Ah, the teen years. Fifteen in human years marks that anxious, often awkward time when growing pains takes on a whole new meaning. Just shy of being able to drive and having your first real taste of independence and precariously balanced between impending adulthood, but still having to sit at the kiddie table. In dance years, a company turning fifteen (especially in these economic times), is a time to celebrate your longevity, creativity and sheer perseverance. To make it this far, you’ve tackled a million challenges — creative, economic, administrative, collaborative…your own kind of growing pains — and somehow remained on the cutting edge of your art form. This weekend, The Dance COLECTive (TDC), lead by the inexhaustible Margi Cole, will present their 15th anniversary concert, Balancing Act, at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts (check out the lobby at the theater for a TDC flashback timeline created by the dancers). The group consists of Cole, plus eight female dancers and two apprentices. Balancing Act showcases a new collaborative duet by Cole and Jeff Hancock, a dance for 10 by Cole, a new piece from Joe Goode alum Liz Burritt and a piece Cole created for six young gentlemen from the Menz Dance group at New Trier High School. The title reflects the necessary hat-juggling it takes for a small dance company to make it fifteen years. “Just surviving in this day and age is really about balancing things,” says Cole. “The concert has a weird balance. It’s kind of teetering here and there in its subject matter.”
RB chatted with Cole over brunch in Lakeview about the upcoming concert and what keeps her going.
RB: Fifteen years – congrats! How did The Dance COLEctive start? Why did you decide to start a company?
MC: My friends and I were self-producing work out of our own pockets and I had some knowledge of how to do a lot of the administrative work that needed to be done, because of the work I was doing at the Dance Center. I knew how to make a budget, I knew how to write a grant, press release…I knew how to do all that stuff. I thought if I could put together an organization that could sort of work as an umbrella where there would be a kitty of cash that wasn’t out of our pockets, but that sort of sat on the side that we could use to produce work and…it would give me the opportunity to choreograph and to help my friends and neighbors have their work produced.
RB: Was it called the Dance COLEctive?
MC: It was called The Dance COLEctive right from the start. The original mission was to support emerging artists. The mission has changed a couple of times since then, like I think any organization should. But that’s how it started.
RB: When did it switch over to your choreography?
MC: As time passed, it was more cost-effective to just use me. I gained a little more confidence as I went along. I think as I got to be a better teacher…that sort of helped me refine or define or begin to narrow what my aesthetic was. It made more sense for me to do more of my own work.
RB: What would you say the hardest part about keeping the company going for this long has been?
MC: Not getting burned out, I guess.
RB: So, how do you avoid it?
MC: What keeps me from getting burned out is the teaching and mentoring I get to do with the people that I’m working with. Their desire and dedication and watching them grow over a long period of time…that’s what keeps me going. The hardest thing probably is juggling time between being the artist Margi Cole and the paperwork Margi Cole…being the administrator. One of my strengths has always been the “administrivia”, so I did a lot of it because I knew how.
RB: Most of the people I’ve talked to that run smaller companies have said that the hardest thing is the administrative stuff, because they didn’t have your background going into it.
MC: It’s about balancing it. Going in the studio and being able to just focus on my work and not thinking about “I’ve got to send an email to so-and-so” or “I’ve got to finish putting labels on the mailing I just got done”. Of course, the economy has had an impact on us in terms of being able to support somebody in an administrative role. In a lot of ways we’ve grown, but in some we’ve had to go backwards. We’re at the end of a long-range planning period that went on for three years. We’ve increased our visibility a lot. We had mechanisms in place to do that, but in terms of budget, it’s been really…I think in the grand scheme of things, I’m probably in better shape than a lot of people. It’s boring, but I think I’m really good at managing the money I have.
RB: What are some of your favorite accomplishments?
MC: Seeing where some of the people are that started with me early on…knowing what they’re doing now is really great. Being able to go and collaborate with those people and knowing that I had a hand in helping them get where they are is really satisfying. The Chicago Dance Maker’s Forum grant certainly was a big accomplishment for me and the work “Written On the Body” – that was at our 10 year anniversary. Knee surgery and my recovery from that and my continued adventures trying to make sure I have solo work…(that’s) something that I’m really proud of and excited about.
