What do you get when you put 15 dancers from diverse backgrounds in a large dance center with live piano and an explicit interest in re-learning ballet via improv and manipulation? Secret Experiments in Ballet #2, a collaborative experience of three performances this weekend at Visceral Dance Center. The mad professor leading this experiment, “playing in the intersection of ballet vocabulary and improvisation”, is dancer/teacher/choreographer Emily Stein.
Most local dancers know her as the petite ballet teacher with articulate feet and impeccable technique and as a performer and Associate Artistic Director of Zephyr Dance, the company she left amicably in 2011. Since retiring, or “redirecting”, Stein has been teaching – a lot! – and taking classes (with Peff Modelski). In February 2012, she attended a three-week residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts where she had the opportunity to take time to think about what she wanted to do next and the ideas for Secrets began to percolate. The entire concept finally hit her while on a much-needed vacation with her husband. “I really wanted to play with ballet,” she told me over tea and coffee in late April. “A lot of what I’d been working with in the studio were the seeds of ballet language that you learn when you’re a kid. What you think it means and what you think it is, then exploring it through the improvisational techniques and things I’d learned working in the other side of the dance world. In particular, what I learned when working with Deborah Hay. They couldn’t possibly be further apart. I love ballet, but rarely do I go to the ballet and say, ‘Wow!’ There are people doing interesting stuff, but what else? What else that’s not about just extrapolating the vocabulary and taking it out to a really extreme place. I wanted to see what else is there in the vocabulary that we know. ”
Using the Cechetti seven movements of dance (plié, relever, sauté, etc.) as a base, she set out to see “what else?”. Taking the Cechetti definition, the French definition and the English translation of the word and having the dancers create movement phrases was a jumping off point. Adding in her own combinations and manipulations, Stein constructed a six section work that is sure to entertain and perhaps educate. “I’m trying to develop the dance from the inside out,” she said. “I want something based on glissade. How many different ways can you think of glissade or do glissade? How far away from glissade can you get and still have some semblance of it? The meanings re-learned. When you actually translate the words in the correct context, the meanings are myriad and more complicated. I’m taking those translations to create movement. I think part of it is coming to improv later in my career and having people say ‘that looks like an arabesque; take that out’. But that’s in me. That’s not something that I do, that’s something that’s in me, because I’ve done it for such a long time. You speak with an accent and you move with that accent. Some people can learn another language in life and not have an accent, but some can’t. That’s an interesting continuum to create in.”
Another essential part of the project is that it moves throughout the entire Visceral space using dressing rooms and corners in the hallway as the stage. “It’s not an installation; it’s definitely sequential,” Stein said. “I didn’t want to have a studio showing, but wanted the stage magic and quality of performance into these spaces. When we take class, there’s a performance quality and certainly when you’re teaching. I wanted to bring the audience into the space and have them be close to the dancers…to be this far apart from the dancers and hear them breathing and see the details. That’s what I love about teaching. I get really involved in someone’s foot. Ok, maybe I’m just a geek, but I think there’s something there. Other geeks will appreciate it.”
Emily Stein presents Secret Experiments in Ballet #2 at Visceral Dance Center, 2820 N. Elston Ave., Saturday, May 4 at 8 pm and Sunday, May 5 at 2 and 6 pm. Tickets are $25 ($15 for students and seniors); call 773.844.8988 or visit www.emilysteindance.com. *Cash and checks only at the door. May pay by credit card online.