ArtsATL > Dance > Preview: 50,000 square feet of cardboard becomes ambitious dance stage for “Threshold”

Preview: 50,000 square feet of cardboard becomes ambitious dance stage for “Threshold”

The cardboard set was inspired by the phrase "a house of cards." (Photo by Karley Sullivan)

Once in a while the stars align and a wacky idea — something conceptually fascinating but logistically near impossible – actually comes to fruition. And for many artists, whose big plans are often at odds with scant resources, the fulfillment of a grand ambition is the Holy Grail.

That is what “Threshold” means to Atlanta-based choreographer Blake Beckham. Working with renowned architects Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam, she has created a wildly ambitious, multi-disciplinary installation made out of cardboard. From August 16 to 19, audience members will see Georgia Tech’s DramaTech Theater transformed into a massive, deconstructed “house” built out of 50,000 square feet of cardboard. Three dancers will inhabit the structure — which includes a second story and a moveable room — in an evening-length work centered on the fragility of home.

Beckham began thinking about the metaphors surrounding house and home following the success of last year’s “PLOT,” a site-specific performance at the Goat Farm Arts Center. Just as “PLOT” was created for a non-traditional venue, Beckham — inspired by the phrase “a house of cards” – envisioned “Threshold” as a dance inside a giant cardboard house.

She brought the idea to her creative partner Malina Rodriguez, the brains behind the technical and visual elements of “PLOT.” Rodriguez and Beckham co-direct the arts presentation organization The Lucky Penny (click for tickets to “Threshold”), which they founded in 2011. Beckham was concerned that Rodriguez would see the degree of difficulty and say no; instead, she thought it was possible. “We started thinking: we can do this,” says Beckham. “But we knew it would take architects and expertise we didn’t have.”

Enter another small miracle. Encouraged by a dancer friend who worked for Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Beckham made an appointment with the award-winning principal designers. “I was scared at first,” she says. Aware of the firm’s many current high-profile projects, including the U.S. Courthouse in Austin, Texas, Beckham didn’t think they would have time to work with her. “When they said yes,” she says, “it changed everything.”

What she didn’t know was that Scogin and Elam have always been fascinated with dance. “It is the art form that is most associated with architecture,” Scogin says. “[Like architects], dancers make space and give it emotion, form and meaning.” He also praises the dedication of Beckham and Rodriguez, and the beauty of the idea. “We look for inspiration everywhere, and this is a great inspiration,” Scogin says. He adds with a laugh, “It’s fun. And way too difficult.”

Scogin and Elam wanted to make a set that was “normal and strangely familiar.” The goal was to take things that are part of life, such as people moving through a house, and “begin to question exactly what they are.”

Scogin and Elam brought Blake Beckham's vision to life. (Photo by Jamie Hopper)

How dancers would inhabit this house, especially the second floor, presented a logistical challenge for artists used to working with more traditional building materials. The team tested and retested the strength of the structure and even had 20 people jump up and down on the second floor to make sure the dancers weren’t in danger of falling through. But the material is also intended to give viewers a sense of transiency — of moving and leaving — juxtaposed with the stability of a dwelling. Intimate relationships put on display for public scrutiny is also a theme. “Conceptually,” Beckham says, “we took a private world and cracked it open.”

A home “cracked open” is exactly the sense one gets walking through what Beckham affectionately calls “our crazy cardboard kingdom” during final construction. Scrap cardboard sheets cover a pristine cardboard floor. All around are life-sized, surprisingly sturdy-looking structural and domestic pieces in various stages of completion: three-walled rooms, staircases, even furniture, all constructed out of the familiar light brown paper. The theater buzzes with the energy of designers, carpenters, builders, and technicians working to realize the architects’ design.

Aside from bringing this unlikely project to life, Beckham and Rodriguez seem to be most proud of the community of people it has amassed. More than 60 volunteers have logged 650 hours, Beckham says, many of them because they were interested in the material and the ambition of the project. Twenty-six paid artists, including musician Santiago Páramo, visual artist Karley Sullivan (who created a towering “chimney” of chairs), video designer Chelsea Raflo and costume designer Tian Justman contributed original work for the installation.

Sadly, the kingdom will fall when “Threshold” closes. Beckham says she doesn’t want to be there when they take it down. Most of the material will be repurposed; some pieces will go to Lost-n-Found Youth, an organization dedicated to getting homeless LGBT youth off the streets, to appear on their Atlanta Pride parade float.

For now, Beckham is excited and exhausted. She says a friend joked that her next work should be less involved: just “T-shirts and sweatpants with a flashlight.”

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