The Things You Learn in Dance Lofts

Darion Smith, choreographer and artistic director of Janusphere Dance Company, looks back on the nascent stages of A Place of Origin, his latest work exploring identity through dance.

In 2015, I began conducting a character/movement study based on identity: my own identity, the identity of movement gestures, and fantasy storytelling inspired by researching the origins of an identity. The 2015 identity project led to other similar explorations where the idea of identity was expanded upon, with larger groups of dancers and more complex themes and structure. 

 Photo by Pam Cressall

Photo by Pam Cressall

In the new dance work that began to grow, A Place of Origin, I recognized the possibility to combine elements of previous work with emerging methods of creation. The result was a work that encounters archetypes and human behavior and a draft that invites deeper development and distillation.

The purpose of the Dance Lofts at the University of Oregon, where A Place of Origin was made, is to bring choreographers deeper into their processes without the pressure of an end goal and productivity standards and expectations,. Even though I tend to work under a set of standards and expectations, this experience provided me with the space to begin new conversations through my work and a deeper exploration of where it has taken me and where it is going.  

 Photo by Pam Cressall

Photo by Pam Cressall

The project also provided a platform to collaborate with composer Daniel Daly. In the early stages of the process I had originally imagined the work with a female soprano.In the end, Daniel developed the work for clarinet, oboe, and percussion, which was performed live. Daniel's music composition shares the same title as the choreography.   

I explored additional dimensions, working with sets, props, and lighting design. Having so many elements to contend with sometimes made the work get lost in figuring out how to use those elements effectively.

 Photo by Pam Cressall

Photo by Pam Cressall

This challenge helped to push the choreography forward and prompted me to make decisions about what to change, or what to let go of. Another constraint was working for 1 hour/week for 10 weeks in the studio with the dancers, set, and props.

Every challenge and opportunity contributed to the way the work took shape, the ideas I was able to relay through the work, and the lessons I was learned from the process.

Trailer: Big Red Button

In his master's thesis work for the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, Janusphere Dance Company artistic director Darion Smith choreographed a piece called Big Red Button.

Big Red Button is  a sociopolitical dance theater work. The new work for dance grows out of Smith's exploration of choreography and an opening to new ideas about expression and the relationship between audience and performer, and, by extension, the relationship between audience and choreographer.

Big Red Button comes at a time when the current sociopolitical climate creates a range of questions and emotions that art like Smith's is poised to encounter in meaningful ways.

Stay with us as we continue to discuss this new work and others that choreographer Darion Smith premiered this year.

Dispatches from PLU Residency

In addition to creating new work with students at his recent PLU residency, Janusphere Dance Company Artistic Director Darion Smith, says he found it "rewarding to teach beginner/intermediate level ballet and contemporary technique for the week."

PLU dance residency guest choreographer Darion Smith.jpg

Smith shares that the PLU dance students were attentively engaged during his classes and during rehearsals. Throughout the week, Smith says, "I witnessed improvement in the way PLU students performed in both the studio during classes and in rehearsal." 

Guest choreographer in residence Darion Smith with PLU dance students.jpg

Towards the end of the residency, rehearsals for the new work moved to the stage. In 2015 the PLU theater was brought up to date to include new state-of-the-art equipment. The new theater, Smith says, "makes the premiere of Pivotal Play at PLU, April 20 - 21, even more exciting."

Pacific Lutheran University dance department guest choreographer Darion Smith residence.jpg

Stay tuned for more details and ticket information for the upcoming April 20 - 21 performances!

 

In Upcoming Residency, Darion Smith Aims to Teach Dancers to Experience Own Voices

We spoke with Darion Smith about his upcoming artist residency at Pacific Lutheran University.

Smith says that the spring residency at the campus in Tacoma, Washington, will enable him to teach and to create new work with dancers from PLU. As Smith puts it, "[m]y aim is to make it a powerful experience for the students at PLU by integrating their creative abilities into my studio classes and during rehearsals for the new work I am creating."

