What is freedom? That’s a question Americans reflect upon every Fourth of July. Movement artist Lauri Stallings is no exception.
From July 6 through 20, Stallings’ performance troupe, gloATL, will offer its unique take on freedom in “Liquid Culture,” a series of six free public performances in four locations: the Sound Table parking lot in the Old Fourth Ward; the corner of 10th and Peachtree Streets; Goodson Yard at the Goat Farm Arts Center; and the Woodruff Arts Center campus. (See the full schedule below).
This will be the third “Liquid Culture” to hit the streets of Atlanta, and the final one. Its subtitle this year is “a collection of ideas from an asphalt perspective.” One component this time is swing sets. The three outdoor venues will feature free-standing swing sets on beds of blue AstroTurf; at Goodson Yard they will hang from the rafters. Why swings? It’s Stallings’ unique take on freedom. She feels that swings, whatever our age, inspire in us a sense of fun, freedom and possibility.
“Human beings need to have an understanding of what freedom feels like,” she says. “I began to ponder what freedom feels like to me, and what is it to be free today. And any time you are doing public art there are conversations about what is artistic freedom. I found all this on swings.”
Stallings clearly has found freedom in her art. From 2005 to 2008 she was choreographer-in-residence with Atlanta Ballet, which performed three of her works at the Fox Theatre. Since then, she has moved steadily away from proscenium theater and has developed a deeply philosophical approach to physical gesture in public places that entails “moving into a space, having the public intercourse and then de-installing and leaving, all in one day,” she says.
Her sources of inspiration vary widely, from Thomas More’s 1516 book “Utopia” — a “Liquid Culture” theme — to Nicolas Bourriaud’s philosophy of relational aesthetics. A deep thinker who loves to read, Stallings laughs heartily when asked whether her reading list includes any fiction. No, she says, it doesn’t.
Her movement vocabulary too has evolved. The choreography in “Liquid Culture” is inspired by the now ubiquitous Gaga technique, where dancers’ movements emerge from the inside out as opposed to following an external, codified technique. Stallings also has her own complex system of movement choirs, choreographed groups that incorporate personal expression.
Because of their proximity to the crowds watching, the dancers have to be ready for a level of randomness that rarely occurs in more controlled environments. This year, it means that anyone watching can jump on a swing and become part of the event.
“Liquid Culture” has been wonderfully unpredictable in its past two years. Its impact depends upon how the public interacts with the dancers, how the effects of the theatrical lighting change as day turns to night, and how the sound — this year it’s solo piano — blends with ambient noise of the outdoor spaces.
One of the challenges Stallings faces is how to make this very public experience intimate and personal. She may have found one solution with her plan for the 10th and Peachtree location: there will be just one dancer and a swing. Three dancers will rotate in the role during the event, which will run from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
The timing is very intentional, the choreographer explains. It’s rush hour; people will be walking out of their offices and stores, crossing the street, going in and out of parking garages. It’s an opportunity for a lot of people to interact one on one with the dancer and the swing.
On July 19 and 20, students involved in the Collision Project, a production of the Alliance Theatre Education Program, will swing with gloATL on the Woodruff Arts Center campus, the last venue. Stallings is collaborating with Atlanta author Pearl Cleage, the project’s playwright-in-residence. Throughout the project, Cleage will lead a diverse group of students through explorations of the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. Stallings feels that her role is to explore these historical themes in the context of 21st-century Atlanta.
“Not that I am disregarding history,” she says, “but let’s be frank, it’s done. How do [these themes] resonate today? How do they feel to an urban community? And how do they create neighborhood?”
Stallings has an affinity for neighborhoods, whatever their positive or negative qualities, and the way they shift and change. She grew up in the projects in Gainesville, Florida, a neighborhood she describes as “aggressive, lively, creative, conflictive, hopeful, tense.” She could just as easily be describing sections of Atlanta. “Liquid Culture,” she says, creates “torques” in these neighborhoods: something unique happens, changes the environment, and then is gone.
“Liquid Culture” began in 2011 and has popped up since at various sites around the city, including the Lindbergh MARTA Station, Little Five Points, 15th and Peachtree Streets, and the intersection of Highland Avenue and Glen Iris Drive in the Old Fourth Ward, where the late Sol LeWitt’s “54 Columns” tower above a grassy park.
Stallings acknowledges that not all “Liquid Culture” events have been successful. The second night of the “54 Columns” performance last summer was packed with so many people that it was difficult to see more than the tops of the dancers’ heads or an occasional arm or leg. Fellow spectators were more visible than the performers as people scurried around the park trying to follow the action.
Overall, however, “Liquid Culture” has had a huge impact on the arts in Atlanta. It has taken movement out of the theater into the streets, brought in new audiences and set a new standard for innovation.
This may be the last “Liquid Culture,” but it’s certainly not the last we’ll see of gloATL. The company is creating its first strategic plan, a process Stallings finds “curious and quite fascinating.” The questions raised have solidified her idea that gloATL is “a collection of ideas and a collection of bodies rather than a company of people.” However you describe it, gloATL continues to be an exciting, progressive part of Atlanta’s performing arts scene and “Liquid Culture” one of its most fascinating inventions.
“Liquid Culture” schedule
Saturday, July 6, 8:30-10 p.m. — Old Fourth Ward: Sound Table parking lot at the corner of Boulevard and Edgewood Avenue
Wednesday, July 10, 5-6:30 p.m. — Midtown: corner of 10th and Peachtree Streets
Friday-Saturday, July 12-13, 8:30-10 p.m. — Goodson Yard, Goat Farm Arts Center
Friday-Saturday, July 19-20, 8:45-10 p.m. — Woodruff Arts Center campus
For more on how gloATL fits into the environments where it dances, check out our Facebook page.