This weekend, the choreographer Alison Chase and her dance company, Alison Chase/Performance, take over Thompson’s Point for a multimedia tent show, merging her team of six trained contemporary dancers with sound and visual design from some unexpected sources.
Teaming with multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay, who played with rock group The Hold Steady as well as vaudeville-punk group World/Inferno Friendship Society; and video artist Gene Felice, director of the University of Maine’s CoAction Lab, the cohort have originated NO PLAN B, an immersive event that may help illuminate and excavate the charged emotional landscape of summer of 2017.
Throughout her career, Chase has not shied away from across-the-aisle collaboration. She was the founding artistic director of the famed Pilobolus Dance Theater as a student at Dartmouth in 1971 and the company of dance illusionists MOMIX in the 1980s. A Mainer for nearly 30 years, she’s choreographed operas for La Scala Opera, the Ballet du Rhin, and the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, and taught a theater program for six years at Yale.
Last year’s production, the street performance Dancing With Steel, was performed in seven locations across coastal Maine. After Dancing With Steel, NO PLAN B is the second of six productions Chase is designing for a site-specific series she’s titled Beyond the Proscenium.
We spoke with Alison Chase by phone after her company completed the first leg of NO PLAN B’s run, with shows at Fort Knox State Park in Prospect, Maine.
Alison Chase/Performance erects a tent to accommodate all elements of the production
Are the elements you started with when you began this project still visible to you at this point?
Oh yeah, it’s beautiful right out of the box because it starts with the dancers illuminating themselves. There’s a visceral, visual and emotional line, and they’re all sort of fluidly interfaced. Your eye can go from the dancer to the part of the tent, and then swim back to the dancer. All of a sudden the projection will take your eye and move with it and float it in and out so your focus is very different. It’s very fluid. What were the shows up at Fort Knox like? The whole thing has been a birthing process. It’s amazing how having an audience changes everything. I was like, I should have put you all in front of an audience months ago! Because of the technology, we couldn’t all come together in the tent and until Aug 23 [one day before the show opened in Fort Knox]. We had one day of tech and three with the dancers. It takes a long time to marry and blend all the layers together. We all enjoy that process, but it takes time. We had a lot of late nights in the tents.
In situations like that, do your dancers get concerned they wouldn’t have enough time to adapt?
I don’t think we ever really know what the show is until we put it in front of an audience anyway. I mean, we know some of it but not the whole of it. The dancers never get to see what the audience sees. Each night we morph and define and polish and scrub, and the trajectory of that progression has been beautiful and magical. We performed under the bridge in Fort Knox, near the water, so we’re very curious to see how it’ll settle into Thompson’s Point. But that’s also next to the river, too.
Why did you decide to mount a show like this in Fort Knox?
We did [Dancing With Steel] last summer that was performed at seven sites over coastal Maine. For NO PLAN B, we decided to perform at two sites. I went to Leon Seymour [Executive Director of Friends of Fort Knox] and asked if we could put up a tent someplace, and he was like I have the perfect spot. I’d never been up here. It’s beautiful to have a portable spot to have nice circus magic under a tent.
Did you work with community partners up there to make it happen?
Oh yeah. There were some vendors that wouldn’t come because we didn’t have the volume they wanted. Our tent only seats 180. I was thinking we’d get audiences around 130 and they thought that wasn’t enough. But a few have. Audience members eat here, or they bring some type of picnic piece, like a bento box or Japanese noodles.
Does this show travel beyond Maine or is it Maine-specific?
Well, no it doesn't ... currently. We birthed it in Maine, and the University of Maine IMRC (the campus’s Innovative Media, Research, and Commercialization Center] there has been a very strategic partner. We incubated the show in early spring. We put a tent in our black box theater, and that was the early experimentation. And then Gene Felice [founder of the University of Maine’s CoAction Lab] did more projector content and I went back and worked with the dancers, and then I went back again and we did a sandbox, and then we began to put the layers together. That was the first time the dancers danced over the projection. It was a long time in development.
What is the Beyond the Proscenium series? This is second of six shows?
Yes. For the street shows last year, sometimes we were in the field, sometimes we were right on the water’s edge. We performed at Wolfe’s Neck Park.
