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An Interactive Dance-Video-Music Thing Takes Over River Arts

State of the Arts


Published September 1, 2010 at 6:35 a.m.

Polly Motley, upended
  • Polly Motley, upended

Choreographer Polly Motley’s Critical State isn’t the kind of performance you’re supposed to watch from beginning to end. In fact, Motley says, it might be best to take in the three-hour “intermedia event” this week at Morrisville’s River Arts in small doses.

“The ideal situation is to come and go,” she says. “People can walk out the door and across the street to The Bee’s Knees. They can get a cup of coffee or a whiskey, talk about it and come back in.”

There will certainly be a lot to take in. Over the course of the evening, dancers will move throughout the building while composer Samuel Haar mixes an ever-changing soundtrack, video artist Molly Davies mixes and projects live footage of the dancers, and lighting designer Stefan Jacobs keeps up with it all.

Motley, a critically acclaimed choreographer and dancer living in Stowe, thinks of the work as an installation rather than a performance.

“It’s not a dance concert, it’s not a music concert, it’s not a video screening,” Motley says. “All the units have parity; all the units are interrelated.”

She and her partner, Davies, have been exploring this kind of mixed-media collaboration for years. In an earlier work called Drawing From the Body, Motley lies on a table in a gallery, her naked body partially covered in a sheet. She subtly moves her body while a pair of camerawomen zoom in on her movements, which are then projected on a gallery wall. Motley is interested in divulging details of the body’s shiftings, she says, giving her audience a glimpse into what it might feel like to be dancing the dance.

Critical State, which is funded by the Vermont Community Foundation, the Vermont Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, reaches a whole new level of collaboration. For starters, Motley invited five dancers from diverse technical backgrounds to work with her on the project, each one bringing his or her own solos and duets to be incorporated in the mix. Joyce Lim, from Malaysia, brings her knowledge of traditional Japanese Noh theater. Diane Madden, Stacy Spence and Cori Olinghouse — who specializes in “vogueing,” a competitive dance style imitating runway models — bring their experience with the Trisha Brown Dance Company. Jeremy Olson draws on his education in physics to create movement.

“We are trained dancers, that’s very clear, but our aesthetic is much more along the lines of performance art,” says Motley, then explains that Olson’s portion of the performance will involve building and tearing up charcoal sculptures. “None of this is for a seated audience.”

In many ways, audience members, who can move freely through the three rooms at River Arts, are encouraged to participate. Digital cameras will be available for snapping photos and passing along. Viewers itching to bust their own moves can check in at an iPod station, pick out a song and a performer, and dance. Or they can stop at a computer station and offer some feedback or upload their photos.

Motley avoids sweeping explanations of the work. When it comes to this collaboration, she says, what you see is what you get.

“We’re working on a puzzle, trying to find the most elegant solution,” she says. “Composing is really the name of the game here. How much time do these physical processes actually need? How long do they hold our attention? How long might they hold your attention? And that’s what we really don’t know yet.”

Working with all these artists has been exhilarating, Motley says, if overwhelming at times.

“We laugh a lot, because it’s just like this impossible thing we’re trying to do, in some ways,” she says. “We want the audience to just chill and enjoy themselves, because we don’t always know what the hell we’re doing, so they shouldn’t worry if they don’t, either.”