Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sunday Feature: Mariah Steele on Tempest in a Teacup (Dance / Fringe)

Tempest In A Teacup
A major misconception surrounding choreography – and all arts – is that creative and innovative ideas are always pulled from thin air, or achieved through 'inspiration.'
by Mariah Steele

Mariah Steele is the choreographer and Artistic Director for Quicksilver Dance, a modern dance company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University with a major in Anthropology and minor in Dance, where she studied intensively with Ze’eva Cohen and Rebecca Lazier. She combined these two passions by studying traditional Kandyan dance in Sri Lanka for two months and writing her anthropology thesis about the experience. She went on to perform professionally in New York City in the companies of James Martin, Beth Soll, and Kelley Donovan. In 2008, she moved to Boston, where she has danced for Sokolow Now!, the Anna Sokolow archival company, Nell Breyer, Sara Smith and currently performs with Peter DiMuro’s Public Displays of Motion and Rebecca Rice Dance. In December 2011, Ms Steele graduated with a Masters Degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she studied non-profit management and conflict resolution, writing a thesis about using dance in peacebuilding.  Mariah's choreography has been presented at esteemed venues in both Boston and New York City including MIT, the Boston Center for the Arts, Harvard University, SUNY Purchase and Brooklyn's John Ryan Theatre.  In 2013, The Boston Globe named Mariah one of six “rising talents” in the Boston arts scene. Currently, Mariah Steele teaches modern dance, dance history and world dance cultures at Endicott College in Beverly, MA.

There comes a time in any professional’s life when work starts to become boring. One of many miraculous things about being an artist-creator is that when faced with such a lull, one can continually ask new questions and re-invent oneself through new processes. In the past year, as the choreographer and Artistic Director of Boston-based Quicksilver Dance, I have delved into new territory and started making dances in new ways – several of which will be on display in our upcoming performances at the St-Ambroise Festival Fringe de Montreal, starting June 14.  

In the past, I have usually started a dance with an idea or theme in mind to explore in the piece.  For example, “No Sugar, Please,” one of the dances performed next week, is a text-and-movement solo that explores the cultural history of tea. This dance began with the goal of showing the contrast between how tea has created peace between individuals for centuries but has simultaneously instigated worldwide strife between nations. Now the dance fulfills that goal, taking viewers around the world in eight minutes and through several dynamic cultural histories.

Based on what we made today, what comes next? What flows out of this? Where is the material leading?

In contrast, another dance on the program, “The Constant Effort of Beginning,” which I choreographed with the dancers in Fall 2013, started with no clear concept except for an intriguing piece of music. After each rehearsal, I would take stock of what we had made and ask myself, “Based on what we made today, what comes next? What flows out of this? Where is the material leading?”  Then I would follow my intuition, rather than my analytical mind, to develop material and ideas for the next rehearsal.  Improvisations and 'accidents' in rehearsals became fodder for what came next.  (For example, a 6 foot 5 inch male dancer emailed me a month into the rehearsal process and asked if he could audition: new material grew!)  The result is a dance in which individuals segue in and out of dancing together among constantly shifting groupings. The fabric of the imaginary world disintegrates and then reforms, repeatedly, growing more robust with each rebirth. During its creation, if you had asked me what the dance was about, I would not have been able to tell you. I had to live with the dance and watch it several times before coming to an understanding of its ultimate meaning.  This process of discovering what I am making at the same time that I make it is incredibly satisfying, intellectually stimulating and awesome in the true sense of the word. If you come see the show, I look forward to hearing your interpretations of the dance as well.  

For the next piece on the program, choreographed from January to April 2014, I wanted to take this process of 'not knowing' even further. Thus, the only starting place I gave myself was a title: “On the Threshold of Memory.” During the first rehearsal, the dancers wrote about not only the content of their earliest memories, but also the way remembering those memories feels different than recalling other memories. Improvisations on those sensations led to some of the seed phrases for the dance, although much material was also cast aside. Playing with the idea of fragments, we took one main phrase and spliced it, reversed it, re-ordered it and varied it in as many ways as possible to generate the meat of different sections. No sections were created in their final order – instead segments of segments, like half-forgotten memories themselves, were stitched together like quilt squares until the sequence started to make a whole out of the fragments. Again, I listened to my intuition to determine where all these pieces were leading us, and it seemed that they wanted to be reassembled into the 'original action' that had created the fragments of the memory: a male-female duet depicting a struggle for self in a relationship. Although the structure of the dance is very deliberate – fragments leading up to the whole that they came from, imitating the hazy space of our memories – the final meaning and narrative of the dance is still coalescing in my mind. I welcome hearing what audiences say it means for them as I still seek to understand our creation!  

A major misconception surrounding choreography – and all arts – is that creative and innovative ideas are always pulled from thin air, or achieved through 'inspiration.'   Although this is sometimes the case, more often creativity develops from contemplating an initial idea and then improving upon it, or putting a creative process in motion and following its lead.  One of the great lessons I’ve learned from the new ways of working described above is that I no longer must have 'a brilliant idea' before starting a dance. This is liberating. No more worrying about 'What are we going to do next? What if I can’t come up with an idea?' because now I trust that the creative process will bring us to someplace fruitful. When leading a company, it’s hard to say, 'I don’t know what we are going to do' – but now the dancers also know that this response can be exciting. One can work intensely with dancers and develop something out of nothing without even knowing what the something is. And watching it grow, and take on meaning on the bodies of the dancers, is a rich experience – one I liken to birth. No wonder that the overarching theme of these new pieces presented at the Fringe appears to be, in hindsight, about the cycle of life. 

June 13 - 22 Montreal Fringe Festival 

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