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BECOMING ONE: Dance artists craft unprecedented ‘collaborative choreography’ for Moving Arts

One of the fixtures of the dance world today is the “mixed-repertory” program: A company presents works by various choreographers and prays the amalgam makes some kind of sense. But what if we were to create a single work crafted by multiple choreographers, who merge their creative energies into an organic whole? Such collaborations are rare, partly because the outcome is unpredictable and thus a bit scary for everyone involved.

Cervilio Amador (photo by Hiromi Platt) and Logan Pachciarz

Kansas City is about to see the what is possibly the first such work in local dance history: an as-yet-untitled piece that forms the centerpiece of this year’s Moving Arts program (July 15th and 16th at the Gem Theater).

Four dynamic and far-flung choreographers, all women, have spent several weeks discussing the piece in a series of intensive online conversations with Co-Artistic Directors Cervilio Amador and Logan Pachciarz.

Beginning in late June, Yusha-Marie Sorzano, Melissa Gelfin De-Poli, Andrea Schermoly, and *Jennifer Owen converged on a Kansas City studio, where they and 12 world-class dancers have spent three weeks putting together a final product.

According to the directors of the annual Moving Arts (founded in 2013 as the Kansas City Dance Festival), the idea was sparked partly by the sheer craving for connection and contact that the pandemic has engendered in the dance community.

Yusha-Marie Sorzano / Photo by Eric Politzer

“We’ve been forced to keep our distance, literally, so we have all felt a little bit cold, remote,” said Cervilio, a ballet master and former principal dancer at Cincinnati Ballet, who shares artistic directorship with former Kansas City Ballet Company Dancer Logan Pachciarz. “With that in mind… we liked the idea of bringing people together to create something new.”

As the six began to exchange ideas, it became clear that the choreographers shared similar values and goals, yet each brought something distinctive to the mix. “We started thinking, Why don’t we create a one-evening, hour-long world premiere,” Cervilio said, “and then invite choreographers whose work we like and put them together in a room and we’ll brainstorm?”

To be sure, it’s impossible to predict what might happen once dancers and choreographers gather in the studio: and that’s part of the fun. “It’s not something that any of us has done before,” said Melissa Gelfin De-Poli, a Cincinnati Ballet principal dancer who has been part of Moving Arts almost since its inception. “So we have had some incredible four-hour Zoom calls where we start on one topic and that sends up about three other topics.”

Creating a framework for such a piece requires some preestablished concepts. But the team feels confident that once they get into the studio “it’s going to flow naturally into a place of creating… of being inspired by the dancers, inspired by the time and the place we’re in,” Melissa said.

Melissa Gelfin De-Poli and Cervilio Amador have danced together frequently with Cincinnati Ballet, as shown here in Andrea Schermoly’s Swivet. / Photo by Peter Mueller

“We have some very distinctive ideas that we are incorporating, in terms of the path and the look of the piece. We will probably each come prepared with some idea of what we want parts of it to say, movement-wise. We don’t have two months to put this together… so we do have to come with a bag of tricks already packed.”

One of the functions of Moving Arts, which also presents in Cincinnati each summer (this year on July 22nd and 23rd), is to keep both dancers and audiences involved in dance during the fallow months.

“You have to keep moving, you have to keep articulating those muscles,” Logan said. “Dancers really want to express themselves artistically, and from an audience perspective it’s the same: They want to stay engaged, they want to be intellectually challenged during these months, see fantastic form in a theatrical experience.”

Three months “is way too long to be without quality professional dance performances,” Cervilio added. “We are creatures of habit.”

The intimacy of the smaller-theater experience is also part of what makes Moving Arts unique. “There’s a connection between the choreographers and the dancers and the audience,” Logan said. “The audience is closer, it feels a bit more like home: It’s a little bit closer to the heart.”

Melissa Gelfin De-Poli / Photo by Hiromi Platt

Building an all-female team for this work was less an intentional choice than an organic process of finding the best artists for the job.

“We had a list of about 10 choreographers we wanted to work with, and some were male artists whose work we love,” Cervilio said. “But we kept narrowing to down… to people who kind of ‘vibe together,’ who know each other and each other’s work.”

Once they got together on Zoom, they knew they’d found chemistry. “Each of these choreographers presents a different style, each brings a different background, each has her own rich history,” said Logan, a choreographer who co-founded Moving Arts with former Kansas City Ballet Company Dancer Anthony Kruztkamp.

That all four happen to be women is “icing on the cake,” Cervilio added.

Do women bring something distinctive to the dance floor? “Every choreographer brings something to the table,” Melissa said, “But I think because the woman choreographer has been overlooked for so many years… in this male-dominate realm, there’s an energy, an extra fire, a push, that says ‘I can do this.’ And this brings something special to the table.”

Andrea Schermoly and Jennifer Owen

The term “female choreographer” is becoming passé in the dance world, though. These are human beings making art, and they are transforming dance in ways we could never have imagined even 20 years ago.

If a work stands out, Melissa said, it should not because it was created by a woman “but because it’s a good piece, because it said something, made you feel something.”

That “I’m a female and I can do it, too” is not the point, she added. “That shouldn’t be the narrative any more. … I want to do everything that the male can do because we should have always been doing it.”

Nevertheless, she doesn’t want to overlook the fierce work of those who have gone before. “We’ve had so many incredible women fighting for our recognition and our rights, proving that we could do this,” said Melissa, who has danced principal roles in everything from George Balanchine to Yuri Possikov, from Victoria Morgan to Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. “I don’t think it should ever be lost that we had to fight for it.”

—By Paul Horsley

*Note: Since this article went to press, Jennifer Owen determined that she would provide support to the Moving Arts project through the non-profit status of her Owen/Cox Dance Group, rather than as co-choreographer. Owen/Cox has been the fiscal sponsor of Moving Arts (formerly KCDF) since 2013.  

For tickets to the performances, see movingartsco.org. To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter/Instagram (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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