Published by The Dance Journal. Reprinted with kind permission.
New Street Dance Group, led by co-directors Krista Armbruster and Shannon Dooling will present ChORDED Motion on Saturday, September 14 at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. With dancers and musicians spanning multiple states, New Street’s contribution to this year’s Fringe will feature movement, design, music, and spoken word. Choreographer and co-director Shannon Dooling spoke to Kat Richter of The Dance Journal about the company’s evolution and the art of creating new “dance fans.”
Kat Richter, The Dance Journal: You describe yourselves as a “philly-based collaborative dance-theatre supergroup.” How do you define dance theatre?
Shannon Dooling: Well first I just want to say that the “supergroup” part of that is meant to be a little tongue in cheek. We are a project-based company, meaning we have a small roster of go-to dancers that we work with pretty consistently but then we try to bring in the best folks for the individual projects we have planned – be they dancers or collaborators from other disciplines.
It’s those collaborations with artists from other disciplines that make us a “Dance-Theatre,” in my opinion. We definitely value the power of pure-movement, of course. Many of our pieces are dance and dance alone, and we think it’s important to let dance stand and speak on its own sometimes.
However, I am most fulfilled when working on interdisciplinary projects. In “ChORDED Motion,” for example, we have a live string quartet, we’re working with a set piece and props in some of the dances, and there are transitions between the small works in which an actress reads “found poems” – obscure little pieces posted on poetry websites, sometimes by anonymous writers. The stringing of these different media together seemed natural given the subject matter of “ChORDED Motion,” and has helped us discover innovative and different ways to play on the theme that we would not have found through movement alone.
DJ: With so many existing dance companies in Philadelphia, why did you decide to form New Street Dance Theater?
SD: I grew up right outside of Philly and went to school in the Northeast, so I very much consider the city my home. New Street Dance Group originally started in the Lehigh Valley in 2009, under a different name. At the time, I was living in the Valley and freelancing as a dancer with companies in New Jersey, Allentown, and Philadelphia. I would come home from rehearsals just bursting with my own ideas for choreography, concerts, and programming, but didn’t have an outlet for them. Eventually, I emailed some friends in the area and asked if they’d be willing to work on some material. We ended up having our first show at Touchstone Theatre in Bethlehem in April of that year.
By spring of 2010 most of our dancers had moved out of the Valley, many heading closer to Philadelphia, and I was getting ready to start graduate school at the University of Maryland, so everything shifted south a bit for us. I asked Krista Armbruster, who had been one of the founding members, to come on as co-director to help keep things running smoothly while I was away. We changed our name to New Street Dance Group as to have a bit of a fresh start as we implemented these changes and an homage to the street Krista and I had lived on as college roommates – New Street in Center Valley, PA. We continued to have an annual concert at Touchstone Theatre, but also started performing in more festivals and showcases in the Philadelphia area and in eventually in Maryland as well. We say we’re “based in the Philadelphia and DC Metro Areas,” but we try to keep as wide a performing radius as possible.
Philadelphia is a really exciting place to be dancing right now! There is so much good stuff happening, but that does make it difficult at times. There is a lot of support for dance, but also a lot of existing companies who need to share it. We try our best to stay true to who we are as artists in spite of the “competition.” The past few years were a little intense as both Krista and I were working on graduate programs and a number of our dancers were going through transitions— we’ve had many new jobs, marriages, and babies in our New Street community recently! Now that things are more settled we are really excited to be getting ourselves out there more, arranging more performances, new teaching opportunities, service events … we are hoping to become more of a fixture in the Philadelphia dance community and to continue to grow our presence in other locations as well.
DJ: What makes your company unique?
SD: I would say the most unique thing about us is the collaborative nature of the group. Collaboration is a really hot thing in the arts right now it seems, but it’s built into the very structure of our organization. We have two directors and primary choreographers, which means two very distinct voices guiding the groups. This can be challenging at times, but it has allowed us to grow artistically and organizationally in ways that would not have been possible if either one of us were doing this alone. We can both push one another creatively and keep each other in check, and having two networks of potential collaborators, presenters, and followers to reach out to gives us extra support.
