It’s been some time since this particular performance, however, I’m still thinking about it. Our work, Two Steps Forward by Jessica Vokoun for the Living Arts eMerge Dance Festival in March, was a challenging exercise in creating a dance specifically in a site with all it’s architecture, limitations, and embedded ideas. Because this site has historical context, it was natural to think of the long passage as a journey and even easier to connect it to what ideas emerge about the journey of life, as in the past, present, and future.
It was an interesting exploration and a thrill to create with Jessica Vokoun and Alicia Chesser but some of the most interesting moments were discovered in performance; in the moment of being physically oriented in the hallway with these ladies in whatever proximity we had planned ourselves to be in.
There is moment in the dance that I stand with my back toward the audience and then look back at them (symbolically in the past). This was a logical performance choice in rehearsal as we built context for the piece, however, I never noticed Alicia so vividly as when there was an actual audience witnessing the dance.
As I ponderously gazed at the audience, Alicia steps in front of me. She was near; she was with me. It wasn’t until my vision was filled with her nearness and eclipsed my focus on the audience that I noticed a shift in my focus metaphorically from past to present. It shifted my focus from past and the distant connection there to the present and what was happening in the moment. It didn’t negate the past but gave me an opportunity to be present with others and actively continue to write the journey in the now. In other words, it was the acknowledgment of the bodies near me that shifted my focus and inspired me to move forward. The metaphors for life and living exploded with connections to my recent grief year. It wasn’t a revelation for anyone else but me. That was where performance was once again, rich for me.
I find it curious that the assumption about performance is that all the discoveries are made in the planning, choreographic, and rehearsing stages before the performance happens. Maybe I assumed that years ago but I doubt I’m alone. It seems to be assumed that by the time a work is performed, there is nothing left to do but execute what was planned and choreographed and rehearsed with the addition of an audience that may change how the performance feels to the performer but in general, if the performer is “good”, it will be mostly the same as when performing in rehearsal. Who is assuming this, I don’t know. It could be the audience, other dancers or even the performer herself at times but it is thrilling, in my opinion, to be reminded that this is simply not true. Ever.
Paying attention to those moments in performance is what makes the art of performance a true art.
Rachel Bruce Johnson is the Executive & Artistic Director of The Bell House and has been performing professionally for more than twenty years. She continues to make new discoveries with every performance.
If you're interested in viewing the dance, it is attached below. Enjoy.
This has some fascinating insight into long-distance dance making with Netta Yerushalmy Dance --
I have been working like this for quite some time in my own dance making and I have to say, it's not for everyone. Some collaborators need the face-to-face time to really "see" and feel the choices in a dance work. That has no value judgment attached to it, meaning, one is not a better dancer simply because you don't thrive utilizing video media.
Often times, working long-distance is a necessity for me. I have a family with two children and I am living in Oklahoma where dance isn't exactly saturated (it is burgeoning, but no saturation, which is good in many ways). It has afforded me some really great collaborations with other artists such as Valerie Nicolson, Melody Ruffin-Ward, Katy Eurich, and, my long-time friend/colleague, Brooke Schlecte.
I find this a challenging way to work but I also find it rewarding. As a creator, it keeps me inspired to keep in touch with these artists and to work with them, which yields yet another dimension to our relationship. We have work to talk about, families to inquire about, and problems to solve together: an ongoing relationship.
A special thanks to all the artists I’ve worked with, currently and in years past, locally, long-distance, and in another time.
photo by Nathan Harmon; dancers: Jessica Vokoun & Rachel Bruce Johnson.
PC: Jeanne S. Mam-Luft
It is a simple philosophy here at THE BELL HOUSE; make connections by bringing people together through dance. Art that seeks to defy a fractured view of the world by creating culture that cares for the soul and is concerned with human thriving. For me, it isn’t enough to just make dance for dance’s sake; it is my belief that it is the connective power of people that makes art worth engaging. We do that by taking our interests and talents and challenging the ways we connect them to something tangible in the human experience. It is through these connections and tangibilities that we see the true power of art and dance manifest back to relationships with and through people. In my view, what matters is people; the time and space of making work refract and overlap revealing and creating new possibilities for human connection.