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Step Sister

Dance Preview: Selene Colburn and Dominique Zeltzman at the FlynnSpace


Published March 5, 2003 at 8:27 p.m.

There's a telling moment in "Devotion Clusters" when dancer Selene Colburn reveals the meat behind the motion. In this multi-media dance piece she performed three years ago at the Flynn, her pre-recorded voice intones, "At some point you have to ask yourself: Do you want to fuck Bob Dylan or do you want to be Bob Dylan?" She stretches out into a modified headstand, slaps both sneakered feet on the floor and bounces back up to strike a pose that looks like a preparation for a pirouette. It's not.

"If you're a 16-year-old girl and your answer is the latter, you're really in some kind of trouble," Colburn's hypnotic voice warns. With a winning combination of social critique and self-deprecation, she recalls her own atypical adolescence. The kinks unique to a self-described "dork" turned rock 'n' roll-loving feminist turns out to be fun fodder for a 40-minute piece.

At 33, Colburn is no more ordinary than she was as a kid directing annual backyard productions of Camelot. When she's not working as a freelance archivist at the University of Vermont, she incorporates dance, video, art, spoken word -- and knitting -- into shows that may end up in a gallery or on a proscenium stage. Currently, she's all over Burlington. The Firehouse Gallery is hosting an exhibit of her visual art, including drawings, sculpture and a Kung Fu-inspired video called "Anti-war Propaganda Action Movie."

The same footage kicks off a new work she's performing this Thursday and Friday at the FlynnSpace. "O Muse" examines relationships, war, peace and Colburn's favorite subject -- gender -- through the filter of Homer's Odyssey. The evening -- collectively titled The Stomach Never Lies: True Confes-sions and Moving Images -- also features two dances by fellow Bennington College grad Dominique Zeltzman, with whom Colburn danced for four years in San Francisco. The two will team up on a piece from that period called "Alonesome and Twosome." Bay Area critics dubbed them "the dynamic duo of feminist dance."

Colburn has "arrived" this week in Burlington, but in some ways she never left. The Queen City-born Vermonter hails from a creative clan with deep Green Mountain roots. Her father's father, Francis Colburn, founded the art department at the Uni- versity of Vermont. Her grandmother, with whom Selene was extremely close, was a poet and teacher. That her mother manages circulation at Fletcher Free Library may have something to do with Selene's degree in library science. Her maternal grandmother was a dancer. In one way or another, Col-burn has managed to follow in the footsteps of every member of her family.

She's also the product of the Burlington dance scene, such as it was 15 years ago when local choreographers Sara McMahon, Hannah Dennison, Penny Campbell, Nancy Watkin, Alison Granucci, Cece Gable and Rick Darnell were regularly making and presenting work. Colburn was a student at Main Street Dance, which offered regular classes in jazz, modern and ballet. She also joined the studio's teen dance company -- StreetTeens -- which had gigs all over Chittenden County. Denni-son gave Colburn her first part in a serious dance piece at age 15. She required very little guidance. "I just said, 'This is what I am interested in. This is what I am thinking about,'" Dennison recalls. "And off she went."

Although the performing experience was valuable, the prevailing atmosphere of invention made a greater impression on Colburn. Most of the movers in Burlington were entranced by the post-modern principles espoused by dancers working more than a decade earlier in New York: they rejected balletic notions of beauty and grace to explore the authenticity of everyday motions. "A lot of people were working improvisationally, which really lets you explore your own movement patterns," Colburn recalls. "Especially when you're an adolescent, it's a really great way to come into it."

Dancers are to choreographers as musicians are to composers -- means to realize a compositional end. It was that creative side of the process that appealed to Colburn. "Even though I studied technique forever and ever, I always felt like a choreographer," she explains. "I never had any aspirations to go and dance in somebody else's company. I always only wanted to make dances."

