On a Saturday afternoon last weekend, as hail periodically showered the University of Montana campus, the rustle of the weather was sometimes joined by short choruses of honking horns.
To passers-by, a decent guess for the celebratory noise might have been the Griz football team’s win earlier in the day.
However, they sounded in response to a different kind of spectacle happening just out of eyeshot in the bottom-level parking garage near the Mansfield Library.
UM dance and music students, professor/choreographers, designers and technicians were hustling during a rehearsal for a new dance performance.
For Dance New Works, a spring concert of original choreography, the university's dance program tried a new model. They created new pieces for this space, performed two runs for a small, invited audience on a Saturday evening, and recorded it all for streaming audiences. (See info box).
The “stage” was a diamond shape on the cement, roughly 33 square feet. The audience for this rehearsal was seated in cars parked around it. The honks after each piece were joined by old-fashioned clapping, with enthusiasm marking a rare live performance for either dancers or spectators.
“For me, personally, it became about this event, and bringing people together and celebrating dance and our resilience during this time,” said Brooklyn Draper, a visiting assistant processor and co-producer.
Throughout the school year, they emphasized that finding new ways to experience dance was important.
“Dancers, they would come off stage crying because they haven’t had an audience applaud them (or honk at them) in a year, so it was a really special occasion for them,” Draper said.
Last spring, she and others in the program saw a Los Angeles production in a similar space called “Parked,” by Jacob Jonas. Here at UM, they knew they wanted to make a garage piece happen. (They can’t perform in large groups in their usual home stages in the Masquer or Montana theaters on campus, and can’t have live audiences there either.)
'Challenges your creativity'
The nine pieces were created by six student choreographers, two faculty members and one guest artist.
The particulars of the space change the way that choreographers can work. They are likely subtle to non-experts, though. Because of the hard surface, there were fewer leaps and less floor work, since it’s hard on the body. Social distancing rules out pairing, lifting and other creative options. (There’s a pillar to choreograph around, too.)
However, Draper thinks that “challenges your creativity in a good way.” Dancers ran between cars, circled the diamond, gave different vantages to different cars.
Georgia Littig, a junior BFA dance student, choreographed a new modern piece for the show titled “golondrinas y los nidos arcilla” (“Swallows and Clay Nests.”) Her family is Puerto Rican and she grew up in that culture, but felt that as she progressed through high school she lost that part of herself.
“I realized the way I know myself best right now is through kinesthetic learning,” she said.
Her piece explores things she’s learned about herself, from her hip movements to her posture. The creation process itself made her realize that the most influential people in her life have been women, and she was able to “reciprocate that same progressive and thoughtful energy with female dancers” who “did everything and more” for the production.
Creating a piece to be performed in the round was a challenge — she wanted to make full use of the space and ensure “every person in their car was getting a little piece of love,” she said.
Seeing her work performed for a live audience again “ripped my heart into a billion beautiful pieces,” she said.
Draper presented a collaboration that required numbers they can’t have indoors right now. She choreographed the movement, and Andy Josten, a music composition major, wrote the score.
When it was time for her piece to come up, seven musicians set up in corners of the diamond — drum set, vibraphone, horns — with music stands, while six dancers took their places in the middle of stage.
Like any stage show, this production took a whole team: Three faculty members producing; production manager Jason McDaniel; and Mike Post, assistant professor of lighting, sound and projection, and more.
After design and rehearsals indoors, the show had to be moved to the garage. Post compared it taking a show on “a little tiny tour.” They packed everything in a van — 22 lighting fixtures, sound equipment and half a mile of cabling — and then moved it a new space that needed to “made” into a theater.
There’s always troubleshooting that occurs in a new venue, he said. Then other problems, like equipment getting cold — temperature was in the low 40s during rehearsal. (Most stages don’t require cleaning up grease or pebbles, either.)
Each piece is accompanied by full lighting design with an emphasis on color. They had to schedule the show for near sunset and account for the gradual darkness so the lighting becomes more vibrant as it progresses, Post said.
In guest artist Nicole Wolcott’s piece, each dancer has a hand-held work light with special color tinting. For the interludes between dances, Post suggested they use rave lighting and music to create a feeling of continuity.
Guiding the cars into their spots one by one and helping them exit was choreographed, too. The ticket spaces were divided up — choreographers got one ticket, seniors in the performance, and a few to UM officials.
For those at home, the performances were filmed with two stationary cameras and two hand-held cameras, plus still images. Draper is handling the editing, a pandemic-era skill she’s cultivating. She said they’re thinking of the final product more in terms of documentation, with each piece seen start to finish, rather than a “screen dance,” a genre unto itself where filmmaking and choreography can work on equal footing.
Littig thought the chance to work live like this was a “gift,” and the film version a way of putting their creative work into the community.
“We’re still making art no matter what,” Littig said, adding that “we’ve put on virtual shows, we’ve continued making movements and we won’t stop, and with the support of the production staff, we were able to make this really awesome thing happen. And hopefully it stands out enough that more people can being to involve themselves with the dance community of Missoula. Cause we’re ready for it and we love it.”