It's a Tuesday night at the Bryn Mawr School's dance space and Lynne Price is struggling to make a square formation using five dancers. The Collective Dance Company member is running a rehearsal for its upcoming show, "Tailor-made SHORTS," and is discovering the hard way that it's not so easy to defy geometry. Price first tries putting two dancers on one side of the square and one each on the other three sides, but it just doesn't look even. She tells her dancers to hold each other's arms instead of hands to make the square-ish shape bigger, then changes her mind and shrinks it back up. After a few more trials she has them hold one another at the shoulder and like magic it works: She's made a five-dancer square.
Often, under normal circumstances a choreographer would simply abandon an idea this infeasible and settle on something more easily achieved (in this instance perhaps a pentagon), but then this geometry-defying challenge is not Price's idea. Her piece is commissioned by local artist Kevin Griffin Moreno, and part of that commission asks that all the dancers face one another in a square formation, facing inwards, and hold it for a moment.
This commission concept is just the latest way The Collective has tried to cater to its audience's interests. According to the company's co-director Sonia Synkowski when the group first started offering shorts in 2005, "the idea just came about in conversation with some of our audience members. They love watching dance but sometimes wish it were just a liiiittle shorter." The approach is similar to that of a short film: make a strong statement in a shorter amount of time to hold an audience's attention.
Having already adopted that request for shorter programs, The Collective took the show to the next level of artistic reciprocity—for around $50, anyone could make a commission request. "It was just brainstorming, putting all of our heads together and saying 'Oh, that would be neat, to put a call out and see if someone had an idea, and do it kind of like an a la carte menu,'" Synkowski says.
Commissioners could choose the song, choreographer, costume, or even specific choreographed movements depending on how much they wanted to pay (each additional request added a few dollars onto the total commission cost). "It has helped to make things a little bit more interesting," Synkowski says, laughing.
Often, it is limitations that keep art interesting, and the dancers and choreographers in "SHORTS" are almost as constrained by rules as Tyler Durden and his crew in "Fight Club" (although no commissioners insisted that they punch each other senseless). The first rule of "SHORTS" is: The short must be no longer than five minutes. Second rule: The short may not have more than five dancers. Third rule: The short may not use more than five rehearsal meetings. Fourth rule: The short must follow the guidelines of the prompt given by the commissioner (if applicable).
Adding further complication to the choreographic process, some of these commissions involve more than one guideline. For example, in Moreno's commission, Price is not only constrained by the five-dancers-as-a-square requirement; she must also make reference to poet Rainer Maria Rilke's "Duino Elegies" in the movement. Fortunately this requirement allows for some more creative freedom, and Price ultimately chooses to focus on the idea from the elegies "that beauty can be awful in the literal sense of it inspiring awe, like a thunderstorm, or a pillar of flame." She's also incorporating several images and concepts for her piece related to but separate from the elegies. "I was looking at a lot," she says, "the line between life and death and not looking at it as a terrifying moment but looking at it as a beautiful moment." Of course, it's not easy to pack so many concepts into such a short amount of time. "We've been joking in rehearsal that I'm going to expand this into a full evening-length work," Price says.
Struggling to choreograph against the clock is a shared challenge among the group. "I kind of feel like I have to cram it in," Martha Cooper says of her work. "Usually we have months to plan for things and it's a little bit easier, but because this process is so quick, I don't know that I could go much longer than that five minutes."
Her piece is commissioned by co-director Jessica Fultz's father and requires that she choreograph to the song 'Zazen,' the word for Zen Buddhist sitting practice, and Cooper's piece tries to express the feeling of a meditation without making it literal.
The piece starts with three of the dancers seated and two then quickly move onstage in a series of triplet steps as the seated dancers rise to join them. Through the course of the five minutes they all spend some time moving on the floor and at higher levels. Counterintuitively, despite the energetic quality to some of their motion, a certain calm remains intact throughout—Cooper really has created a choreographed meditation.
"I played with the idea of having someone seated through the entire piece, which is why I have a dancer seated through a lot of it," she says. "And I tried to think about a lot of different ways you could represent just breathing . . . because that's an important part of meditation for me."
Of course, with 15 different choreographed pieces and 15 dancers, each dancer must perform in several pieces, and many are also choreographing on top of that. It's even worse for Synkowski, since she is also working as a co-director.
"When I get to a performance I wish I could fully, mentally, be prepared for being just a dancer, but there's just so much pulling me in so many directions," she says.
Still, she and all the other dancers wouldn't have it any other way. Price puts it best: "My dream life is to both choreograph and perform. Being able to multitask and feel fulfilled on so many different levels—it's lovely."