RB: Let’s talk about Balancing Act. You’re collaborating with Jeff (Hancock) again…
MC: Yes, collaborating with Jeff again, which is great. Jeff and I had such a great time collaborating (on IMe). I learned a lot when I worked with him and I didn’t feel like we were finished. When I approached him, he agreed. We’ve been having a really good time working on this duet. It’s all about sabotage and how we really sabotage ourselves in love and life. We have a systematic way in which we do it and we repeat it. So we’ve been really analyzing that…talking a lot about that and trying to explore the humor and the sadness in that. Jeff’s background is really different than mine, which is fun. His way of thinking is a lot more systematic than mine, in terms of beginning to end. I allow myself to go down that road, which I don’t do very often and he allows him self to say “I don’t really know if this is the beginning”. We have that give and take, so it’s good. It puts both of us in a really uncomfortable place and we’re talking about such an uncomfortable topic and really analyzing it, (laughing) so it’s been fun.
RB: Tell me about Menz Dance from New Trier High School.
MC: Chris Rutt, he teaches at New Trier HS, he participated in my summer program. (I think that would be another thing I’m proud of, my summer teaching.) He came and did my workshop. We were talking while this was going on and he was telling me about these guys that he teaches at New Trier. I said, “Wow! I would love to make a dance for a group of guys. I haven’t done that in a long time. That would be really fun.” He said, “It would be really great for you to come and teach. They need someone like you who has real balls and chutzpah to come in here.” That’s a real compliment. So I went and I did two weeks of classes. He has 33 boys that get together every day and dance! I went and I taught and I managed to keep the attention of all these teenage boys. It was great. He wanted me to make a dance, so I ended up working with six boys from the Menz Dance. I’m in love with them. Their integrity is off the charts. The way in which they work…they’re enthusiastic, they’re open, they contribute… I adore them. Because they worked so hard and I’m so proud of them, I wanted them to have the opportunity to do the work…give them the opportunity to perform. They’re rough around the edges, which I love. I thrive on it. At the end of every rehearsal we’d get in a circle and everyone would put their fist in. They’d go…”1, 2, 3…Team Cole!” I’m driving back from Winnetka to rehearsal and I’m thinking “Team Cole!” the whole time.
RB: And Liz Burritt…
MC: She’s the person I worked with to create “Supergirl”. She is amazing and wonderful. We’re so lucky to have her here in Chicago. She works a lot with text and that’s an arena I’ve been really interested in working in. When I’m asking people to create work on the company, I’m always looking for things so I can challenge my dancers, so that I can be challenged in the process in terms of being a party to what’s going on and watching what’s happening and learning from that. She’s really…she’s fabulous. She’s made a new quintet. There’s singing; there’s text. It’s not a happy dance.
RB: And you created another piece for ten dancers…
MC: It’s for ten dancers, because there’s power in numbers. How often do I get to work with ten dancers? It’s a luxury. I read the book Blink. The bottom line is about how we make conscious and unconscious decisions and how, most of the time, the decisions we make are rooted in our unconscious choice-making…and that’s where all of our best choices come from. You should read it! (RB is currently on Chapter 2) I took a lot of the ideas from the book, where he talks about how people make choices and analyzing. I impose them in kind of a literal way on the dancers. For example, I gave them assignments that we had to do and I imposed a time limit, so they didn’t have a lot of time to make choices. That was really frustrating for them. They did not like it. There was something in the book about certain emotions and how they trigger the conscious and unconscious on this scale and how they read people based on this scale. It was based on body language and facial expressions and tone and all of these things. There were 20 emotions. They (the dancers) had to make a list of 20 emotions and then they had to assign whether the emotion was masculine or feminine. I wanted them to make a microcosm for each of the emotions. Then I put them together in groups and duets and asked them to have a conversation with each other..to rub the material together to have a conversation. And then I addressed what their relationship would be…either they’d be circling each other or one was following the other or one was going after the other…so they had these different relationships they had to impose. We generated a really quirky set of duets out of that (process) that I love. We call them the conversation duets. After that, we used a lot of the material and we did these things that we called “speed dates”, where we put them together and they took little chunks of material and they had conversations with the other person and they had to it with each person in the room in only four minutes. The material was the same, but when it got mixed and mingled with another person’s, you kind of got a rendition of it. There’s lots of repeated material, but it’s sort of torqued through how it gets manipulated. It’s called Pull Taught. There’s lots of tension.
The Dance COLEctive: Balancing Act
Ruth Page Center for the Arts, January 20-22 at 8 pm
Ticket information: www.dancecolective.com, or call 773.604.8452