Personally Seasoned Dance Premiere
An Imaginary Dance Review on My Purpose for Creating and Dancing
Written September 5, 2005, as a graduate studies course assignment
Rachel Bruce Johnson
Carbon copy cutout dancers are hardly what you will find in Watercourse Dance Company’s recent premiere performance “Us Who Live Here”. The physical bodies are as varied as the eclectic movement tastes of artistic director and performer, Rachel Bruce Johnson. This emerging dance cooperative is finding light in the established dance scene of the city by doing what it does best: diversify. From pure movement ideas to multi-media work, Reformation Dance Cooperative is a project company exploring multiple applications of dance while remaining loyal to exploring the medium of movement in the body. Even though the dancers’ ‘containers’ are as different from one another as salt & pepper, all have obvious performance depth and artistic presence that help to diversely season each choreographic work. The root of that diverse work seemed to be diverse personal experience and a unity rooted in common humanity.
Bruce Johnson casually philosophizes that “personal experiences shape the decisions of your life; the way you conduct yourself as well as the response you choose to have from them. Performing from the body you have means performing from those experiences. Not that you are limited by your experiences but that they simply mark the way you’ve come from. All of this informs you as a performer regardless of the decisions you ultimately make in a performance.” “Us Who Live Here” is a collection of body stories as diverse and personal as the performers’ bodies. Each dance seems to be tailored to the dancer performing. Ranging from light comedy, as in The Secret Lives of Housewives, to serious commentary about verbal abuse in Mute ON, an atmosphere of intimacy invites the audience to connect to personality, mistakes and triumphs. “My life as a performer has taught me that people are an infinite well of connections and it is possible to speak to a person without the aid of words. It is not always about what I have crafted but sometimes about the existence of a strange grace that has the ability to cover wounds…even deep ones, as in the idea that failure can beget recovery.”
A seasoned performer herself, Bruce Johnson’s work has only recently emerged into the public’s eye, partly due to “blooming late” and partly due to her passion for grassroots work that has kept her out of the limelight. She offers some insight into why her personal decision to perform is so important to the company’s work: “Kinesthetic and interpersonal connections give me the greatest satisfaction in performance; connections to the movement, to the audience, or to an idea give me a passion for the work. Acclaim means nothing without these connections – especially connections with people and the generation of conversation. Remaining a performer keeps me passionately and personally connected to the mission of the company’s work. If I knew that nothing really happened onstage of any consequence – ever – I would quit.” That is the main reason she chooses to open up the choreographic responsibilities to guest artists and company members.
At any given moment, company members can be found rehearsing, building sets, discussing new projects with collaborators, or mentoring academy students as they perpetuate this grassroots company into the illuminated mainstream. There is no hierarchy other than the delegation of final decisions to the artistic director that keeps these company members designated to solitary roles. Each performer seems to radiate with passion and creativity and is actively involved in a personal set of interests that feeds the company professionally as a whole. Dancers who are actively engaged in the process of the work energize rehearsals and performers are, at times, called upon to submit improvisational material or simply imitate the movement of a set work. Regardless of how the work is conducted, a respectful attitude of the performer’s expertise is vital to the company’s work and mission and seems commonplace among the dancers she prefers to work beside. “I feel most comfortable viewing the relationships with my dancers as a collaboration because I enjoy the excitement that a positive, respectful working relationship can yield. However, I am not afraid to assume leadership and make firm decisions, reasoning that this leadership role is necessary for remaining faithful to the company’s overall mission.”
Even though Bruce Johnson claims to be a better performer than a choreographer, it is obvious that her commitment to creating accountability with other performers, directors and choreographers only serves to strengthen her body of work. The main way She does this is by carving out space for collaborative work. “I often feel like I am stealing ideas when people say things or suggest ideas that I then take and incorporate with my ideas and make something out of it. It sometimes causes me to criticize my work and think that my creativity only flows from non-original sources. But, I don’t really believe that there is such a thing as an original idea; it’s simply who gets there first and has the resources to direct it to fruition. With time-spent in the medium choreographing, I think my personal skills will improve. All that said, I am most interested in directing good work with a positive impact into an audience’s awareness.”
Performance vulnerability is the key, Bruce Johnson states, in finding company members for this particular work. In addition to high standards of technical preparedness and integrity, she values a collaborative working environment where performers are ‘fully present’, which is to say, giving of themselves in mental, emotional and physical ways as professionally as possible. Although this call to vulnerability remains an invitation, rather than a directive, out of respect for people’s privacy and personal choice, Bruce Johnson believes that accessing one’s generosity is what makes performances of the work so potentially powerful. “I believe I am a strong performer because I have allowed myself strong experiences in life. I have allowed myself to deeply feel the circumstances of my life with very little ‘shutting down’. This is not to say that I have not had cause to ‘shut down’, but it is a choice. I think this has allowed me to practice moving in and out of empathetic performance states regardless of whether or not I have the personal knowledge of any elusive experiences. Actually being a performer has helped me to understand the privilege of choice and that performance is all about choice. Live in the freedom of that knowledge and contentment is achievable. Performance taught me that, or hit it home, rather. And audiences have responded positively to the resulting work.”
With so much talk about being personal in the work, it is hard to imagine that any professional work actually gets accomplished. But even though the working environment reflected an atmosphere of friendship rather than the stress-driven energy of co-workers, a comfortable balance of personal and professional realms was accessed easily. The result was a premiere concert of professional-caliber performances of artful dance work. “It’s about the ability to use the personal toward the work, not instead of the work. I usually encourage personal interaction in rehearsal and often outside of it, but there has to be a balance in order to accomplish the work. I need mature movers who will take care of their bodies, see that as an important and respectful approach to the work, and have considerable work ethic and integrity but I prefer working with those who also understand a balance of work and play. In conclusion Bruce Johnson offers that “the body alone being the central focus of dance is a nice idea, but if focus can’t be given to the body in connection to something bigger than itself, such as a relationship or an idea, then what are we doing here?”
photo by Jeanne S. Mam-Luft
I'm a Christ-follower passionate about moving in truth/love and intellectual rigor through all things faith + art. A professional Dance Artist and fancying myself an amateur Christian Apologist, I’m committed to moving in the liminal space between catastrophic reverence of God and a quaking humility that intentionally keeps the tremors of Grace close at hand.