Many of these creative opportunities will come through improvisation and compositional tasks.  To that end, Smith plans to offer PLU student dancers "new ways to experience dance and develop their own voices."

It is the quest to find an artist's voice and to use dance as a mode of storytelling that propels Smith's choreography.  "One of the main reasons why I fell in love with dance is its ability to tell a story," says Smith, who believes that as a choreographer and a dancer he is "a story teller too."  This is why he looks forward to guiding the students in class and rehearsals, by helping them to discover more about themselves as creative individuals.     

Stay tuned to  the Janusphere Dance Company Blog for more on the work Smith plans to develop with Pacific Lutheran University students this spring, and where and when it will debut.

Choreography Lessons: Working with Old Materials in New Ways

Notes on the creative process for Darion Smith's Screendance Project...

The screendance project includes valuable steps that reveal aspects of my aesthetic choices and lead to future creations, making it important to look at from a creative process point of view.

For this screendance project I have repurposed material elements from two of my choreography works for the stage: 1 up 2 down (2016) and Cavity (2017).  I gain more perspective out of an idea by using it more than once and in different ways. Also, because these were originally solo and duet works, it is possible to play with them in a variety of ways.

The process involved filming short improvised dance sequences in costume with theatrical lighting.  To begin, I wanted to test some simple lighting ideas and to work more within the context of a previously created character idea.  I created approximately 250 video clips in two days, over two weekends, sorting through each clip in the editing phase of the project.

Throughout the screendance project, I learned that by repurposing material elements of previous work into short video clips and rearranging them into a sequence, I was able to find stories, movements, and lessons for future creative works.

This process was not an entirely new way of creating something for me but this one is the most nuanced version of this type.  Usually, my creative process starts out with an image, a piece of music, or a sociological/philosophical question.  From there, I start to build a story with those elements. 

This time, I didn't form a story in mind, before or when filming the scenes.  Instead, I filmed myself doing things that felt inspiring to do in the moment within the context of the repurposed material and the immediate environment.  I formed my story and its meaning by fitting the different clips into a coherent video sequence. As a narrative started to form, I became more decisive in arranging the clips into that sequence. 

Despite the fact that I repurposed material to generate the short videos, a departure from my default creative process, I was able to develop a new perspective on how I might alter my creative process for future choreographic projects.  

New Year, New Work, New Creations

A New Year's message from our artistic director, Janusphere Dance Company co-founder Darion Smith:

2017 was one of the busiest years of my life. It was filled with classes, teaching, performing, and choreographing. I was constantly learning, creating something, and trying out new ideas and methods. Sometimes this creative process happened out of necessity; always, it happened out of curiosity.

It’s been fun not to get stuck in one place for too long (creatively speaking). At the same time, I believe I have found some rich material that I would like to build upon going forward into the new year. I’m expecting to graduate with an MFA in dance in June 2018. 

 Darion Smith on stage in Cavity. Photo by Emma Frank

Darion Smith on stage in Cavity. Photo by Emma Frank

I have tons of work to accomplish between now and graduation, including a terminal project or thesis. I am researching the creative process within choreography. In order to do this I am studying and adapting methods of well known choreographers to my own choreographic project’s process. Hopefully, it will reveal new insights and novel choreographic devices.  At the very least, I aim for it to inspire future creations.

The project will conclude in two ways, with the physical creation and performance of an original choreography, and with a thesis document that explains what went on over the course of the project, critically analyzing the creative process involved in it.

There are many questions that are guiding my investigation into the creative process of choreography that will be revealed in the coming months. I am grateful for the opportunities that continue to present themselves in learning, teaching, performing, and creating. This dance is a labor of love and I cannot wait to incorporate more of what I have gained from graduate school into my work with Janusphere - and with you. 

Motivations from within and without - emerging dance video project

This September found Janusphere artistic director and choreographer Darion Smith working on a video project that morphed into an extension of his work on identity and perception, which continues to grow as a metaphor.