Our dancers are also very much a part of that collaboration. They are an active part of the movement invention process, and they help us with everything from the costuming to the marketing to the programming. In fact, it was two of our longtime dancers, Lauren Post and Mary Wayock, who helped us brainstorm the idea of “string” as a theme for ChORDED Motion. Krista and I definitely wouldn’t have come up with it on our own! Finally, bringing in of artists from other disciplines is a big part of our collaborative nature. We are really lucky to have a great group of friends and even family members who are musicians, actors, writers, builders, etc., and they have been so generous to us with their time and talents.
In addition to the collaboration piece, something that sets us apart is our movement and choreographic style, I think. We’re rooted in our own version of “modern dance” (think of a Limon-Taylor-Elkins-Varone-PEARSONWIDRIG Dance Theatre hybrid, add in a little contemporary ballet and hip-hop influence, and you have an idea of the style we are aiming for), we’re interested in rigorous, technical dancing, we want to make work that is accessible to audiences but still holds artistic merit – we want our audiences to have fun but be challenged to think, interpret, and relate to our work. I personally do a lot of research before starting a piece to help me really crystallize my message and decide the most effective and interesting ways to communicate it through movement and other disciplines. We’re not going to make “So You Think You Can Dance” style contemporary choreography or postmodern performance art because that’s not who we are. There are people in the Philly scene who do both really well, and there is certainly an audience for both, but we believe we have something special to offer by staying true to what we do and not necessarily bending to what is popular at any given moment.
DJ: Are the majority of your dancers also from DeSales?
SD: At this moment, and especially for ChORDED Motion, yes. It’s been really nice to reconnect to the DeSales community in the past year as we set a piece on students for their Dance Ensemble Concert in March and continued working with many of the dancers we met during that process on new work. Many of our core group of artists who have been with us from the beginning our also from DeSales, and it’s wonderful to continue to strengthen the bonds we formed as students there. We are working with a few people from other circles who replied to our online call for dancers as well, which has been absolutely wonderful!
I’m really interested in working with many different kinds of dancers, and even non-dancers. In a performance we held in Maryland in February, we invited a pre-professional company from a local studio to join us. I choreographed a piece for them, and they brought some of their rep as well. Now, we have the students from DeSales joining us for ChORDED Motion. Some of those dancers also took the initiative to respond to our open call and our performing with us in other pieces on the concert. I identify as a “dance-artist and educator,” and the educator portion of that is just as important to me as the artist. I think it’s important to provide opportunities for students to interact with professional dancers, and I learn a lot as a choreographer from working with them as well.
DJ: How would you describe your style of dance to someone who has never been to a dance concert before?
SD: This is a great question, something I really have been thinking about from a marketing perspective. I’m not sure that I’ve come up with a good answer yet, but I’ll try! First of all, I think our concerts would be enjoyable for someone who has never been to a dance performance before (and for dance enthusiasts as well!). We strive to a have as much variety as we can within the given theme of the performance– different kinds of music, movement, costuming— so you’ll never be bored. In terms of the movement actual style overall, I would say we make dance that is at times athletic, fast paced, and visually exciting (especially when Krista is creating the choreography!) and at others subtler, more emotional, more about the “story” (especially when I am creating the choreography!). We are a modern dance company, but we try our best to make sure no two dances look the same by adding elements of ballet, contact improv, hip-hop, even break-dance inspired floorwork when they serve the work. I would say we do have a signature style that I would characterize right now as smooth, connected, and grounded— I think the audience can usually feel the flow and energy of the movement they see on stage.
DJ: How does ChORDED Motion explore “the ties that bind?”
SD: Physically and emotionally. We’re using some sets and props that literally bind the dancers, but we’re also exploring psychological ties. I think a good example of a piece that does both is a piece I created with Elizabeth Barton called “Bound, Unbound.” One of the themes I’m really interested in exploring through dance is femininity and gender expectations for women. I’m especially interested in how they are implicitly found and reinforced within dance itself -for example the idea of the ballerina as the ultimate feminine idol, the way movement for women became more “masculinized” (more athletic more lifting, more gymnastics, even masculinized costumes) in the post modern movement in an attempt to create gender neutral dancing.
