Dance-maker Sidra Bell says she’s shy, but you wouldn’t know it from her work. When her company, Sidra Bell Dance New York, made its much-heralded Atlanta debut at Tanz Farm last December with “Nudity,” her dancers revealed plenty of skin through their black mesh tops and dazzled with driving, muscular choreography.
They return to Tanz Farm at the Goat Farm Arts Center December 12-15 with a new work, “kingdom + new demon.” Lauri Stallings’ company gloATL shares the program with a “physical installation” tentatively titled “The Social Animal.”
As Tanz Farm’s founder and cocurator, Stallings first met Bell at the State University of New York (SUNY) Purchase College several years ago. “Sidra represents total experimentation,” she said when announcing Bell’s first Atlanta performance. “She’s near controversial. She has a very strange gestural world and is not apologetic about it.”
In Bell’s words, her new work has the same rigorous vocabulary as “Nudity” and is very theatrical, but in a much more casual way. “‘Nudity’ was about the individual,” she says. “‘kingdom’ is about the collective. There are objects in this new piece, visuals, a few costume changes.”
Bell prides herself on taking chances, always exploring new territory. Her fierce physicality, however, seems to be a consistent thread. “Physical acts start the process [of choreography],” she says. She draws from ballet, mime, Graham technique and the “linear and architectural aspects” of Lester Horton’s work.
Bell, 34, started creating dance when she was a student at the progressive Bank Street School for Children in New York and continued through her high school years at Manhattan’s independent Spence School. She had the good fortune to be accepted at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts as well as at Princeton and Yale. The decision was easy. “I couldn’t pass up Yale,” she says with a laugh. She graduated with a degree in history and went on to get an MFA in choreography from Purchase College. She taught for a while at Barnard College and is now a master lecturer at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
“My education has always cultivated the exploration of ideas,” she says. So has her family. The youngest of four children, Bell continues to be deeply influenced by her parents, both professional musicians. “They have always encouraged us to pursue ideas,” Bell explains. “We are all self-starters. Even at Thanksgiving we all talk about projects, bouncing ideas off each other.”
Her father, a jazz pianist, has composed a few pieces for her — she likes to use original music — but in “kingdom + new demon” she casts a wider net, drawing from the work of more than 10 different artists. “I like to find esoteric sound,” she says. “One song is called ‘The Sounds of Decay.’ Images of teeth! Another piece is by a group called Imperialist Pop. I love finding pieces no one has heard before.”
Unlike many contemporary choreographers, Bell doesn’t perform in her pieces. “I pulled myself out of my work very early,” she explains. “Making the stuff, the material, is just as rigorous an act as performing. I feel driven toward accumulating a team and directing from the outside. You get to flex every muscle, including your mind.” She keeps herself in prime physical condition both for, and through, her teaching. Ironically, she feels she is a better dancer now than when she was training to be a performer.
Bell continues to move in new directions artistically. She choreographed the dance scenes in “TEST,” a new film produced, written and directed by Chris Mason Johnson, a former dancer with the Frankfurt Ballet and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project. Set in 1985 San Francisco, “TEST” tells the story of two male ballet dancers who are romantically involved and feel the impact of AIDS on their lives and careers. When “TEST” was screened at Atlanta’s Out on Film Festival in October, ArtsATL.com writer Andrew Alexander, writing for Creative Loafing, included it in his Top Five Picks of the festival. “TEST” will be released theatrically in April 2014.
“I’m looking to do more projects like that,” says Bell. “I want to engage more with film and fashion.”
Her drive to explore new creative fields fits well with the cutting-edge aesthetic of Tanz Farm. “kingdom + new demon,” she explains, addresses the collective, something Stallings is also working with in her installation, “The Social Animal.” That term, Stallings says, “was coined by Aristotle and pursued by Karl Marx — that man’s existence is defined by collectivity.”
Stallings has played with this idea in her works in public spaces, most recently “Liquid Culture,” performed on Atlanta’s streets, and her company’s public art tour of Georgia this summer in partnership with Living Walls.
In this new work, which formally premieres in January at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, Louisiana, Stallings “asks questions of the relationship between philosophy and performance. By its very nature, the creation and consumption of art is a collaboration. Between the viewer and the performer arises empathy, self awareness and distance. This is everything.”
Like Bell, Stallings doesn’t appear in her works but rather produces, directs and imagines, collaborating with dancers and visual and musical artists. Her ever-flowing creativity and deeply philosophical approach make it difficult to describe her pieces before they are performed, which perhaps is the whole point. When she says “The Social Animal” will offer ways to access “the other self, the unconscious self, rather than reason,” we sense that experiencing the work will be both bracing and unexpected — qualities that make Tanz Farm itself a deliciously unpredictable thorn in the side of convention and an indispensable part of Atlanta’s contemporary arts scene.
Click here to see promotional photos from Sidra Bell Dance New York.