For this dance video project, Smith says he "didn't labor so much in the studio ;choreographing' each movement." Instead, Smith spent his time thinking and planning how to execute ideas with just a few hours in the studio space and only some lighting instruments at his disposal.

concept work video identity and dance darion smith.png

With purposeful limits on resource, time and space, Smith created two short video clips that contribute additional perspective to the characters in each. Looking at the still images of the work, both have similarities.  In the video sequences, on the other hand, two subtly nuanced ideas emerge. 

Smith's two new videos are not final works, but parts of something larger.  Through the ongoing project launched this September, Smith is "trying to understand that and to know why I am at this stage of my process. Where is it going from here is a good question to ask myself." 

The two videos are  flight and parasite.    

flight is about a character whose will is to fly.  parasite is about an imaginary creature who lives inside of us and is somehow always present despite never having been invited.  At this stage of the project's development, Smith is attempting to decide what he wants to say with these ideas and to find a way to advance them.

Both videos are the result of improvising with known material, capturing it with specific lighting designs, and then molding the footage into a logical sequence.  Stay tuned for more as the project continues to develop.

Dance in Dialogue: Janusphere Choreographer Explore Movement and Intention in New Work

This summer, artistic director and choreographer Darion Smith worked on some solo material that ended up in video format and an entirely different project with two local Oregon-area dancers, Kendra Lady and Sarah Macrorie.

Creative work and experimentation with movement in the studio gave birth to new ideas that are expanding into larger individual and collaborative works like the duet with Kendra and Sarah.

behind the scenes rehearsal

 

An opportunity to show the duet came up at a venue called Dance In Dialogue (D.I.D.).  So, in the words of Smith, "even though I was not initially working in the studio with a set deadline, I ended up doing exactly that to some degree with the arrival of the performance opportunity."

To prepare the work in progress which Smith gave the working title proximity, Smith went through an extensive process of reviewing and mediating on rehearsal videos.  Of this part of the process, Smith says, "it's not that I don't plan things to do in studio and reach conclusions in studio, but often the most profound insights come when I'm not in the studio, at least conceptually."

janusohere dance company rehearsal photos

Smith encorporated the ideas of movement and intention, with the practical application of new concepts that developed out of his review of the studio work, and presented the piece on September 28, to the Dance in Dialogue audience.

Can I Make Art that is Felt as Much as it is Seen?

I was thinking about the two opportunities that are taking my work out of the University of Oregon and Eugene in 2018, a guest artist and choreographic residency at PLU (Tacoma, WA) and the selection of my choreography for presentation at ACDA (Boulder, CO). In both cases my work will be seen by new audiences and will be performed at new venues.  This will provide opportunities for me to work with young dancers, to gain experience, and to foster creative output and growth.

In addition to these performance and creative opportunities, I am working on a new collaboration with University of Oregon professor and artist Carla Bengston and Neal Moignard, artist and graduate teaching fellow. Collaborating on this project gives me a view into a new way to consider and use dance as a communication as we explore the many dimensions of dance and find meaningful ways to create new work.

In dance making and in art, I am noticing that conventional approaches are good in small doses but too much keeps you stuck in one place.  To be honest, I am sort of scared of changing perspectives... that's actually what makes it fun. It is meaningful (despite how scary it can feel) to use these skills and knowledge to go where I haven't been by following my intuition and then to use those same devices again to make intentional choices. 

This creative approach keeps me (and my collaborators, and my artistic inspirations) from being crushed by externally driven expectations that are somehow less and less appealing to me.

I don't want to make bizarrely different art unless it's effective and meaningful in making me experience the world in new light.

darion smith 3.jpg

I can't know that until I try. That being said, I am also trying to hone in on my own aesthetic.  I don't want to become completely transient in my own world of ideas. I truly am looking for a dance rush that's unique to me, something I can build upon.  The challenge is making art that is felt as much as it's seen. When I saw Bebe Miller for the first time, I was engaged in several ways at once like a sensory overload... in a good way.  This is the kind of reaction I want to create for my audiences. 

