Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Putting Stories Onstage

Last week, guest artist Ellen Bartel presented a piece at the ACC Dance Informance. For those of you who didn’t get a chance to catch the show, or maybe you just want to know more about what you saw, read on to learn about her piece, her process, and her performers!

Scott Roskilly on the left and Jude Hickey on the right during Nebraska Sky. Photo by Brian Drake.
“I really trust these guys as performers so there’s a minimal amount of choreography” - Ellen Bartel. 

Nebraska Sky was originally performed in May 2015 as part of Ellen’s evening concert You Ain’t Alone. The male duet that Jude Hickey and Scott Roskilly performed at ACC is part of what Ellen is calling “non-fiction dance;” taking autobiographical stories, like the story from Jude’s childhood, and presenting them to the audience through movement, images, music and sound. 

“I really trust these guys as performers so there’s a minimal amount of choreography,” Ellen said. One section of the piece, nicknamed “the wiping section,” is a structured improvisation between the couple. Jude describes it as “wiping the debris off from the day before stepping into the bedroom.” The section relies completely upon contact; the dancers remain physically connected throughout the duration of the section.

Unlike many other duets in the dance world, this couple isn’t just portraying a relationship onstage. Jude and Scott have actually been married for 16 years, “but don’t tell the county clerk,” they joke. “It was almost self-indulgent,” Jude said. Doing multiple shows a year keeps him from spending time with his husband, but Nebraska Sky gave him a different opportunity. “I’m doing art with, for and on him. It’s interesting and compelling,” Jude said. But Scott points out the challenge as well, “it’s hard not playing someone else because you can’t hide behind anything.” 

Scott Roskilly and Jude Hickey in Nebraska Sky. Photo by Brian Drake.
“It’s hard not playing someone else because you can’t hide behind anything.” - Scott Roskilly

The piece draws from their relationship but also focuses on a story from Jude’s childhood. “Ellen asked us to juxtapose the story with where we are now,” Jude said. The process involves not only Jude telling his story about a violent encounter with his father but Scott also tells the story in his own words as well. “It’s his story through my lense,” Scott explains. Scott struggled with recounting Jude’s story, “It’s not my story to tell; I don’t wear it,” he explains. But Ellen draws from both perspectives to create an audio track for her non-fiction work. She layers both stories together to create a narrative behind the performers' movement onstage.

Ellen’s presentation at ACC gives students an opportunity to view a new take on dance being created right here in Austin. “I want students to appreciate that’s it not all bells and whistles all the time,” Ellen said. She applauds ACC for being the place where dancers could be their “own person onstage.”  Ellen sums her work up as “nonfiction stories to be creative with.” But one of her performers, Jude, weighs in on her process as well: “Working with Ellen is low pressure - it’s a fun process without the pressure for an exact outcome. She doesn’t expect you to DO something.” From Jude’s perspective, Ellen gives her performers permission to perform work that “doesn’t have to be compelling.” Inevitably, the process then produces just that - compelling, creative, non-fiction dances. 

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