On-location @ Jefferson Memorial

alight video artist, Dianamaria Adams, adjusting the camera preparing to shoot another scene of our current project, Truth Be Told, on-location at the Jefferson Memorial.

This summer we’ve been on-location a few times shooting footage for our current project, Truth Be Told.  Through the guise of a live-action “reality” show, Truth Be Told is the story of 5 women with 5 secrets who are competing for one prize and the chance to keep their secret safe. We’ve been having a lot of fun with this wacky concept, and our latest adventure was filming on-location at the Jefferson Memorial last weekend.

First of all, it was hot! I mean, really hot, like there was a serious heat advisory from 10am to 10pm last Saturday. All of us met at the Jefferson Memorial at 8am.  I was carrying some bulky camera equipment (courtesy of Greenbelt Access TV) as well as dragging an even heavier cooler loaded up with ice, water and lemonade for the scorcher ahead. The dancers arrived one-by-one looking fabulous, and dancer / video artist Dianamaria Adams (pictured above) came looking cool, comfy and ready to get to work. Our reality show inspired challenge was to give a faux sincere D.C. press conference style apology for the camera on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial. (And, no, we didn’t get arrested; the police on-duty were really friendly and just asked us to be respectful of other visitors.)

Dancing on marble in the heels in crazy heat is no easy task, but Michelle, Monica, Valerie, Caitlin, Sarah and Wayles braved the conditions with style!  Dianamaria Adams and I will be pouring through the footage and editing our three hours of shooting into one action-packed 5-7 minute dance sequence which will unfold live and on-screen during Truth Be Told. You’ll be able to see the rough cut of the sequence at our first annual gala preview concert on Saturday, October 15th at the Dance Rink in Baltimore.

This Saturday we’ll be filming on location in Greenbelt, Maryland near the Greenbelt Community Center where we rehearse every week. If you’re out and about in Greenbelt’s Roosevelt Center this Saturday morning, you might just see us out in the sun again, looking camera ready and shooting the opening sequence of Truth Be Told.

Headlamp, anyone?

So, I love this photo of alight dancer and choreographer, Monica Warren Schaeffer, all geared up, snazzy headlamp and hard hat and all, ready to head into a cave in the Austrian alps.

The scale of these mountains is incredible.  It is hard to imagine Monica moving through the earth under such masses in her pink and purple jacket and just walking out unmarked by the experience.

And, she didn’t. There wasn’t any dramatic cave collapse or television movie worthy moments of harrowing escape, but the experience left its mark on her.

Next weekend, you can get a sneak peek at her new work, Shadowmark, which was inspired by her experience of following a narrow beam of light through the darkness that lays under the weight of the world.  You should come–unless, of course, you have plans to go caving  the Austrian alps yourself next weekend.

alight likes: Thought of You

Thought of You – Behind the Scenes Preview – ROUGH CUT from Cambell Christensen on Vimeo.

“Thought of You” is a short 2-D animated film directed and animated by Ryan Woodwood.  The work blends figure drawings, 2D animation, visual Fx, and contemporary dance to evoke the movement and emotion of an intimate relationship.  Woodward has had a very successful career working on big distribution Hollywood films such as Spider Man 3, Iron Man 2 and Where the Wild Things Are, but this was a personal project, just something he’d envisioned for a while and wanted to make happen.

I discovered “Thought of You” when a dancer friend of mine, Sarah Anne Austin, posted it on her Facebook page, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.  Usually, when I think of dancing animation, I get visions of Disney movies like Fantastia or Beauty in the Beast in my head.  And, honestly, I am sucker for some good cartoon dancing of the sort where pink elephants prance and Bugs Bunny square dances.  That said, “Thought of You” is something all together different because it actually evokes the delicacy and power of modern dance in a way that strikes me much the same way as a live dance performance.

As a choreographer, it was clear to me from watching the finished product that Woodward had collaborated with some real flesh-and-blood dancers to work this magic.  I’ve posted above a short documentary of the process of making “Thought of You” (see the finished product HERE) because I loved seeing how this brilliant collaboration between the animator, the choreographer and the dancers worked.  For me, seeing the process through which any is work developed almost heightens the sense of magic and mystery surrounding the final performance or product, and this was no different.

In my own work, as well in the work of artists I admire, there always seems to be a bit of alchemy involved.  First there is the idea, the tiny seed of thought which becomes a vision and eventually evolves into plans with schedules and deadlines.  People come together to work, think, create, fail and regroup and finally produce this thing that was once just a thought.  In the process, the original idea remains both essentially unchanged and yet often radically altered by the touch of the particular artists working in concert.  In the end, every work of art is a bit of miracle. Something as elegant as “Thought of You” is the sum of its parts and yet completely transcends the nuts and bolts of its components.

