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Stillness is a move

Exchange Choreography Festival sparks a dialogue on dance

Exchange Choreography Festival Q&A 2018

Nathan Harmon

When the subject of discussion is modern dance, what is there to say? German choreographer Pina Bausch was known for turning down interviews with journalists. Some of her peers assumed she could not assign language to her pieces, which engulf the viewer with the genre’s premise of experimentation. Audiences in the 1980s watched Bausch’s dancers wander across the stage with their eyes closed, knocking over tables and chairs. Actual dogs paced through a makeshift field of flowers.

And yet the dancers knew she had words—poetry, even. Her universal prompts for the performers broke ground for each work. What do you do when you feel tender toward someone? Baucsh might ask to evoke feelings for improvisation. How do you behave when you’ve lost something? 

At the Exchange Choreography Festival on July 26–27, the public gets a rare chance to participate in the intimate dialogue of modern dance. The event is distinct for its focus on work created outside traditional dance companies, and because of the talkbacks after each performance. Why is it so common in theater, visual art and literature to involve the public in live discussions, but not so with dance, especially modern dance? 

“I think there’s this idea that modern dance is esoteric, or an art located solely in feeling or in feats of grace and strength,” says Alicia Chesser Atkin, whose piece “Wait” is staged on the first night of the festival. “It’s not. It’s something that’s built and edited and intuited and crafted with a human mind and heart, just like a painting or a play.”

Atkin came on as a curator and assistant artistic director for this festival season. She writes about dance, sometimes for this publication. So she knows to look for a series like Mondays With Merce on YouTube, in which the late Merce Cunningham reflects on movement and presides over classes in his latest years. The team behind Exchange is reaching toward what Atkin calls “dance-curious” members of the arts community in Tulsa: people who may not know who Merce Cunningham is.

“Exchange is an experience that drives me to try to make better work and I hope allows the public to have a richer understanding of what they’re seeing,” she says.

Exchange champions the  idea that work really can evolve when choreographers share their process. That’s especially true when would-be collaborators are in the audience, says Rachel Johnson, executive and artistic director of the festival. 

“Many dance-makers in towns along the I-35 corridor and then north in this region that come to fellowship, show work and share ideas. Many go on to make future work together that would not otherwise have the opportunity to work together,” Johnson says. “An example of this would be the seasoned dancer/choreographer/dance educator, Susan Douglas Roberts, who, upon attending the festival, reached out to The Bell House [Exchange’s parent non-profit] to initiate a dance collaboration that will premiere in Tulsa at the festival next year. The other festivals that work on a similar format are in New York or Seattle or Massachusetts and can be difficult to experience if you live far from these places.” 

For the less initiated, a first entry of curiosity comes with the titles in this year’s program. Like “the sexualization of my body gave me bad posture” by Jolie Hossack, University of Tulsa. Scan the list and you’ll see a reference to the Myers Briggs personality indicator test and a stark claim to “Life and Death.” 

Exchange invites others into the mysteries of modern dance which are so often related to mundanities of the physical world. Johnson took the master choreography workshop led by Doug Varone at last year’s festival. He presented two pieces of paper to the choreographers. How might they affect two dancers in different ways?

“It was a fascinating exercise and reminded me that every decision I make does not have to be profound to be useful,” Johnson says. “Play is a very important element in creating something that can be delightful to watch. It can even lead to the profound and beautiful.”