After attending a joint performance by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and LINES Ballet last week during Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center in Los Angeles, I spoke with HSDC dancer Jacqueline Burnett about her experience in the studio and onstage. Though the behind-the-scenes perspective is always interesting, this time Jacqueline helped shed light on relatively unknown territory: the performance of an unprecedented collaboration piece by Alonzo King for HSDC and his own company, LINES Ballet, titled AZIMUTH. According to my program notes, “an azimuth is the distance between where you are (axis mundi) and where you are headed (aspiration, goal) erased by absorption.” Calling to mind ideas of process and progress, this theme is universally adaptable, but also particularly relevant to this new hybrid of dancemaking.
DIYdancer: First of all, the performance was spectacular in its ever-shifting quality and in the sheer quantity of dancers. There were so many things about the piece that intrigued me. I suppose a good place to start is with its logistics. How was it conceived?
Jacqueline Burnett: HSDC’s director, Glenn Edgerton, was the one who conceived the entire collaboration. He had been in Alonzo’s studios watching him work with his dancers and thought his approach and the things he was able to pull out of their bodies was incredible. He thought, “Well, this should happen with my dancers.” So Glenn pitched the idea to Alonzo–why don’t we collaborate and you make work for both of our companies. And, sure enough, it happened.
Dd: How did the two companies form a relationship, and what was that dynamic like in the studio? How much time did you actually spend together creating and rehearsing the piece?
JB: First we (HSDC) acquired an existing work of Alonzo’s, Following the Subtle Current Upstream, originally choreographed on Ailey, to get a sense of his movement style. The next year, he came and worked with us in Chicago for a week on possible material for the collaboration. This is when the Compass section of AZIMUTH was made.
Dd: Right! The Compass section was a quintet for four men and one woman, Kellie Epperheimer. She happened to be the tiniest person out of both companies, and the men repeatedly lifted her in a held, upside-down second position. They seemed to use her head as the point from which they rotated her and manipulated her through space. In one part, they ran together through the stage with Kellie suspended prone, just a few inches above the floor. She literally was like a human compass, the tool used for navigation used in Ouija boards, or like a magnifying glass moving over a map. I also got starfish from that section–like a small, beautiful creature caught separated from the whole. Anyway–sorry, continue.
JB: Then we met his dancers in Irvine, CA, for three weeks during Laguna Dance Festival, and made the piece together there. They had come up with some material back in SF and learned things that had been made in Chicago, and we learned what they’d made, and we also worked on brand new material.
So there were only about 3 weeks of rehearsal time with everyone in the same place. We had a few preview showings in Irvine, then premiered the piece in Berkley, performed it at our home season in Chicago, then finished with 3 more shows in LA. So it’s had quite a life…with a lot of other life happening in between our meetings.
Every time we saw Alonzo the relationship became stronger and more easy-going, which I think is key for collaboration. You have to trust one another to create something worthwhile.
Dd: One of the most striking moments of AZIMUTH, for me, was its opening. All the dancers, 28 of you, are facing upstage, in costumes that are skin- or sand-toned, and you just see all these bodies–all these backs–in the background while a single dancer, Courtney Henry from LINES, performs a solo in the foreground. Bodies upon bodies upon bodies. It’s an effect rarely achieved in contemporary dance companies in America, since most don’t have that many dancers. This giant corps, just waiting, or perhaps contemplating something collectively, at the periphery of the stage, shrouded in smoke, and then the way you all step into the space and just take it all up. I also noticed one thing that was really beautiful about this opening section: you dancing in and out of the wing, because the two companies literally overflowed the stage. What was that like, as a performer? What were you thinking at that moment?
JB: It was pretty fun getting everyone back into the space together for that opening section. When we rehearsed independently as separate companies, that’s when we really were able to explore and master the movement. But, when we all came together again it was a different game…and, much more fun. The timing of the group changes, the space you have to execute something COMPLETELY changes–you’re facing one way and have this opening to dance and then a split second later you’re facing another way and there’s a foot in your face. Dancing out of the wing was just part of the choreography, and it was the responsibility of the people on the edges to travel to give room to the group behind. I began to know which step I would have to alter around the light booms and when I would be stepping off the sprung floor and back on. There was one moment in LA where I disappeared behind an upstage wing very out of sight so I’d usually take it easy there and just watch everyone else move on stage until I come out again.
Dd: That’s awesome. When I heard Alonzo speak about his piece last summer during LDF, he said that working with so many dancers on a single piece was like witnessing a herd of wild horses run past him–he has this very philosophical and poetic way of speaking. Did he say anything that particularly resonated with you in the process?
JB: Alonzo is very philosophical. I enjoyed listening to him inside and outside of the studio and hearing how he tied the world together and how he was developing his piece. One thing he told me was that my hips had to orbit above my pas de bourree…that they could be in constant motion in different directions with a changing axis. It’s a little far-reaching, but even just trying to conjure that image gave me a more suspended feeling which I think was what he was looking for.
Dd: During the evening presented at the Music Center each company performed a piece from its own repertoire and then performed AZIMUTH. In the first two works each company showcased a very distinct style, and then when you came together it was tough to even remember who came from which company, because everyone danced together so well. Do you attribute that to the versatility of HSDC, as a repertory company? Or do you think that Mr. King tried to create something that was situated somewhere between the two companies’ styles?
JB: As a repertory company, we do take pride in trying to perform each choreographer’s work in the essence of which it was created. We also take pride in the individuality of each dancer. I think Alonzo’s company shares that same sentiment: they are an ensemble, but each very different in their dynamics and body architecture. I think that is a unifying feature for both companies, so since we are all very individual it may have been hard to tell which company was which. I don’t think Alonzo changed his style much to work with us, but I’m sure that the material that was created with both companies in the studio was slightly different from what it would be if it was just one company.
Dd: Yes, I definitely kept returning to this theme of individuals emerging from the whole of the group as I watched the piece. What was the most challenging thing about the whole experience, and what was the most rewarding?
JB: The most incredible thing about this entire collaboration was the opportunity to get to work so closely with another complete set of extraordinary dancers. I learn so much daily from my colleagues in HSDC, but the inspiration was doubled being with LINES. That’s not an opportunity professional dancers get often if they are working for a full-time company. It was also very cool having the LINES dancers as a vessel into Alonzo’s work. They know and are experienced in his language so it was much easier to adapt to his style because we had his dancers there to translate for us.
Dd: Wow, that’s a really interesting point, and such a great argument for the preservation of both repertory and single-artist companies. What do you think about another collaboration piece? Do you think it could happen again with LINES and Hubbard? What about other companies jumping on the bandwagon of creating pieces jointly?
JB: I hope collaborations continue in this way. I think there are always things to learn from one another and I don’t think it will homogenize the dance–choreographers will be pushed by all different kinds of bodies and experiences while still trying to develop their own voices.
I don’t know what’s in the works next. This performance in LA was the last of our last scheduled AZIMUTH performances, but it seems that the next step would be to bring the LINES dancers on board for one of our creations. We’ll see.