Through the window

Most Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons alight is in rehearsal at the Greenbelt Community Center Dance Studio. The studio is a lovely space with blonde hard wood floors, floor to ceiling mirrors on two walls and a bank of windows on another. Just outside those windows is this amazing

rose garden.  The dance studio is located on the lower level in the back of the building, so the rose garden is sort of tucked away–not hidden but separated from the main walkways near the building. From inside the studio, through the old cloudy windows, the bright color presses up against the building,

a bit blurry like an Impressionist painting.  When I’m alone in the studio choreographing, I like to open the side door and peek out at the color and texture and fragrance just outside.  I love the contrast between the clean, open space of the dance studio and the overgrown, luxurious beauty of the garden.  Set side by side, they both feed my creative process.

The empty studio just cries out to be filled with movement, energy, laughter and a good sweat.  And, the garden is already so kinetic, so active,  so complete in itself that it invites stillness. It is a eloquent reminder that stillness is as much a part of the dance as silence is a part of music.  And, being the committed multi-tasker I am, it is a reminder I need.

alight likes: Crochet madness

Polish artist Agata Oleksiak creates a riot of color with crochet.

I love color.  It makes me want to move. This kind of bright, vibrant, so electric it is almost offensive color, just energizes me.  It is like seeing music, like the intoxicating beat of techno music blasting silently, texture instead of sound.  Maybe it is the 64 Box Crayons syndrome. As a kid, opening a huge box of new crayons was always sort of magical, filled with the possibility and joy of densely packed color.  The work of mixed media artist Agata Oleksiak gives me that same feeling.

Agata grew up in industrial Poland and graduated from  A. Mickiewicz University with a degree in cultural studies.  After moving to New York City, she rediscovered her ability to crochet and just started wrapping everything around her chains of color.  She describes her creative process this way:

A loop after a loop. Hour after hour my madness becomes crochet. Life and art are inseparable. The movies I watch while crocheting influence my work, and my work dictates the films I select. I crochet everything that enters my space. Sometimes it’s a text message, a medical report, found objects. There is the unraveling, the ephemeral part of my work that never lets me forget about the limited life of the art object and art concept. What do I intend to reveal? You have to pull the end of the yarn and unravel the story behind the crochet.

Her process is one of accumulation, an overflowing of soft, chaotic color. To me, it is excessive and obsessive in the best way possible.  And, it reminds me again of the power of art to surprise and delight us.

Preparing for Wednesday night rehearsals with alight, I often find myself thinking about how I can use our finite time together most effectively, most efficiently, most productively.  That’s all a necessary part of the director gig i.e. managing time and resources thoughtfully.  And yet, Agata’s work reminds me that my most primary responsibility is be an artist that delights, surprises, challenges, evokes and celebrates.  Now, I feel like dancing!

Spring cleaning

I know it seems like a cliche, like some Martha Stewart marketing ploy, but there was a time when “spring cleaning” actually meant something.  In the past, homes were heated by burning coal, wood or oil which made for some pretty dingy interiors by the end of a long, cold winter.  By the time spring came along the whole house was ready for a good, thorough scrubbing. Of course, today our homes and our lives are so different that throwing open our windows at the first sight of spring actually creates the cleaning problem. At my house, that glorious fresh breeze blows in a thin dust of pollen and then sends my allergies into fury.

Thanks to my crazy allergies, I’ve lost my voice which has seriously disrupted my previously scheduled programming.  Instead of teaching, I spent today at home knocking out piles of  laundry and catching up on emails…and now finally blogging again for the first time in almost two months. This time last year I was writing five days a week and working two less jobs.  I’ve been scattered in so many directions lately that being home today feels like the beginning of a mental spring cleaning for me.

While I’d rather be running about, being my usual “productive” aka chatty self, I am willing to admit, albeit reluctantly, that it is a relief to be forced to rest.  Truth be told, I am not very good at resting. Part of my problem is that I really love what I do. Like anyone, I have off days when I’m tired and crabby and less grateful than I should be, but most days I can see so clearly just how fortunate I am to do the work I do.

The talented and so glamorous cast of Truth Be Told in costume filming on-location in Roosevelt Center in the heart of historic Greenbelt, Maryland.

Just this past weekend, alight worked with film student, Lauren Burke, to shoot a promotional video for our current project, Truth Be Told. It was supposed to rain all day, but it didn’t, and we had a great time. In contrast to their diva alter-egos above, the dancers of alight are a goofy, hard-working bunch, and our rehearsals are often the highlight of my week.  It is hard to want to rest when there’s so much good work to be done, and most of the time I enjoy it so much.