For this, It’s been a real experience partnering with nontraditional presenting partners. It’s not like Merrill Auditorium, it’s Fort Knox and Thompson’s Point and Schoodic Point and the wharf in Belfast. I decided to use a tent for the second Beyond the Proscenium event because it gave us some weather-proofing. But I think these tent events are going to be a series. And now, several music festivals have asked us to come.
Is collaborating with “nontraditional presenting partners” more interesting to you in this point in your career?
I love the experimentation that comes along with it. I’ve worked in a proscenium for three decades and found that after a while, everything was squeezed out of my imagination. Chris Thompson [of Parallax Partners, developers of Thompson’s Point] did the Sunanna Festival [in March 2017] and asked for our dancers, and I was like let’s see what we can do in this warehouse space. And TedxPortland has asked us to perform. We could go into a gallery, a raw warehouse space, under a tent; I don’t know with the projections if we can go back into a proscenium space.
How did you start working with [New Hampshire-born musician] Franz Nicolay [of World/Inferno Friendship Society, Hold Steady, etc.] for this?
Franz comes from a different tradition. When he scored this show, he never saw any of the technology. He’s just always seen the piece in the dance studio. I met him when this photographer I collaborate with quite frequently and I was driving up to the University of Maine. He and I always appreciate the exchange of music, and he put something of Franz’s on and said you should listen to this kid, I know his mom. And he played me a few songs and said now listen to these strange interludes. I think this would really work with what you put on stage. I said this is really cool stuff, I just wish it were longer than a minute and ten seconds. He said I'm sure Franz could do that. So Franz did a score for us in New York in 2015 and that expanded into NO PLAN B.
Do the dancers have any connection to Maine?
They do now! No, the dancers are not from Maine. They all love being in Maine, though. Ever since I started my company in 2010 there’s been a couple that has this barn that sleeps eleven and every time we work the dancers stay at this barn, and it’s great. They don’t have to stay at a hotel.
You’ve lived in Brooksville for 20 years, how has life in Maine informed or changed your work?
I think it’s been a huge change in my work. I was with Pilobolus [Dance Theater, which Chase co-founded at Dartmough in 1971] for 30 years and then I left them. I was just trying to figure out how to get my new thing together. I started doing partnerships in the quarry in Stonington [in 2009]. And those kind of turned my head around, taking dance out of the theater. I was interested in what those productions had to be in order to hold the audience’s attention. You can’t do that in New York — like, get an excavator and suspend three people — you can’t do that sort of thing. I worked at the University of Maine and got into film.
Maine’s a smaller state and it’s not so oversaturated. When you call someone with an outof-the-box idea, they’re more wiling and have more time.
I think the scale of Maine has greater fertility for incubation. You can do things here that no one else will venture into because they can’t make a dime here. For NO PLAN B, I’m personally happy not going out of the state of Maine, but i think the dancers would like a greater visibility.
When you’re devising a piece with the troupe, what sort of intensives or processes do you employ? What do you pull in from outside the dance discipline?
Well, I don’t dance about dancing. When I started this piece I had sort of a soft narrative to it. That gets sort of morphed and reshaped when Franz’s music is added. As we started adding projections that started causing different interior trajectories. You don’t want to let the projections be some wallpaper that doesn’t have relationship to what you’re doing in front of it.
NO PLAN B has a vaguely ominous tone. Is there anything about this piece that reflects the era we’re living on?
Yeah, it does. A lot of people have said so.
When I approached Chris Thompson to do this at Thompson’s Point, he was like, oh yeah. I think it’s neat that he’s taking the dare to host stuff that’s experimental. The title actually comes from Chris. They were opening bricks out for Sunanna in March. Gene and I went a couple weeks before in February and it was freezing. There was a hole in the wall and the toilets weren’t installed. And the next time I came I saw a piece of really terrific theater. And i could see the relief on Chris that they had passed inspection. I saw him again a few weeks later and was like, Chris, that must have been an intense moment! And he said, you know, sometimes you get into these things, and there’s no plan B. I was like, can I borrow that?
, immersive multimedia performance by Alison Chase/Performance + Gene Felice + Franz Nicolay | Thompson's Point, 1 Thompson's Point Rd, Portland | Thu-Sat 8pm | $25 | www.alisonchase.org
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