One of the most informative ways to measure the pulse of a culture is to take a close look at the art that it is producing. Through their work, artists dissect social issues, offer a conduit for expression and shape identity. Acting as a kind of stethoscope, the arts allow us to detect society’s vitality, and the issues and conflicts that produce its contemporary dialogue.
Throughout the country, artists are contributing to the conversation by producing work, although the opportunity to perform outside of their place of production is significantly limited. What the Chair of the Independent Dance Managers Network Joe Bates says about the British dance scene is equally true in the United States: “Over the past few years, managers, tour bookers and producers have seen a marked reduction in touring opportunities for dance companies working on a small scale. Venues are finding it increasingly difficult to pay guaranteed fees and with the costs of touring (travel, accommodation, fees) increasing, companies are now unable to make it financially viable to tour.”
This is where SCUBA Touring Network is making a difference. A partnership between The Velocity Dance Theater in Seattle, ODC Theater in San Francisco, Philadelphia Dance Projects and the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis, SCUBA provides precious touring opportunities for local dance artists and their peers from around the country. Now in its ninth season, SCUBA presents four companies this coming weekend at ODC Theater.
NAKA Dance Theater’s The Anastasio Project and SuperGroup’s The Tent Has Been Pulled Down, which are part of this year’s edition, share an interest in broader socio-cultural issues. Based in Minneapolis and founded in 2008, the collaborative ensemble SuperGroup brings together the artistic voices of Erin Search-Wells, Sam Johnson and Jeffrey Wells. Their recent work questions the multitasking performing body by layering text, movement and sound. Interested in the intersection of dance with other arts, they explore the forms and content of contemporary dance by using improvisational and chance methods developed by choreographers such as Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer.
José Navarette and Debby Kajiyama have been making works together in the Bay Area since 2001. In the last five years, a deepening concern with social and environmental issues has transpired from their work, which has addressed such topics as the genetic modification of native crops, the commodification of water, cultural colonization, and the human response to overwhelming disaster. In The Anastasio Project, NAKA Dance Theater investigates race and violence, using the brutal killing of Mexican national Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas as a point of departure. For Navarette and Kajiyama, sensitivity to the environment, whether geographical, social or cultural, is essential: “As artists, we want to be able to be adaptable; we want to dance in unimaginable places. It is perhaps like playing Jazz; you can have set rhythm phrases in your mind but the deal is that when you are playing, anything can happen. The more in tune you are with the environment and your fellow players, the better chance the magic of art will surface.”
A choice for transparency, whether in theme or execution, appears in the two solos of the program, Elia Mrak’s Erica and Nichole Canuso’s Midway Avenue. Performed in silence, within an undressed performance space, Elia Mrak’s piece strips the dance down to its essentials, and presents the moving body in its intrinsic relationship to gravity, rhythm and space. Based in Seattle, Mrak defines himself as “a storyteller” and is versed in many movement practices, including Qigong, Bboying and Flying Low, a technique that focuses on the dancer’s relationship with the floor.
A window into personal recollections of childhood, Nichole Canuso’s dance questions the impact of the past on the present’s architecture. The use of Chopin’s 24 Preludes “began as an exercise,” Canuso explains on her blog. “A structure to organize within, a frame to push against… At first it felt temporary – like a necessary first step in assembling an unruly amount of material, a shell I would shed at a certain point. But I quickly became intrigued by the pieces and the specific ways they cradled, coincided and clashed with the content of my material … I found myself referring to a mental map of my childhood home. I lived on a street called Midway Avenue between ages 3 and 10… As adults came and went I was the most consistent resident.”
By presenting works created in places that are on the fringe of a performing map still largely dominated by New York, SCUBA provides a clear indicator of the beating pulse of the larger artistic scene. Does location influence the artists’ creative decisions? Or is it in some ways irrelevant when artists are approaching universal questions? How does each artist’s singularity resonate? What is the common thread, if any, that we can decipher throughout the four pieces? These are just a few of the questions one might consider during the evening’s multi-faceted program.