I was trained in ballet, and have a complicated relationship with it— I love it, I think it’s beautiful, I admire the hard work and dedication of the dancers, I’m secretly jealous of everyone who has had great success in the field, but yet I worry a little about what studying it does for so many young women— what it did to me for a while. It can silence them, it can make them resent their natural bodies, it can tie them to an ideal of femininity and perfection that is impossible to attain and leave them feeling unworthy when they fall short of it. In “Bound, Unbound,” we use pointe shoes with incredibly long ribbons as a metaphor for the many things that can bind all of us in our personal and professional lives— such as a ballet dancer to those impossible ideals or a person to an abusive relationship. As the Elizabeth and I struggle with and against the ribbon, which at times actually confines us to wooden chairs, we explore a complex relationship to constraint: the ways in which our physical and perceived limitations both hold us back and at the same time keep us feeling safe and secure— we can become so comfortable in the struggle that we can’t perceive life without it.
DJ: What can audiences expect?
SD: The venue is absolutely gorgeous; come for that if nothing else! It’s at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia on Chestnut Street in a lively neighborhood— lots of cute restaurants around so you can make a whole day of it! There is some street parking and also several nearby lots. We are performing in the Sanctuary, so while most of the action will be happening on a stage space, it still has a little bit of an unconventional feel and we’ll be making use of the entire space. The show is at 3pm, so you’ll have plenty to time to check out another performance or two that evening if you’d like. There is live music played by a fabulous string quartet, some spoken word interludes between the dances, and a big cast of over 20 dancers. The show itself will run for about an hour and fifteen minutes, but we love to talk to the audience at the end of a performance, to answer questions and hear feedback, so feel free to hang out a little after! Tickets can be purchased in advance at: http://fringearts.ticketleap.com/chorded-motion/ or in cash at the door. They are $15 for general admission and $10 for students 25 and under.
DJ: What sort of music and costumes will the performance feature?
SD: The quartet is playing Alberto Ginestera’s String Quartet No. 2, a really fun and quirky piece that generated some great, funky movement ideas from the dancers. The show will open and close with two new dances set to different sections of that piece. In between, we are using recorded music from some great composers, mostly string music because of our theme, but a nice eclectic mix of sounds. We try to use environmentally conscious costuming, so you’ll see everything from thrift store finds to scarves from our own closets to a repurposed prom dress.
DJ: What has been the most challenging thing about producing a show for Fringe?
SD: For New Street Dance Group specifically, our challenge has been the distance. I live in Maryland right now, so Krista (the co-director) and I have lots of phone conferences and gchat conversations at all hours of the day and night. Most of our dancers are based in the Philly area, but some are from New Jersey and the Lehigh Valley. The musicians live in Washington, DC and New York. I think many of our funny stories are actually more about our commutes rather than our rehearsals, actually! We consider Philadelphia home, however, so we’re really excited to bring so many artists from different places into the Philly dance scene through this performance, and to share what we do with the community here.
DJ: What are you hoping to accomplish through this performance?
SD: First and foremost, we’re hoping to provide the audience with an afternoon of great dance that leaves them energized, enthusiastic, and engaged in what they saw. That’s always our primary goal. I’d say another top goal is also to make new “dance fans.” The accessibility piece is important to us— we hope that our performance will inspire folks who are new to dance to want to see more, whether that means more New Street Dance Group concerts or more work by other artists. We’re also hoping to deepen our connection to the Philadelphia dance community, to meet new dance artists, and perhaps even to inspire future collaborations.
DJ: How has your blog influenced your work as artists?
SD: Blogging is really important to me! I love writing (if you couldn’t tell by my lengthy answers here!) and I think articulating our process as dance artists through the blog makes us more accountable in our choreographic process. We can ask ourselves: “Would we want to write about this piece and how we created it? Would we want the audience to know how this was made and what is about? Would they be interested?” If the answer to those questions is no, then we can think about ways to make our work and our creative processes more authentic, more original, more investigative, more interesting, more true to who we are. The blog also serves as a critical piece of our accessibility mission. By letting our audiences read about how a dance is created, we hope we make the performance of it more understandable to them, maybe even a little less scary. The same is true for when we post pictures, artist bios, show recaps— the more information we can provide for the audiences, the more we can engage them in what we do and hopefully help them to become dance enthusiasts for life.
ChORDED Motion by New Street Dance Group
Saturday, September 14, 2013, 3:00 PM – 4:15 PM
First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, 2125 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103