Something different and unexpected was what Sanspointe Dance Company’s Artistic Director Shellie Chambers had in mind when organizing “Kinetic Canvas,” a dance installation inspired by the works and space at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA).
Founded in 2003, Sanspointe’s spring production “Primary Subject” had marked the group’s eighth performance in a row to take place at Children’s Dance Foundation, and upon its completion, Chambers began brainstorming ideas for a non-traditional performance space to use for their next show.
Chambers went to the BMA’s Assistant Curator of Education Kristen Greenwood with the idea and it didn’t take long before the collaboration was solidified.
With one of the main missions of BMA’s educational program being to make art come alive, it was an obvious and natural fit for them to partner with a modern dance company whose goal is to constantly evolve and challenge its members’ and audience’s expectations of modern dance through the creation of high-quality original works.
“I hope this performance reiterates that we are a nontraditional modern dance company and to expect the unexpected,” said Chambers, a lifelong dancer who has been with the company since she moved to Birmingham in 2005. “Artwork is the inspiration for lots of our dance work, but this is the first time we’ve had a performance right there in the museum [near] the works that inspired us.”
Greenwood said most of the dance programs that have been held at the museum prior to this were connected to the art by larger themes, such as the culture of a current collection, and that she is particularly excited to see a whole dance movement inspired directly by the works of art at the museum.
“The viewer’s interpretations of our art are endless. Dance is just another way to interpret the art in our collection, another vehicle for expressing the arts,” Greenwood said.
One appealing aspect of this partnership for both the museum and the dance company was an opportunity to engross new audiences they wouldn’t typically be able to pull in on their own.
Chambers said Sanspointe usually has a crowd that is primarily made of dance enthusiasts, and with this performance being free of charge, she hopes to expand their audience by reaching out to those who just happen to be in the museum, and who may have never been to a modern dance performance.
Greenwood is hoping there will be a similar effect on the museum’s end.
“We look forward to this event and being able to open the museum to new audiences,” Greenwood said. “We are always looking for ways to engage new audiences, and we are hoping this will be a chance for people who are already open to performing arts and that aren’t typically drawn to the fine arts to come out and be exposed to our collection.”
The museum will be open on Saturday for its regular hours, and all areas and exhibitions will be available for viewing. Bart’s Art Cart, a new children’s art activities program led by volunteers, will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. before the show.
The Sanspointe Dance Company crew has packed in three choreographed dance numbers, one structured improvisation piece, music and spoken word, all into a half-hour show.
The prelude of “Kinetic Canvas” begins with company dancers filtering into the space dressed in one-size fits all, unisex fisherman pants from Thailand and solid black leotards, emphasizing how they all came into this performance as one and started as a blank canvas letting the museum’s work and space inspire them.
This structured improvisation piece, accompanied by company musician Justin Wallace on the balafon, begins with dancers warming up in the space and flows into a tongue-in-cheek nod to the way we look at art in the atmosphere of a museum.
The second piece, “How the Sea Sings,” which explores the relationship between man and nature, is choreographed by Rhea Speights, a company member who joined the group in 2005.
Speights said she really immersed herself in the new performance space and all of the time she spent at the museum can be seen in the movement concepts. The movements have been developed around the specific space she had to work with—a marble wall, stairs and a large lobby area—and she said while her dance is lighthearted she thinks her time in the Italian Renaissance part of the museum, and seeing the seriousness of that period, made her stray away from her typical comedic approach to choreography.
“My work is often inspired by things not dance related—film, art, music; that’s the nice thing about being a dancer, it’s not just working in one field, you get to immerse yourself in something new, and whatever interests you about a particular piece or place can help you develop and create new art,” Speights said.
The performance of her piece features herself, two other company dancers, Wallace on the concertina and Helen Gassenheimer, a recent addition to the company, on violin.
The third dance work, “A Meeting by the River,” is a response to Cuban artist José Bedia’s “Mpanqui, Jimagua” (Brotherhood, Twins), a large installation piece that explores the artist’s journey in staying true to his Cuban roots while settling in Miami and the challenge of overcoming language and cultural barriers while building a new home for himself there.
For this dance, Chambers was inspired to bring in three community members, who were nontrained dancers and spoke English as a second language, to help her fully reflect the themes that had inspired her about this artwork.
She was able to find dancers from India, South Africa and Columbia to help her show the importance of seeking connections with people who appear different from us on the outside and bringing together our past experiences to find a common ground on which to share our present and future.
The gesture-based choreography, created by Chambers and Sanspointe founder Michelle Hamff, mimics universal human movements, such as the imagery of playing soccer, which can be interpreted with no language barriers. Instead of music, the movement will be accompanied by spoken word. The text has been developed by Hamff, incorporates personal stories from the performers and will be delivered in four different languages.
Columbia native Ivan Correa, one of the community dancers, said he was not a total stranger to dancing and performing. For the past six years he’s been a disc jockey and for four years a Latin dance instructor, but this is his first group production.
He said his confidence as a performer has been boosted by support from the other dancers and by having such a clear idea of the statement they are trying to get across with this performance.
Correa said his favorite part of the production has been the multicultural exchange, and the experience of hearing his fellow dancer’s stories and learning about what’s important in each of their respective countries, cultures, nationalities and backgrounds. He said he’s amazed at how well everyone worked together and exchanged ideas with such ease and open-mindedness.
“This has been a beautiful experience,” Correa said. “The Birmingham international community has always been diverse and welcoming. It has continued to grow in the last several years, and I think it’s important for people who haven’t interacted with the international community yet to come see the play, acknowledge that a lot of people from different countries are here and make an effort to mingle.”
Prior to this weekend, this particular number was performed for “Drawn Together: United Through Art,” a special event at the museum for UAB students and faculty. The Birmingham Museum of Art actually displayed the Bedia piece to compliment UAB’s freshman focus group’s 2010 discussion book, which was Outcast United, by Birmingham’s Warren St. John. Both the book and the artwork address the difficulties that refugees and immigrants have being accepted into a new community and finding common ground with natives of different races and cultures.
The group was created to provide freshman a shared experience and provide a common theme for dialogue, and the dance was able to add another element to it all.
The final dance, choreographed by recent Sanspointe member Lynn Andrews, who just moved to Alabama from Iowa last year, derives from a piece of Dale Chihuly’s glass work that has been part of the museum since it was remodeled in 1992.
The artwork looks like colorful sea anemones and inspired a lively and strange fishy dance titled “One Fish, Two Fish, Dead Fish, Blue Fish,” where the four company dancers are like a school of fish in a little fish bowl that is the lobby. The music for this number is by experimental sound collage band The Books.
“The fish dance’s music and movement are quirky and have a lot of character and personality, much like the dancers and choreographers in Sanspointe; I think that is who we are. Because we have so many artists who are sharing their voices coming together as one collective voice, every time Sanspointe presents something it is inventive, original, and eclectic,” Chambers said.
The Birmingham Museum of Art will be open on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The half-hour performance, which will take place both at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. in the lobby of museum, is comprised of four site-specific dances and is free to the public. For more information visit www.sanspointe.org or www.artsbma.org.
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