One of the hardest things about building a two-story house out of cardboard is taking it down.
That’s the word from the artists of the Lucky Penny, who in summer 2012 built a full-sized cardboard house using 50,000 square feet of paper products in a nonstop, five-week, day-and-night labor of love and glue for the dance performance Threshold. “When it came time to take it apart, I refused to be in the room,” says Lucky Penny cofounder and choreographer Blake Beckham. Although the house was built under the understanding that it would eventually be dismantled, watching it happen proved to be far more difficult than Beckham had imagined. “It was really kind of devastating,” she says. “I became a hysterical basket-case. We made this monument and then watched it be destroyed, knowing that was it. They literally took chain saws and shredded it and then took it to recycle.”
As with the Lucky Penny’s 2011 summer show PLOT, a migrating, site-specific dance work utilizing several locations at the Goat Farm Arts Center, and the organization’s 2013 show The Library at Night, a Nicole Livieratos performance piece set in the Decatur Library after hours, nothing was to remain of Threshold after the final performance was over. None of the works created by the Lucky Penny could be repeated, remounted or taken to another venue: it’s doubtful if they could ever really even be recreated in any form.
So for their big summer show of 2014, the artists of the Lucky Penny set out to do something completely different: to design a show that wouldn’t necessarily have to end with the final performance of its first run. The Beckham-choreographed work Dearly Departures opens at the DramaTech black box theater at the Ferst Center on the campus of Georgia Tech on Thursday and runs through August 2. The central feature of the set is a motorized, programmable, split-flap display board, the sort that was often used in train stations and airports to list arrival and departure times. The new show for five dancers is a meditation on departure and loss, one that, appropriately enough, is specifically designed to be ready for travel. The creators say they hope the performances at DramaTech are part of the work’s beginning, not its end.
Although the look of the set will be more stark than the look of the earlier, visually elaborate works, its creation took no less time and effort. Beckham says that making an old-fashioned, clacking display board turned out to be even more complicated than the building of a cardboard house. “Threshold felt like the hardest thing, so exhausting and so intense,” she says. “This turned out to be just as demanding, just in different ways. The sign, while it’s not as grand in taking up the entire room, it’s extraordinarily complicated.”
Everything on the sign, from the screen-printed letters to the units that contain them, was hand-made, with nothing pre-fab or pre-ordered. A team led by the Lucky Penny built the sign over a period of two months at The Workshop in Inman Park with Myron Lo as the head electrical engineer on the project and Daniel Garver as the lead in the computer programming. The sign, featuring Rolodex-style units that display letters and numbers, is programmable and will rotate during the show to display Beckham’s text. “It’s been a process of reverse engineering, taking this technology that’s out of date and obsolete and figuring out through research and trial and error how to replicate it,” says Beckham.
“The most remarkable thing by far is the support we’ve had along the way,” says Lucky Penny cofounder Malina Rodriguez of the dedicated crew and team of volunteers who work, often weeks at a time and late into the night, to help make the shows happen. So far, the Lucky Penny’s shows have all been self-produced and self-presented (funds for Dearly Departures come from various sources: a recent seed grant from the Rauschenberg Foundation, a Tanne Foundation award for Beckham, an Indiegogo fundraising campaign), but organizers say they hope this show will spark interest from presenters in other cities.
The sign itself will be rigged to hang above the performance space, which will otherwise be delimited by black curtains to give a sense of enveloping darkness. “It’s something we’ve been talking about, creating a sense that this is nowhere and everywhere, a very transitory or purgatorial kind of space,” says Beckham. Running along one side of the theater will be a curving 40-foot bench designed to resemble a luggage carousel with portals on either end. It will act as a sort of waiting area for the dancers, who make no entrances or exits during the performance. The set also features a vintage phone booth set to one side, with all the elements meant to evoke a sort of timeless, placeless waiting area, a point of departure. “We’re trying to avoid contextualizing the piece in a certain era, although for me it has these things about outdated forms of communication,” says Beckham.
Communication — and the difficulty of authentic and effective communication — are also central themes of the movement itself. Beckham worked closely with her five dancers — Alex Abarca, Anna Bracewell, Alisa Mittin, Claire Molla and Erik Thurmond — to create material for the work, generating the movement in an intimate, improvisatory group process. “They’re a really integral part in creating the work,” says Beckham. “Less and less do I rely on my own body and the preferences of my body in the studio. I create the context and framing for the material, but it’s really about the agency of the dancers.”
One of the central challenges of creating the dance is making sure that the dance works in tandem, not in competition, with the sign, says Beckham. “I’m interested in the sign as a kinetic sculpture, as an object. I’m interested in it for how it creates the atmosphere and context for what we’re looking at. And it’s just as much a sound installation as a visual installation,” she says of the rotating, clacking display board. “But I don’t want it to compete with the live bodies in space. It’s very seductive. When it starts going, you kind of want to stare into it. It’s certainly one of the challenges.”
The performance itself will be episodic in structure, featuring constantly shifting configurations of the five dancers: in solos, in duets, in trios and in ensemble work. “I was interested in the spectrum running from cool detachment to the emotional immediacy of that moment of departure,” says Beckham.
The dancers say that the work has been both physically and emotionally demanding, but for some of them, the theme of departure has a special resonance. Dancers Alex Abarca and Alissa Mittin, both of whom have worked and danced extensively in Atlanta, are departing the city soon after the first run of Dearly Departures ends. Abarca heads to New York University, where he will begin pursuing an MFA in dance, and Mittin for Houston to pursue professional opportunities there. The final performance of Dearly Departures will likely be the last of many performances in Atlanta for both of them, at least for quite some time.
“I’m going to have a really hard time in a beautiful way,” says Mittin. “It’s not just about a departure for me, but all the things I’ve accumulated along the way. I’m literally leaving and literally giving away all of my things, getting ready to move. It’s pretty intense.”
In all, 60 people have had a hand in building the show. “We’ve been so moved by everybody that came together around this concept,” says Beckham. “I really thought that after Threshold, I would never do anything that exhausting again. But we kind of did it again.”