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Inventing Awareness

50Collective, ARC (A Room to Create), Pasadena and The Sweat Spot, Silver Lake, May 11-13, 2011 –

The improvisational dance ensemble known as 50Collective appeared in southern California earlier this month at several intimate venues, including Pasadena’s ARC studio and The Sweat Spot in Silver Lake. 50Collective was born in a 2010 workshop led by Venezuelan dancer/choreographer David Zambrano; eleven of the 50 original participants in that workshop are on this North American tour, demonstrating masterful spontaneous movement and supreme alertness as they conduct workshops and present hour-long performances.

This reviewer participated in the Wednesday night workshop at ARC, and the numbers were just right: every member of the company was paired with one workshop attendee. Such individual attention is crucial when conveying new ideas, and the group members are all gifted teachers. We were taught several phrases of Zambrano’s “flying low” technique, which he had developed following an injury in his early 20s.

The workshop was thrilling and exhausting: after learning a particular phrase that involved reaching, “walking” backwards down to the floor, crouching, and several other maneuvers, we were asked to repeat the phrase closer to each other and then closer still, until it was impossible to avoid contact during our snow angels, rolls, and rotations. We were still obligated to perform the exercise in formation, but had to raise our awareness so that when we did make contact, we did it in a gentle way while maintaining the sequence, pace, and expansiveness of the movements. Finally we were asked to increase the speed of the phrase, which raised the stakes even more. It’s one thing to tell someone to be aware; it’s another thing entirely to have one’s attention lifted instantly by circumstance, which is a core concept of 50Collective: to be continually generating new challenges of awareness that go beyond thinking. The group members also discussed energy, not from the perspective of new age abstraction or metaphor but as a physical reality, like the walls and our limbs. When involved in a partnership exercise where one partner witnessed the other’s movement, the moving partners were told to transfer our energy to our partners as our roles switched. We were also asked to influence the size of the space with energy, as yoga teachers might ask their students to “breathe” into areas of the body when they feel tension in a pose. As difficult as this might be to explain, it was credible during the workshop. And it was palpable during the performances the next two nights.

A 50Collective evening includes all-out running, frequent contact, invented shapes, sudden stillness, and (usually) graceful collisions, all delivered in an atmosphere mixing humor, experimentation, and risk. Thursday evening’s performance at John Pennington’s ARC studio began in silence, each half of the company lined up with their backs to the two facing brick walls at the far ends of the space. After two minutes, a dancer moved, and their process of distributed leadership could be witnessed. One person initiated a movement, which then rippled to the others, who either copied it precisely or varied it as they all chose to move or not move through the space. At certain points, they behaved as a rope being whipped around, individuals following the vector of the snapping impulse. The result of their fine-tuned attention and athletic investment was a human particle system, each individual part of a larger design that influenced itself as it unfolded. The only sounds for the first few minutes came from the dancers’ feet, bodies, and voices. Then the quiet persistence of BT’s “See You on the Other Side” came through the sound system, an ideal accompaniment to the group’s ongoing regeneration.

Most members of the group have formal dance training, so it was a welcome surprise to the audience when the dancers happened upon a studied movement and it didn’t seem artificial. All physical expression, whether en pointe or upside down, can be natural in the context these dancers create. And in this world of no principal dancers, there were nevertheless times when only one dancer was moving, sometimes for a minute or more, while the remaining 10 dancers continued their perpetual eye contact with each other. Leadership was handed off 30-40 times in the hour. Clusters formed; sometimes the entire ensemble clung together, each person emitting animal-like vocal sounds while the newly formed organism expanded and contracted as it traversed the space.

It might seem odd that the group practices set phrases and then performs free movement, but this approach is known to other disciplines; composer/band leader Sun Ra was known for painstaking rehearsal of demanding charts with his large ensembles 10-15 hours a day for weeks, only to let his musicians loose to improvise freely for the concert. The grueling practice of complex music served to tune Ra’s players to each other just as the 50Collective members allow the “flying low” exercises to calibrate their physical communication.

Watching this sort of performance is not like watching ballet or any other highly structured dance. The risks they were taking with their rapid directional and tempo shifts were quite real. I was particularly engaged from having been to Wednesday’s workshop, having been alerted to the split-second timing that can make the difference between contact and injury. One of the dancers in fact suffered a broken nose during Friday’s workshop at the Sweat Spot after her face slammed into another dancer’s shoulder; she attended the performance that followed the workshop, then went to the emergency room. The 50Collective are dedicated to their work, borne as much from a genuine curiosity as from discipline.

At the conclusion of Friday night’s Sweat Spot performance, the group offered words of appreciation to an audience member, dance innovator Simone Forti, in whose New York dance company Zambrano had years ago been a member. After she returned their respect by complimenting them on the beauty of their performance, the entire company sat at Forti’s feet expressing their gratitude for being their teacher’s inspiration. Considering that so few attended either night’s performance–only five Thursday night, ten Friday night–this encounter with Forti was a touching close to three consecutive evenings of wholeheartedly committed ensemble work.

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