ArtsATL > Dance > Preview: Julie Rothschild’s “Animal,” coming to Skwhirlhaus on Friday, was born in cyberspace

Preview: Julie Rothschild’s “Animal,” coming to Skwhirlhaus on Friday, was born in cyberspace

taught her choreography to the dancers via the Internet.
Julie Rothschild, "Animal" online rehearsals
Rothschild taught her choreography to the dancers via the magic of the Internet.

Colorado-based choreographer Julie Rothschild will present her new work, “Animal,” at Skwhirlhaus this Friday and Saturday, September 20-21, and she met the majority of her cast in person for the first time just a week beforehand. 

It sounds like the tagline for a dance-themed reality show, but in fact it’s a Rothschild dream come true: to show her talent after a hiatus from choreography and to experiment by rehearsing online. Internet technology helped connect her with dancers in distant locations. But it posed several challenges, which led her to discover more about the possibilities and limitations of dancing in cyberspace.

In July, Rothschild responded to a call for proposals from Maryn Whitmore, founder and director of Skwhirlhaus, who selected Rothschild’s project for the outdoor venue’s fall season. Rothschild then announced a video audition on the Skwhirlhaus Facebook page and chose eight dancers, from Atlanta, Athens and Charlottesville, Virginia. In August, she launched a Kickstarter campaign and successfully raised more than $15,000 for travel expenses and artist’s fees. As she waited to find out whether the project would be funded, Rothschild and her dancers generated movement material online using Google+Hangouts. Of the online rehearsal process, she says, “It was an experiment. I can’t say I give it the two thumbs-up yet. But as a way to get started, it was definitely great.”

Rothschild, 44, who lived and danced professionally in Athens for nine years before moving to Boulder in 2009, hasn’t performed or choreographed much lately, she says. She opened a studio in Boulder, where she teaches Alexander Technique, a therapeutic method that encourages mindful and efficient movement in everyday life. In an effort to merge the physicality of dance with that of the technique, Rothschild began videoing improvisational solos. “[Alexander] had an impact on how I was thinking about improvisation, not just on how I move but how I process information,” she says.

Julie Rothschild
Rothschild’s technique explores movement.

The solos are intimate movement explorations. Rothschild says she “never intended for performance,” but that eventually became the catalyst for “Animal.” In one piece, the shot frames Rothschild’s lower body, her right foot delicately balanced on a bench, left leg in the foreground. Clad in athletic shoes and shorts, she rises up on the ball of her foot and a web of tendons, ligaments and muscles ripple beneath the skin. Another performance, shot on a small porch and sunlit through wooden, cage-like slats, reveals similar attention to detail and anatomical nuance.

For the audition, Rothschild posted these and other solo videos of herself and asked for improvisational movement responses. Atlanta dancer Mary Grace Phillips, who had not met Rothschild before signing on to the project, remembers the choreographer’s primary request: “I’m not asking you to move like me. Move like you.”

Phillips says she was drawn to the project because of Rothschild’s reputation as an intelligent dance-maker. “I trust her movement and her brain, which makes me want to do what she asks,” says Phillips, who then adds, “There’s only so much personality you can get through a screen.”

Throughout the online rehearsal process, the dancers communicated one on one with Rothschild to develop individual material. When time permitted, she held video conference calls with up to six dancers at once; each occupied a small square on the choreographer’s screen. “It’s kind of like air traffic control,” she says. “I see the chaos and it’s kind of beautiful.” A time delay often caused dancers to blur as they moved fast, and Rothschild was inspired to “re-create the dissonance. It gives me ideas: seeing people try to work things out in their own space, but all at the same time.”

The dancers usually logged on to rehearsals from their homes, but Rothschild often found the surrounding furniture and limited space a hindrance to creativity. Phillips decided that her house was too small and joined the conference calls from a large studio. To encourage the dancers to consider bigger spatial patterns, Rothschild asked Phillips to step aside so that everyone could look at the empty studio. “Put yourself there, tell me where you’re starting the phrase and where you’re going to finish it,” she told the dancers.

The choreographer didn’t foresee every problem. “When you’re rehearsing in person, you watch, and then you want to back away and think about what you just saw,” she explains. But online, Rothschild felt that she had to fire comments and feedback at the dancers as soon as they finished moving. “I think it’s the immediate nature of working online,” she says. “That’s how chatting works. I was exhausted and not even sure what I said.” After three rehearsals, she began to allow herself more time to process information.

Phillips empathizes. “I can’t imagine what it would be like for her, being the one who’s watching everything at once,” she says.

Recently Rothschild was on a video conference call with five dancers when her computer froze. Through texts and emails, she sent instructions as she attempted to reconnect. As her image flickered in and out of the chat room, the dancers taught one another movement material.

Phillips, who has also presented work at Skwhirlhaus, appreciated the challenge. When dancers are together in a studio, “you can see them in the mirror and the system is efficient,” she says. Online, the process is slower. Piece by piece, Phillips demonstrated her movement phrase. And because only her microphone was on, she had to go back and forth from the space to her computer to read typed questions and answer them aloud.

Despite the reliance on technology and all its logistical frustrations, “Animal” was born from Rothschild’s musings on human nature. She wonders what it would be like “if we had clearer access to our instincts,” and much of the movement was drawn from the words “fight, flight or freeze.” The final performance, Rothschild says, will explore the human animal and include some theatrical elements.

“In general, I’m interested in people receiving information in a new way,” she says. “That’s why we see art — to wake up parts of ourselves that lie dormant.”

The Skwhirlhaus show will also feature works by Alisa Mittin, Beth Del Nero and Kala Seidenberg.

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