And yet, sitting here writing, listening to birds chirping in the distance and taking the time to savor the weekend’s accomplishments, I have to admit that it feels good to stop doing. Like a dusty, cluttered house, my life has been in need of some spring cleaning for weeks.  I love what I do, but, honestly, I’ve been a bit run-down and uninspired lately which is not so great for the creative process.  Walking into rehearsal tomorrow night, I may still not be able to speak over a whisper, but I am excited to return to the studio with a little more space in my brain for the work I love so much.

This vulnerable business

Earlier this week, a smart, beautiful young dancer asked me a very familiar question, “How can I do this?” She is working on a solo video project under my direction, and she is struggling with this business of vulnerability, a struggle I know very well.  Standing at the top of a busy stairwell, she was clearly fighting back a well of tears as she explained that she hated all the movement material she had made.  More to the point, she kept comparing her work and her body to those of her peers and always found herself at fault, not good enough, never sufficient.

It was like listening to echos of myself from ten years ago…and, if I’m painfully honest, even just days ago.


Usually, it is the opposite. So often we see the worst version of ourselves instead of the best.

As we move to a quieter place to talk, I tried to comfort and reassure her the best I could.  I found myself saying things that were true but sounded hollow as they passed through my lips: “You are the woman you are and have the body you have partly because of choices you have made.  You have to make your art right now based on the woman you have already chosen to be.  Who you are right now is enough to do this.”

I really believe all of that to be true. This young lady has great ideas and a lovely movement quality; she has everything she needs.  And yet, my belief matters little when stacked up against whatever she chooses to tell herself.  The “answers” I was giving her felt lackluster.  I’ve heard them before and rejected them myself.  Sometimes no matter how much I want to believe that I’m sufficient, I just don’t feel that way.  Sometimes I don’t feel brave, just broken.

Making art, growing up, being a woman.  It is all such vulnerable business.  Sitting across from this young woman, her tears flowing now, I decided just to be blunt with her. With over ten years more experience than her, I’m still struggling with the some of the same questions.  I just couldn’t offer her definitive answers.  All I could honestly say was, “Me too. I’ve faced this too and it hasn’t defeated me.”

As she walked away to face the rest of her day, I wasn’t sure if I had really helped her or not.  Part of me felt…well, insufficient…but another part of me felt this odd sense of joy.  Seeing the difference between what she has to offer and how she felt in that moment gave me a greater appreciation for how blessed we all are–if only we can see it.  And, perhaps this is the most important business of art and life: reminding each other that even our brokenness can be blessing if connects us, instead of isolating us.

My year…Speechless

Lucia, Monica & I enacting a familiar scene for parents of special needs children--the doctor visit, the trip to the emergency room, the search for answers.

For months, my first coherent thought in morning has been about Speechless–thinking about my cousin Taylor who inspired the work, reminding myself to email the composer, getting an idea for how to solve a choreographic issue in the work…I’ve been thinking about, praying over and working on Speechless virtually everyday of the past year of my life. This is the reality of choosing to make a work of art; the act of creating anything shapes your life more than you shape it.  Almost like a newborn, a work of art is completely dependent upon its creator for its development, and meeting those demands changes you.

Of course, as a choreographer, I don’t work in a studio alone.  I depend upon a talented team of collaborators, especially the dancers, to bring a work like Speechless to fruition. Recently, alight dancer Michelle Cardoso sent me a link to this article: Devasting genetic disorder is taking a little angel.  The piece focuses on the challenges families face caring for a terminally ill child, and the love it takes to overcome that kind of pain.  Along with the article, Michelle said,  “Speechless, and this article, made me think about the way we mark our achievements. Is it getting what we said we wanted?  Or is it about getting through it and being happy?”  These are good questions, the kind I’ve been asking myself throughout this process.  She also reminded me that the work I chose to make impacts the lives of others as well.

Living with Speechless this year has reminded me that not everything in life can be planned and executed with the kind of certainty and precision I prefer.  Just about everything about my cousin Taylor was unexpected and very little of  her life has conformed to the “plan”, and yet she is a joy.  Naturally, before she was born, we hoped for a “healthy” child, but now that we have Taylor we’re happy to get through the days, whatever they bring, grateful that she’s with us.   Working on Speechless has forced me question my need for control.  Being a make-it-happen kind of gal helps me get a lot of stuff accomplished  like planning rehearsal schedules and writing funding proposals, but sometimes the process lacks joy because I am more focused on controlling on the possibilities than enjoying them.

