ways we’ve never done before. Artists from both organizations participated in these experiments, as well as artists and community members that joined us for our public sharings, and what we discovered felt both harmonious and challenging, rich and supportive of the work that we’re already doing.
Combining these practices fostered a different kind of performative and generative space for me; I found space to live in a more concrete narrative and space to live in a more abstract narrative, and felt the freedom to toggle back and forth between the two. Why might this be important, you ask? Well, I think it’s important to have as many avenues open to explore as possible when making new work. When asked about specific ways of making at Dance Exchange, I found myself mentioning the tools (in more of a collective way) but then talking at length about how we’re also really responsive to what’s emerging in the room, looking for what the work needs in order to move forward (whether that’s in one direction, or many). And not to say that isn’t possible when working with a known set of tools; those are equally important. I find that what feeds me in an artistic process, and what I’m assuming many also find exciting when making art, are new models and ways of thinking and doing.
Coming together with SCT offered that: an opportunity for both groups of artists to live in the familiar and unfamiliar, and that’s really key for discovery. Grounding yourself in something familiar allows one the chance to return and reorient if need be, but moving into the unknown, and often uncomfortable, is where one can really grow and learn and discover. I’m really excited to apply some of these news tools in my own practice, and to expand on those experiments that we only touched on together. I realize that the idea of combining, or living in the overlap, of theater and dance isn’t necessarily a new idea. But the sharing of specific tools and breaking down ways of working feels really ripe for naming new ways, and that’s always exciting. Plus, having this conversation about where dance and theater could come together is always nice to return to.
I’m still not sure as to how to answer all of the questions named above. I think they’re really specific to the project; I feel as if I’m always saying, “Well, that’s contextual.” In this light, I don’t think it’s on me to answer those questions. I think the answers will emerge in response to the work that one is engaged in. They might serve as guiding questions when thinking about how to structure a work or how to enter into the work. They are important questions, indeed, and this importance has been even more rooted into my practice.
I’m looking forward to continuing these conversations and the sharing of information with our Single Carrot collaborators. It’s been such a delight to be a part of these explorations, and here’s to hoping that we can find more ways to share in this delight and move this work forward. And, in those convenings, I hope you’ll be able to join us.
~Matthew Cumbie, Dance Exchange