Seeing Bebe Miller, I realized that I was profoundly lucky to have been sitting in the audience and that the right person was performing in front of me at the right time in my life. I  experienced that performance, and the impact of art, in a powerful way.

Simply put, it's like eating that smelly piece of piece of stinky cheese that you thought was truly nasty before, but now you're mature enough to appreciate it and now, suddenly, you can't get enough. There are loads of things we will appreciate over time if we're willing to take a chance, to apply some effort, and to be open.

At the same time, there are things that I guess I will never like or that I will always prefer. This is what is so hard for me as an artist: the act of being decisive and making dance a stimulating, powerful experience. 

It feels awkward to look at a lot of my old work, especially the crappy stuff, and think it's probably the same for many artists.  But after spending the time to play and explore, and to be open, my work has become much more nuanced and I feel like I can get to new places by creating a dialogue with myself through my work.

Looking back, I realize I was thinking very much about how I should impress my surroundings instead of myself. I didn't really control my own will because I was ensnared in the opinions of others, even if I and they didn't know it. I guess what I'm trying to say is that for me, right now, I am at peace with a more self-focused perspective in my dance making.

This doesn't mean that I am ignoring the fact that an audience will look at my choreography and have an experience.  It means that I don't mind taking myself and the audience somewhere we might not have expected to go.

Hopefully it's worth it.

Involuntary Movements

By Darion Smith

My new choreography, Involuntary Movements was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World And Me, my own experiences as an African American (biracial), and African American History. 

I was able to create a landscape (set) with props, text, soundscape, and music that incorporated and carried the inspired content of the work and allowed me to live inside of the work as I was performing it.

For me, the experience was transformative in the generative rehearsal phase of the process and then later, that experience was magnified even further when I shared Involuntary Movements in front of an audience. I had dug deep into my own feelings about race, being biracial, African American and half British (white) brought me into a lot of self conflict, if you have read Ta Nehisi Coates' book, you will understand my position even more.

Once again I found myself in the heavy presence of identity, only this time it was less ambiguous and tread the tense line of the social constructs of race in the United States in 2017.  

Involuntary Movements explores the physical and emotional reactions to racism and injustice towards the African American population through my own experiences. 

The new dance premiered at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.  

All photos of Involuntary Movements are by Megan Morse of the University of Oregon Journalism School.

Rosetta

Rosetta is a dance work by Darion Smith based on the concept that the human experience can be distilled from our complex, technologically enhanced and modern social structures into some basic structures that were defining factors in the early stages of the human experience.

The work is built on human structures in our modern society including hierarchy, wonder, conflict, companionship, communication, teamwork, and ritual.

With this piece, Smith's idea was to create a character that could be multiplied and could carry meaning and function for the group. The characters were similar in appearance to each other, again to make their actions read more than their appearances but within a large group.

Hacking Perception and Identity through Dance

Recently my research has been focused on developing new ways to experience identity. I've been conducting experiments for building choreographic structure and content in relation to aspects of experiencing identity.

The results from this research can be seen in the work that follows. But if you want to be thorough you'll have to go back to last year during Spring Dance Loft, when Dan Daly and I performed 1 up 2 down.

In this work, Dan and I wore black spandex body suits that made it hard to tell who was who but it also created a foreign character whose identity was simplified into one surface (spandex).

It would be an understatement to say that these two characters were devoid of facial expressions. Their physical features such as hair, eyes, nose, ears were blended together by the spandex and this made the experience of perceiving them much less about who they were based on their looks.  Rather, perceiving their characters became based on what those characters were doing.

This experience inspired me to ponder how identity influences perception. I believe that one's perception can be hacked, leaving the immediate action of the object more revealed and less complex, this in turn gives way for a broader range of interpretations by the viewer.

My most recent work reflects this realization in a variety of ways.  Stay tuned to the blog for more on that.

