Director Mike Gosney and vocal and performing artist ALEXA GRÆ break down the process of creating Chicago’s first fully improvised ballet
By Courtney Streeter
Walking into a dance studio is an ethereal experience, music electrifies the air, dancers adorn the space – draped over barres, moving across the room with impossible ease, stretching under large, paneled mirrors, and despite the lingering scent of muscle ointment, one cannot help but feel that they have entered a sacred place. All of this is what greets me when I arrive at Gus Giordano Dance School to discuss Elements Ballet’s upcoming project, SOAKED | SURFACE. SOAKED | SURFACE is currently been promoted as a full-length, entirely improvised ballet – the first of its kind; the buzz surrounding this performance is energetic and shrouded in mystery. Many are wondering what will the movement be like, will there be a plot, or simply how this show can even work? Elements Ballet, long lauded for its improvisation technique, has previously presented small improvised works, but this is the first time any contemporary ballet company will be presenting an evening-length ballet in which all movement is completely improvised. If any company is prepared for such an undertaking, it is Elements, for whom improvising is a daily practice.
How do Artistic Director, Mike Gosney and his dancers plan to tackle a challenge that athletically and aesthetically demanding? I sat down to catch up with Gosney and accomplished composer and vocal and performance artist, ALEXA GRÆ, who will be providing the live, improvised music for the performance, to unravel the enigma behind SOAKED | SURFACE.
CS: How would you describe this production?
MG: It’s risky, it’s magical. Dancers will be telling some kind of story, or allowing some sort of story to happen in front of a live audience with live, improvised music. Even the lighting will be improvised, so it is tough to answer that question.
CS: Improvisation is a pillar at Elements Ballet – how did that start and what makes it so important to you and your dancers?
MG: It started right off the bat. It was one of the reasons I started the company, actually. I wanted to keep these dancers in Chicago, my favorite city. They are all so special and unique, I wanted to give them a place they feel comfortable to explore. Even for those who are less comfortable, feeling like they don’t yet know how to improvise, I felt like [astrology] was a good system to pull them out and give them that courage. We base everything we do in the classical steps, and I need those steps to evolve. I have my own idea of how those steps and patterns evolve, even how the dancer’s bodies can evolve, but what could we be missing out on if everybody is not dancing or experimenting? It really is the mission of the company and goes hand in hand with what amazing athletes the dancers are.
CS: How did the idea for a full-length improvised ballet come in to being?
MG: It has always been an idea! In the company we have Water Class, our improvisation, as a way to warm up and to grow and I sit and watch that. I usually don’t have anyone sitting here with me, experiencing that with me. While I am watching all this magic happening, it became “How do we show this to an audience, this unexpected, crazy stuff that is happening?” We have built up to this at intensives and cocktail hour performances, but the timing is right now. Our dancers are so accomplished in this and so connected.
CS: How was watching Water Class today, Alexa?
AG: It was amazing. I am so attracted to dance and movement, but it is not my background, so when I get to come in the space, I am taking everything in. I’m super inspired. As a composer or a musician, I have movement always going on when I am writing, but getting to see it on a bunch of bodies is really great.
CS: Dancing won’t be the only improvised component in this production, what else will be improvised?
MG: Dancing, lighting and Alexa will be improvising the music live.
AG: I’m trying to wrap my brain around the logistics of the score that I will be providing and the fact that it will be continuous. I’m giving myself as much control as an improvised setting lets you. I get to try things that I would never do or have the opportunity to do in set performances. I also am reflecting back on all of the different inventory or language of all the different musical styles and genres to create pieces and moods to reflect about what’s happening on stage, or to butt up against it during the performance.
MG: I’m excited to work with Alexa too because they have such a strong classical background which is what we work through in improv and then evolve and move through classical steps or notes.
CS: What is the rehearsal process like for this production?
MG: We have a basic ballet class in the beginning to get the dancers’ muscles and bones in place so that their bodies respond to them the way that they need to and they have the widest range of motion possible and expand the possibilities of movement. Then we start off slowly with very simple improvisation dealing with literally one body part at a time, then it goes in to larger steps and movements. From there we go into more imaginative concepts, dealing with the space itself and beyond the space, which leads me to the idea of the piece being that we are traveling through the different terrains on the planet. Then the magic starts happening; everyone starts communicating with their bodies, touching, feeling, there are non-verbal conversations that happen. I also play improvisation games with them. I’m establishing these different games to keep us on a path for structure, shape, and for the dancer’s stamina. It helps keep the flow.
AG: This is the biggest project I have ever done with improvisation being the backbone of it. I will probably sit down with Mike’s current soundscape and set a timer to see what feels good to me and when to move on musically. I know that will change as soon as there are bodies in the room, but I am also aware that my stamina will be very different than the dancers. I’m trying to create a mood that will make them confident to step into the unknown and rely on the fact that this is a shared experience, that we are all in this together. It has the potential to be really godly and omnipotent. I like that, love that, but also, I don’t want all that responsibility. Hah.
CS: What genre of music do you anticipate pulling from for this?
AG: I’m going to try to go everywhere. I’m really excited to try to do some classical ideas with just the piano where it feels very balletic from a rehearsal, but also use classical pieces to really create a mood and a soundscape. I will use a lot of vocal techniques with some synthesizers. I am really interested in not being held to a style or genre knowing that these are things that I have in my tool belt to access, but not limit me.
CS: Are you planning on integrating any of the structure established by the games you use in rehearsal into the performance itself?
MG: Yes, the dancers need direction, and the audience also has to go through an experience. I am still gauging the peaks and the falls of it, but they need that journey. The games will essentially be the staging: this game will be this time at this terrain, and this one will be as we are moving through this terrain.
CS: You said the dancers will be going through terrains of the planet, how much of that will be visible to the audience? That is something that they can relate to and interpret in both the music and the dancing?
MG: My reasoning for doing that was to create a gentle structure for the dancers, that was my first thought. The inspiration came from Planet Earth – if it says BBC, I am watching it. I wasn’t expecting that the dancers would take it, it was more to be an arsenal in their tool belt. As I analyzed more and am watching the process now, it is less important to me that the dancers are going through that and more important for the audiences to have that in their program. I want the audience to have an opportunity to have some sort of imaginative experience too.
AG: This is exciting for me because you (Gosney) have given this great organization, but it can still change shape. I think the part that is going to be really cool is the idea of ‘Surface’ and interpreting that as literally our bodies instead of the planet. It’s all linked to the same place, but all the paths to get there could be different.
CS: Alexa, you have some dance background, how is that helping you through this process?
AG: I love to dance and I want to be y’all. Getting to see people who have a ton of language around movement sets off sound for me. It’s so enriching to take this in. I can go home and visualize myself doing these things, even though my body does not move like that.
CS: Not only is this Chicago’s first, full length improvised ballet, but each night will be its own world premiere. What are the emotions surrounding that for you?
MG: I am super excited, just excited.
AG: There are two nights to attack this. I’m excited. I plan to give myself these little “landing points” that I can build from live, but I plan to challenge myself to do the exact opposite of what I created for the night before.
Feeling much more grounded in the world of improvisation, I took my leave excited from Elements’ rehearsal process and the upcoming show. It promises two nights of complete ingenuity, that those new to the dance world and seasoned professionals alike will be able to enjoy. SOAKED | SURFACE will be presented February 14th and 15th, 2019 at 7 PM at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse Theatre.
To secure your tickets to this world-premiere event, please visit https://www.elementsballet.org/soaked-surface/