Were someone to ask you to think of "Modern Dance," you probably wouldn't envision doll heads. Or cake icing. Or old-fashioned Slip 'n Slide games.
Zoetic Dance Ensemble, however, frequently employs a quirky sense of humor in the company's athletic, technically accomplished approach to dance. "We're very conscious of 'audience abuse,'" co-director Melanie Lynch-Blanchard says while working on the company's latest show, Broke, playing Oct. 18-20 at 7 Stages. "Modern dance can be fun. People may not realize that. We want shows that will appeal to our dancers' parents as well as someone who has a Ph.D. in dance."
The seven-year-old, all-female Atlanta company will put its muscular yet mischievous ethos on full display in Broke, a full-length evening of dance created solely by the ensemble. During a recent Saturday-afternoon rehearsal at the Gym at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, Zoetic's eight dancers put the finishing touches on six pieces that all touch on the concept of things being "broke," while showing creative and personal unity that seems very much unbroken.
While some of the pieces fit one's expectations for abstract modern dance, "I Bought" by Zoetic co-founder Candess Giyan exhibits more of the company's trademark theatricality by riffing on technology out of control: The dancers specialize in mechanized, robotic movements, at times tipping over on their sides but keeping their legs moving, like fallen wind-up toys. Cortney Alexander's laugh-out-loud funny "How Sweet It Was" presents six friends whose initial frolics suggest sweetness and light, but reveals hilarious rivalries and suspicions as the music turns darker.
Zoetic clearly enjoys using familiar props or pop references to make its shows accessible. "Wet," first performed at Dad's Garage in 2004, featured water pistols and a vintage Slip 'n Slide as well as the dancers' intricate movements. "At Cake in 2005, we gave spoonfuls of cake icing to audiences before the show," says Lynch-Blanchard. "It helped them let their guards down." You could compare such touches to listening to the Kronos Quartet do a cover of a Jimi Hendrix song, then hearing their same musical accomplishment in a rendition of Philip Glass.
But you could just as easily approach a Zoetic performance as seeing an athletic exhibition or Olympic sport. Zoetic has a local reputation for tough training regimens, although Lynch-Blanchard questions its validity. "I don't know where that comes from," she says. "We're definitely geared to advanced classes, to professionals who endeavor to work their bodies in a technical way. The more tools the dancers have at their disposal, the more it improves the choreography. We're not just 'feeling the burn.'"
Both transplants to Atlanta, Giyan and Lynch-Blanchard met in the mid-1990s at a dance audition and found each other to be the kind of kindred spirits who took different paths to the same destination. Giyan was a principal dancer with the Denver Contemporary Dance Theatre, while Lynch-Blanchard studied at the prestigious Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, both in New York. They took the name "Zoetic," meaning "lively," as an alternate to naming the group for themselves. "When you name things after yourself, you're shooting yourself in the foot – you have to be the artistic leader forever. We wanted to be more of an ensemble."
Giyan acknowledges the difficulties of starting a dance company, particularly finding like-minded, committed dancers and handling finances. "It was important to us to pay our dancers, so we paid for our first pieces out of our pockets. So you'd skip paying a phone bill in order to pay a dancer."
At the rehearsal, Lynch-Blanchard and production manager/lighting designer Diane Lasilla discussed some remaining ideas for short scenes to provide segues between Broke's pieces. To set up "How Sweet It Was," Lynch-Blanchard suggests, "I'd like to see Cortney crawling through a pile of doll heads. Cortney is this amazing crawler."
"You have some good crawls, too!" Lasilla says.
"It comes from watching the babies," Lynch-Blanchard says. Broke will be her first performance since having her second daughter almost a year ago, which increases some of the stakes for her. "I'm 37 years old. There's a variety of challenges I face. Having kids changes your body. I'm not going to put myself in a bikini and do spins." Dancers tend to be prone to injuries and early retirement, like any athlete, but Lynch-Blanchard puts a positive spin on getting older. "It might be easier for a dancer, since we're used to physical change in our bodies."
Some of the most entertaining moments in the Broke rehearsal came from the unguarded moments, such as two of the dancers giggling during a silly moment of "How Sweet It Was," the occasional "Dammit!" or exasperated outburst after a mistake, and even the dancers' heavy breathing when a piece was finished. Little details like those help you appreciate how much effort and concentration goes into a dance performance, when the finished product seems so effortless. Zoetic Dance Ensemble clearly puts a great deal of work in the name of fun, literally throwing their bodies into their art.
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