When Monday comes, I will begin a new year of teaching–at Towson University and Greenbelt Community Center–and I will start focusing on creating a new work for alight. And, Monday will also mark the end of my year of Speechless. I hope we will perform the work again after this weekend, but soon I will need to devote most of my thought-life  and planning time to the demands of creating a new work.  Heading into this weekend, with our shows at Dance Place just ahead of us, part of me is a little sad to leave my year of Speechless behind…but also excited to see what comes next.

Something out of nothing

This image of alight dancer Lucia Cisneros performing in Speechless at the Kennedy Center reminds of what an incredible year it has been. Photo Credit: Enoch Chan

As 2010 draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot of about how this year began.  With my husband far away in Afghanistan and a mountain of snow on the ground, I sat curled up in my bed, trying to stay warm while typing out the project proposal for Speechless on my laptop  At the time, I was basically unemployed with no prospects for choreographing, and I was painfully aware of the many days between me and my husband’s return to the country in April.  I think you get the idea.  I would say I started this year in a state of hopeful discouragement.  My mind was full of big ideas of launching alight dance theater and performing Speechless at the Kennedy Center, but my reality at the time was pretty humbling.

Looking back, I see what a blessing it was to start the year with nothing but possibility, unburdened by the demands of certainty of any kind. To an artist, the unpainted canvas, the blank page or an empty dance studio can be intimidating but they’re also essential to the creative process.  You really need a good amount of nothing–free time, an uncluttered mind and untapped energy–to create anything.  As 2010 began, I was given this incredible opportunity to create something new. Out of all that uncertainty came the incredible gift of clarity and creativity which shaped the mission statement of alight and fueled my artistic work this entire year.

As I am writing this, my nieces and nephews are making gingerbread houses in the dining room, and I am nearby in the living room near a Christmas tree that is wrapped tightly candy-colored lights and shiny beads.  Amidst the sparkle of holiday trappings, I sometimes forget that this principle of something of nothing  is at the center of the Christmas story. Even if you don’t celebrate Christmas yourself, you’ve probably heard the whole Virgin birth in a lowly manager, “silent night” story.  For me, the magic of the Christmas story is the idea that real lasting goodness can come into the world in the form of something as humble as a baby.  As a look ahead and see the uncertainty that awaits me in the New Year, I am really content to sit right here for now, still enjoying the promise of Christmas and all the fruitfulness of this past year.  And, it is a good reminder to greet January 1st, 2011 empty-handed, letting go of what was and ready to grab onto the something to come.

Another life

While I am still anxiously awaiting photos of the Speechless premiere, I thought I would share a past rehearsal shot of alight dancer Monica & Lucia. And, hopefully, I'll get that magical CD of professional performance shots in the mail soon!

Over the course of my dance career, I have experienced again and again what I like to call my “post-show funk.”  This is the inevitable crash that lots of performers, myself included, experience after the excitement, anxiety, exhaustion and thrill of getting a show on-stage has passed. The day after a show closes I am inevitably emotionally and physically just spent, and, in that state, I have to face all the piled up bills, unanswered emails and dirty laundry of my other life, my normal off-stage existence.   It is a sort of rude awakening, especially when you’re so tired you feel like you could sleep for a week! I have come so accustomed to this post-show malaise that I was bracing myself for the hit within minutes of walking offstage after at the Friday, October 15th performance of Speechless.

And, the funny thing is that it hasn’t hit yet, and now I’m not sure it ever will.  The  week after Speechless premiered at the Kennedy Center I was definitely exhausted, but I wasn’t depressed, wishing I could turn back the clock and do it over again. Honestly, I was relieved and content.  It was a  tremendous relief that the shows went smoothly technically, and the reception from the audience seemed positive overall.  After wards, I was content to rest in the moment of having just accomplished something significant and to enjoy some valuable time just hanging out with my husband.  I had been looking forward to the premiere of Speechless everyday for months, and now, instead of feeling empty without that promise ahead of me,  I feel oddly satisfied to have the memory of that incredible experience behind me.

I’ve been asking myself, “What’s the difference?” Well, the difference is that the show is over, but Speechless isn’t dead; we’re going to be performing the work again on November 7th and then again in January next year.  Beyond that, we have some uncertain but promising prospects for sharing the work in the future.  Over the course of my dance career, I have often worked for months, sometimes as long as a year, on a project that was only performed a few times one weekend, never to be produced again.  It is always little heart-breaking to pour so much of yourself into something that fades so fast.  Eventually, Speechless will also fade away because dance is an ephemeral art form, but there is an unfamiliar sweetness to having both the memory of its performance and the promise of its life to come.  It is fantastic to look forward and see that Speechless already has another life beyond the Kennedy Center.