" 'Occupy' is a big word, and, of course, when you say that to people it elicits a very specific thing," says Vincent Thomas.
The dancer, choreographer and associate professor in Towson University's dance department sits in a North Baltimore coffee shop sipping chai and discussing his multimedia Occupy project, which makes its Baltimore debut Feb. 14-16 at the Theatre Project. He says the ideas that grew into this performance started a few years ago but began to take more discrete shape during the localized anti-Wall Street movements that sprang up after protesters took over Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan on Sept. 17, 2011.
For Thomas, the idea of "occupy" extended beyond discussions of economic inequality.
The term "was speaking to me so profoundly," he says. He wanted to "look at how we occupy space as human beings, in this world, in society and in our community. What occupies our minds? What occupies our souls? And how can those notions then lead us to change and in some cases a revolution? So is [this project about] Occupy Wall Street? Is it about Occupy D.C.? Is it about Occupy Detroit? Is it about all these Occupy movements? Well, yes it is — but if it is about those movements specifically is questionable."
Thomas smiles, though he's not trying to be opaque. He's merely conveying that dance has the ability to tap into the immediate and engagingly move toward bigger, more universal ideas.
After earning a master's degree in fine arts from Florida State University's School of Dance, Thomas danced with Randy James Dance Works in New Jersey before joining the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Washington. Both dance visionaries color his practice. James is a dance advocate/educator who produces emotionally evocative choreographies; Lerman is a pioneer of exploring dance as a vehicle for community activism and received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002. Thomas' solo performances and group projects with his VTDance company bring emotional power to political awareness through dance, which he calls the "common language of expression."
Thomas debuted Occupy last June when he was an incubator artist at the American Dance Institute in Rockville. Then it was a narrative immersion featuring 13 dancers (including himself) that incorporated the artwork of Sujan Shrestha, a digital art and design assistant professor at Towson University, and the music of Samuel Barber, Rachmaninoff and Joni Mitchell, as well as original pieces composed for the work. The choreographies came together over a few years, as Thomas worked with poets, musicians and his students to develop the themes and ideas explored by the performances.
He works collaboratively, allowing the people he's working with to make a performance their own.
"They bring so much of themselves to the work, and it's not one of those works that you just learn a role," he says. "You have to dig yourself into it and see how it feels. That way, the performers can bring something else to the work beyond just the step or the movement."
As an example, he talks about one of Occupy's sections, which explores what occupies our minds. Thomas developed the piece with four students in his modern repertory for men class, who brainstormed ideas.
"We talked about what's on their minds," Thomas says. "And we made a list of what goes into the mind, from math equations to science problems and philosophers and even art that stimulates and imprints our minds. So much went into the dialogic process for the guys and from that things naturally surfaced that we were able to hold onto and build a physical landscape of the work for that particular section."
This process means that the rehearsals for this month's performances have been an integral part of forming what the final production will look like, especially as Thomas has added a new section, a collaboration with the Washington-based Urban Artistry.
"A lot of refining," is how Thomas describes the rehearsal process. "Already it's such a strong piece, but I'm not satisfied yet. [The performance] feels good for where it is now, like a hearty bowl of soup.
"But I believe that there is so much that goes on in our communities and our society that this ['occupy'] topic allows us to address a lot of different things. So I'm interested to get back in rehearsal to see what happens next."
If you go
VTDance/Vincent Thomas presents "Occupy" Friday-Feb. 16 at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $12-$22. theatreproject.org or 410-752-8558.