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.

Lizard Finds a Home: Collaborative Project Update

Carla Bengtson and Darion Smith will present their collaboration, an interactive installation featuring dance and inspired by Carla's work with lizards, in Spring 2018. 

Bengtson and Smith's project has received the green light from the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon, to begin a residence there soon.

lizard darion smith carla bergston.png

A collaborative project between art, dance, science, and the humanities, Lizard is a multi-media installation and interactive dance performance that will be welcomed by museum goers of all ages and interests.

The project, which is the product of the ongoing creative explorations of Smith and Bengtson, promises to deliver an immersive experience on how lizards and humans communicate, the process of learning a physical language, and how we learn to see and understand movement in a new environment.

Stay tuned for more details!

Project Update: Collaboration with Carla Bengtson and Neal Moigard

Back in October, we introduced a new interdisciplinary project that Janusphere Dance Company Artistic Director Darion Smith is working on in collaboration with Carla Bengtson and Neal Moignard.

As Smith explains it, "Carla approached both Neal and I to join her project in which we will be trying to communicate with selected lizard species." The initial question is whether or not it is possible to communicate with the lizards, and what that communication could looks like.  For Smith, another significant question that the project presents is how this communication, and the documentation of it, becomes art.

 Source: by   Biodiversity Heritage Library   is licensed under  CC BY 2.0

Source: by Biodiversity Heritage Library is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Smith will focus on "learning the lizard dialects, which are a series of specific head bobs and push-ups, tail movements, etc." that he will use to create the choreography for the project.

Still in its nascent stages, the project builds on Bengtson's ideas about communication with the natural world.  It will include gallery work, an interactive installation, and a dance performance that uses elements from the discoveries made and the ideas developed as the project progresses. 

For Smith, this particular project has him "thinking about dance in a brand new way in terms of communication."  That includes "looking at problems or ideas through the lens of very different artists" and the impact that has both on the audiences and on the artists themselves.

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.

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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.

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.

Composer Dan Daly on Collaboration, Creativity and Working with Choreographer Darion Smith

We spoke with Daniel Daly about his recent collaboration with choreographer Darion Smith on 1 Up 2 Down.  Daniel Daly is a Master of Music candidate and Graduate Teaching Fellow at the University of Oregon (UO).  

Dan spoke with us about his process, what it was like working with Darion Smith, and how collaborations between composers and choreographers help to enrich the performing arts from a creative development point of view and from an audience point of view.

 Composer and musician Daniel Daly

Composer and musician Daniel Daly

How would you describe your creative process when you are composing a new piece of music?
I try to access an emotional archetype -- fear, exhilaration, longing, etc. -- and then, through a process of inward listening and improvisation at the keyboard, I compose a seed idea that corresponds to that archetype. To develop and complete the piece, I spin out the seed material according to my understanding of its musical properties. The music I spin out may in turn suggest some new and unforeseen dimension of my emotional archetype. Such revelations are exciting, and they keep the energy flowing: music informs archetype, archetype inspires music. Hopefully, at the end of the piece, the music has revealed a drama of emotions.

How does your process change when you are working collaboratively, specifically when you are working with a choreographer like Darion Smith?
The process is the same, but better, faster, and more fun. When collaborating, I still access an emotional archetype, but the immediacy of improvisation and interaction helps me bypass my inward searches -- which can be murky, repetitious, and draining -- and shoot from the hip. I see Darion make a move, and I'm instantly prompted to respond to the emotional and dramatic character it suggests to me. And as I develop the music, his ongoing activity is not merely another factor that I must balance in my attempt to create a coherent piece of art, but it is also a profound source of energy and inspiration. 

What is the relationship between dance and music?
I don't have much insight on this question. I understand that music and dance are both time-based arts, and thus are, in my opinion, a more natural pairing than music and sculpture, for example.

Why are artistic collaborations like your recent collaboration with Darion important for artists like yourselves (do they challenge you creatively in new ways, to they help to bring new work to life more quickly, do you benefit from introducing each other to your audiences, etc.)?
As a composer, I'm desperate for that magic source of inspiration that will help me create meaningfully, quickly, and enjoyably. I often work with text or with theater because I relate to storytelling better than I relate to the demonstration of an abstract musical idea. And I often collaborate with dancers because their art form seems better able to communicate meaning than mine. Whenever I witness a dancer's gesture, I'm struck by a mysterious depth and intimacy. Dance seems to go the heart of the matter, always. Music is sometimes disembodied and inhuman (and therefore, in my perspective, bordering on meaningless). The composition of much of the 20th century's art music revealed astonishing mental expertise and an even more astonishing inability to connect to listeners. Why? I suspect that it was because some of that music wasn't firing on all cylinders. It was brilliant mentally, but deficient, perhaps, in the arenas of body and spirit. I hang around dancers to be a more embodied composer. That way I have a better chance of communicating meaning to my audience.

Do you believe that artistic collaborations are important for audiences, particularly young audiences?  If so, why and how?
I also don't have much insight into this question, alas. 

More about Composer Daniel Daly
He is a composer, but his primary interest is storytelling. To that end, he frequently includes other media – such as theatre and dance – in his compositions. At UO, he created music for Scorched, a play produced at Hope Theatre in winter 2016, and founded sonos domum, a new music ensemble dedicated to multidisciplinary collaboration, in 2014.

His specialty, however, is creating text for music. He recently completed the libretto of a new opera entitled The Banshee, whose music he is currently composing in preparation for a May, 2017 performance. His dramatic vocal compositions have been performed by acclaimed soprano Estelí Gomez in Portland, Oregon, and at the 2016 Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium in Eugene. Prior to his studies at UO, he published his own fantasy novel, When Waters Whisper, and served in a music position at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he transcribed the score of the new musical, The Unfortunates, and created sound for a side-stage production of Caryl Churchill’s apocalyptic drama, Far Away. In 2012, he graduated summa cum laude from Willamette University, where he studied composition, creative writing, digital music production, and piano.
 

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.