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Dance the Evolution

Middlebury's Big APE make their moves


Published March 17, 2010 at 4:37 a.m.

Tiffany Rhynard - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Tiffany Rhynard

There was one image dancer/choreographer Tiffany Rhynard just couldn’t shake: yoga in heels. So she suited up and gave it a try. And while she was at it, she threw on the giant white rabbit head she just happens to own — beneath which, she says, it is almost impossible to see — and began to move, swinging her hips from a come-hither sex kitten pose into downward-facing dog. It was all part of the process of building a solo for her Big Action Performance Ensemble’s latest work, Disposable Goods, which premiered at the FlynnSpace in Burlington late last month.

Rhynard, 38, an artist-in-residence at Middlebury College, created Big APE about two years ago with a handful of recent Middlebury graduates. She had been directing the college’s semiprofessional touring company, the Dance Company of Middlebury, when she got the idea of starting her own ensemble.

“We built this piece called I’m Right, You’re Wrong,” she says. “And when it was over — when the tour was over — none of us really wanted it to end.” So, in 2008, Rhynard and some of her students, including current Big APE performers Simon Thomas-Train and Yina Ng, began collaborating. Ellen Smith-Ahern, also a Middlebury alum, joined the ensemble soon thereafter.

Big APE’s work is curious and playful, thought provoking and bold, qualities that were evident from the moment the show began at the FlynnSpace. Two dancers welcomed the audience by passing out cups of red wine and Coke before launching into a dramatic recitation of LMFAO’s hip-hop club anthem “Shots.”

“I don’t like red wine; I don’t like that bunny mask, but they needed to be there,” Rhynard explained after a dress rehearsal the night before the show. It was the first time the group had incorporated most of its props, which included a toaster oven (for baking cookies), bags of garbage, iPods, potato chips and cigarette packs. Rhynard’s work often develops this way — through seemingly disconnected associations. She finds herself stuck on a single image and begins to chase it. “It feels like sometimes I’m not in control,” she conceded. “In some ways the piece kind of takes over.”

In many ways, this relinquishing of control is exactly what Rhynard is looking for — and what audiences see in her dancers’ work. Big APE dancers oscillate between more formal, tightly choreographed movement and a kind of frenetic improvisation, reacting to one another’s pushes and pulls.

Rhynard has high hopes for the ensemble, which is holding auditions next month. Currently in the works is a project called “Everyone Can Dance,” which would establish a network of performance hubs across Vermont. There Big APE would give master classes and encourage people who might not consider themselves dancers to join in.

“We’re trying to get dance more visible in the community, show people that it can happen at the coffeehouse or out on the sidewalk,” Rhynard says.

Paul Besaw, assistant professor of dance at the University of Vermont, has also been working to invigorate the state’s dance community. He’s a Big APE fan. “I think it’s really great for a million different reasons,” Besaw says. “I like the contribution of a dance company.”

Most dancers in Vermont have to piece their careers together from different projects in different venues, Besaw notes, so an audience that enjoys their work and wants to see it again can’t always be sure where to look. Big APE, as an ensemble of dancers developing a consistent style of its own, give dance lovers something to return to, he suggests. With Big APE, Besaw adds, Rhynard is giving a face to dance in Vermont.

Disposable Goods was born last year at a graduation ceremony. Rhynard was struck by something the speaker said about trash, about “a magical place called ‘away’ where everything goes that we don’t want to deal with.” She wanted to know just how much junk she accumulated, so she started saving her trash, bagging it all up and storing it in her garage. Before long, she began to think differently about all she consumed.

“It was amazing how, every object you pick up, you think, Where is this going to go once I’m done with it? Is it recyclable?” Rhynard says.

What began as research for Disposable Goods turned into an element of the performance itself. In “Trash,” the piece that was the seed of the show, performers hurl Rhynard’s collection — garbage bags spilling open to reveal pizza boxes and milk cartons, yogurt containers and plastic cups — right onto the stage where Rhynard and Ng are dancing. They just keep on, stepping nimbly around the little piles, rolling over boxes and crumpling the cardboard.

While rehearsing the piece in its earlier incarnation, Rhynard says she learned that “You have to keep your eye on [the trash].” Though she meticulously cleaned and picked through the bags to make sure they were free of anything that could hurt the dancers, passersby in various rehearsal and performance spaces still tossed in their soda cans and bottles. At one performance, Rhynard was hit in the head with a can. Another time, the dancers ended up with a floor full of broken glass.

Rhynard has danced since she was a kid, but for many years she considered herself more of a visual artist, focusing on painting, drawing and making sculptures. She spent several years as a jeweler before switching to dance while she was an undergrad at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She deepened her knowledge with an MFA in choreography from Ohio State University. These days, Rhynard prefers to call herself a movement artist.

“I was thinking about the word ‘artist,’” she says. “I associate myself with that word more [than with ‘dancer’ or ‘choreographer’] because I’m building something, and I don’t know what it’s going to be in the beginning. I’m starting from impulse or a motivation I can’t shake away. It’s like, I have to do this. I feel very driven to make things, and I’ve fallen into movement as my predominant medium.”

Rhynard is also a filmmaker whose work has screened at the Dance for the Camera Festival in Salt Lake City and Dancing for the Camera at the American Dance Festival. She recently finished a documentary called Women Building Larger Lives, which offers a glimpse into the lives of incarcerated women in a vocational construction program at the Vermont state women’s prison.

With Big APE, Rhynard’s work is definitely more than just dance. As she describes it, it’s a conversation with the audience.

In Disposable Goods, audience members find cards on their seats that prompt them to write down a few things they need and don’t need. Later in the show, dancers copy out their responses on the back wall of the stage. Cookies bake throughout the performance and are hand-delivered up and down the rows between scenes. And at the end of the show, when the stage is littered with garbage, the dancers invite the audience to help clean up the mess and, finally, to join them in a dance.

The fourth wall is broken almost all the way through.

Rhynard likes involving the audience partly because she sees this as an opportunity to shake up the often-alienating world of conventional dance, “where the lights come up, you come into the space, you do your thing, and you leave.”

“I’m interested in creating more of a bridge, because often the majority of the people in a modern dance audience are either dancers or friends of dancers,” she says. “How do we cultivate an audience for dance that just comes because they’re interested in it?”

She wants to explore the fine line between alienation and engagement. Offering refreshments is one way to do that.

“It’s nice to do something for the audience, but at the same time, it’s indulgent,” Rhynard says. “They don’t need cookies. They don’t need wine. So it’s also curious to see who takes it, who doesn’t. And how do they respond to this offering that’s a little bit loaded?”

The beverages, after all, are served in disposable plastic cups.

Rhynard’s hope is that people leave with questions about themselves and the way they navigate the world. She’d also like to see them somehow moved to action. When asked about her use of the word “activism” to describe what she does, Rhynard lets out a big sigh.

“Artistically I feel like an activist, but I don’t feel like I’m getting out on the street,” she says. “I did for the Iraq War, which was, sadly, pointless. I was in Columbus, Ohio, at the time. We would do some marches, mainly walks through the street. There was always this small showing of people. It was just so sad.”

Rhynard’s work with Big APE, by contrast, feels to her like one small way she can make a difference, she says. At least she can get a few people to think about what they need, what they waste, and who cleans up after the party’s over.