1 Up 2 Down A Collaboration with Oregon Musician and Composer Daniel Daly

In 2015, Janusphere Dance Company artistic director and choreographer Darion Smith began a collaboration with musician and composer Daniel Daly.  A graduate teaching fellow at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, Daly joined Smith in the University of Oregon studios to create the piece 1 Up, 2 Down that explores music, dance and relationships.

Daly and Smith, who also perform the piece, presented it at the 2016 Spring Dance Loft at the University of Oregon Department of Dance.

Stay with us for more developments and discussions about this work in progress collaboration.

Shining Light on the Creative Process from Concept to Performance

Janusphere is back in Oregon after a successful studio performance of AMP at On the Boards in Seattle.  We are sitting down with Artistic Director and choreographer Darion Smith to talk about the creative process and how preparation and performance contribute uniquely to the development of new works for contemporary dance.

How does the creative process differ during the preparation process (workshopping, choreographing) and the performance process (dress rehearsals, performances)?

Depending on the project, they are all different, I usually try to stay flexible all the way through the development of the work, even throughout the performance run.

creative process interview with choreographer darion smith

Flexibility is important, especially in the beginning phases when I am researching movement ideas to carry the inspiration behind the work. The central idea or theme needs to be present at this phase, otherwise the process of creating can turn into a runaway train, which might not be a bad thing because you might stumble across new ideas that don't manifest in a process confined to a time limit, but it is certainly a challenge.

If I see that an idea is not working I try to improve it. The big difference is what kind of changes you can make depending on whether you're just getting into the studio, somewhere in the middle of the creative process, or seeing the first stage rehearsal with lights, costumes, and the premiere is tomorrow.

I've made changes to work in the middle of the performance run before and it's nice to have that option. If I had to say where we spend the most energy it's definitely in the creation process, going forwards and backwards over choreography and ideas with the dancers. That can be physically and mentally exhausting but it is so much of what drives the creative process. 

When the idea is unearthed, shaped, and ready to be polished for a performance the process does usually change quite a bit, for me. How is this going to be perceived becomes a big question. At this stage my aim is not to communicate something unintentional to the audience. I share the piece with people to find out if my idea is making the impact I am after and to evolve the piece further.

studio theater janusphere dance company

Does the performance itself provide insight into your choreography and how it - and the works themselves - change over time?

Being a form of conclusion out of an artistic endeavor, a performance definitely sheds light on how clear my idea has been shaped into a physical form. When I go back and look at something I did five years ago I can see that, yes, there are definitely patterns to my work and also an evolution that is unfolding. 

After presenting AMP at On the Boards, do you know things about the work or have ideas about the work that you could not have or would not have had without the experience of performing it live?

Of course, after every performance there is some level of reflection, whether you receive feedback from an audience or not. It is also very different to rehearse something to the fullest (performance level) in the studio compared to performing it in front of a live audience.

At OTB's Open Studio performance a major element in presentation was the low-tech production aspect. So there are no light cues.  Instead each artist comes into the theater and operates the sound system independently without the use of theatrical lighting.  This helps keep us in touch with the piece and teaches us about how to continue to evolve it - and to create.

What We're Working On Wednesday: Combining Dance with the Human Voice

Janusphere Dance Company Artistic Director Darion Smith is hard at work in the studio developing a new work, tentatively titled AMP.  In AMP, Darion explores the nature of voice and the relationship between voice and dance to communicate with and experience the world around us.

We sat down with Darion to talk about the new work, its purpose and the process of bringing it to life.

What inspired you to work with the human voice in a dance piece?

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Spotlight in the Sphere: Steven Jasso Talks On the Boards Festival with Janusphere Dance Company

Janusphere Dance Company dancer Steven Jasso joined Janusphere Dance Company at the On the Boards Festival in Seattle, Washington June 17 - 19, performing in our world premiere of Object.
We sat down with Steven after we returned from On the Boards to talk about the Festival experience.

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