Being a choreographer requires more than vision. In Colburn's case, it involves driving from Hardwick -- where she lives with her archivist husband -- to spend four evenings a week in an empty studio at the Flynn. She's trading her organizational expertise for free access to the rehearsal space. Colburn lets herself into the darkened building, changes from jeans into a pair of sweats and, after a brief warm-up, gets moving on "O Muse." She references a big black book as she strings steps into phrases. Despite her story source, there is nothing literally Odyssean about the gestures.

Nothing remotely "classical," either. Colburn rejects the dainty dancer thing. Her moves aren't ornamental or frivolous but weighty and unadorned. She makes full use of gravity, whether she's holding a handstand or hitting the floor with an unabashed thud. Dance Magazine described it as "a compelling combination of the unstudied and the rigorous." With obvious approval, Dennison reports, "Selene got turned down for a grant because it wasn't pretty."

On Thursday Colburn was struggling with a Brazilian capoeira-like move that launched her from a seated position on the floor into a jump. Her early training as a gymnast is evident, but she pulls it off without being flashy. "She just sort of flings herself down into it, yet her way of recovering seems... I was going to say 'effortless,' but no, it seems very direct," Dennison offers.

In other words, the physical exertion is apparent. Colburn doesn't try to hide it with a flourish or a smile. "She seems to be fearless," Dennison says. "Whether it's a proscenium stage or another setting, she seems to be really comfortable there."

Colburn gets "there" by pursuing a question. In the spirit of archival research, her pieces are all motivated by an inquiry of some sort. In "Devotion Clusters" she admits adoring The Rolling Stones despite their brutish behavior and misogynist lyrics. Her humorous exploration incorporates two versions of "Satisfaction" and includes observations like "Cultural theory is great because you can twist the meaning around until you get what you want." Best of all, it winds up with the artist dancing wildly, living-room style, to "Under My Thumb."

How the pursuit plays out in "O Muse" remains to be seen. Initially, Colburn was interested in the gender politics in Homer's epic -- Penelope definitely gets the raw end of the deal in the Odyssey. But while Colburn was reading about Sirens and Cyclops, "We were bombing Afghanistan and getting ready to go to war with Iraq. The Odyssey is really this story of what happens to a person after a long, bloody war." She saw the contemporary parallel. "So I definitely shifted some of my attention to the Iliad... I guess it's kind of an antiwar piece."

Colburn made a similar shift in her art show, which Firehouse curator Pascal Spengemann describes as "a very topical exhibition. Her approach is amazing in the sense that she uses the materials at hand -- her body, a video camera, a simple ink wash, sewing machines, knitting -- to address something that is happening in real time," he observes. "When I asked her to do this show eight months ago, this war wasn't about to happen. I'm sure she went through a whole series of permutations. Her mind moves in a way that forces her to be more topical, I think."

Along those lines, Colburn offered part of her exhibition space to the Political Knitters Project, a group of 23 activists who combine yarn-working and current events. It's an interactive installation that invites viewers to talk politics and knit, or learn to use the needles for the very first time. Meghan O'Rourke made the knitted house that dominates the gallery. She was inspired by the all-encompassing warmth she got from a pair of pants crafted by the same means, which are also hanging in the exhibition.

It's a cosy scene that may -- or may not -- have something to do with the Odyssey. Penelope busied herself weaving and unraveling a shroud, waiting for her man to come back from the war. For his part, Odysseus spent years searching for home. Miniature knitted houses placed around the room suggest a proliferation of domestic scenarios. The warm and inviting fiber dwellings suggest not only individual lives but also the larger notion of a shared but fragile community.

Colburn may have found the best of both worlds in the "boonies," as she calls her current home in Hardwick. She's done with San Fran, and also Boston, where she spent two years earning her master's in library science. For now she says she's committed to Vermont, even if the state offers a smaller local selection of dance partners. It could mean a new role for Hannah Denni-son, who gave Colburn her first big break in Burlington. "We talked about her making a solo for me," Dennison says, noting the tables have turned. "I like that."

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