Picture a chorus. About 20 performers in black suits stand on bleachers at the bustling intersection of Peachtree and 15th streets. The air begins to churn with rhythmic, expressive motion. But these performers play no instruments and don’t utter a sound.
The performers will be the dance artists of gloATL, choreographer Lauri Stallings’ contemporary performance group, with selected participants from gloATL’s annual summer intensive workshop. The dynamic, movement-only take on a classical Greek chorus isn’t just the summer workshop’s culmination; it’s also a glimpse of “Maá,” gloATL’s evening-length collaboration with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conductor Robert Spano and contemporary music ensemble Sonic Generator, set to premiere September 9-10 in Symphony Hall.
The culminations of gloATL’s two previous summer workshops — the group’s 2009 debut, “rapt,” and last summer’s “Roem” — were large-scale multimedia events on the Woodruff Arts Center campus. The production values for “Liquid Culture” will be less complex, partly due to Stallings’ heavy schedule during the next few months. The music will be simpler, too: the only sound in the first performance will come from the dancers. Tian Justman’s earth-toned costumes, clean-lined but detailed, will be used at all but the last “station.”
Despite its relative simplicity, “Liquid Culture” is likely to have the unusual effect for which gloATL is known: its innovative, visceral and compelling performances often blur the lines between audience and performers. Encountering a gloATL event in a public space can be startling, even unnerving. But this is part of Stallings’ ongoing investigation into the relational aesthetics of movement, centered on the idea, and experience, of being together.
Flooding the streets with contemporary dance movement and being together with the public are simple ideas but hard to teach, Stallings said. Old habits must be stripped away and new skills learned in order for dancers to engage directly with people in public spaces.
Stallings’ approach is unconventional, and so is her new home base at the Goat Farm Arts Center, a century-old former cotton mill that’s been repurposed as live-and-work space for artists. Goodson Yard, the Goat Farm’s vast former warehouse that’s now gloATL’s home, has its own unlikely juxtapositions: a raised Marley dance floor sits on an aging concrete slab, a chiropractor’s massage table stands next to a dusty forklift, and portable ballet barres rest alongside an enormous, aging metal beam hoist.
Stallings allowed me to observe a recent class. About 45 dancers gathered in the morning. By noon, fans start humming as layers of dance and athletic clothes gradually peeled off. But despite the heat and their constant motion, neither Stallings nor the dancers seemed to tire, because they were moving from the inside out, engaging all the senses. Movement seemed to regenerate itself. (Photo at left by Greg Mooney.)
Walking among the crowded class, Stallings gave frequent verbal cues as the dancers activated their body centers like motors. Fingers and toes reached away, gathering, transmitting and receiving. Knees and elbows floated as if filled with air. Ankles and wrists meandered through space. Hands and feet rotated with resistance, as if grinding a mortar and pestle. Each dancer moved like an orchestra: different body parts had individual voices, but all moved in synchrony.
Later, they practiced tools for exploration while partnering. Stallings guided them through steps: placing one’s hands on another person; jumping and turning into another’s arms with split-second timing. The dancers learned to know when to give active support and when to yield one’s weight into another.
The dancers then took what they had learned outside, where the natural setting further heightened their awareness. “Nothing changes,” Stallings told them, whether they’re dancing in a Goat Farm alley, on a city street, or whether they’re being filmed or photographed.
Stallings later pointed out that they’re not practicing a vocabulary made of geometric lines, as in classical ballet, and that it’s not about the sculptural shapes found in many modern-dance traditions. Such habits fall away as students focus on the materials of Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique: bones, muscles, organs, flesh and pores.
“They’re the reason that I can succeed, and actually reach you and the public,” Stallings said. “If I didn’t use all those things, and if I didn’t have them for material, what makes us human, if I just had lines, then I’d just be going out there and dancing in the public, and that’s not what we do. We’re going out there and being with you.
“You and I are being together right now,” she continued, “and that in a way changes everything, because we’re communicating, we’re sharing, our eyes are engaged and there are thoughts and exchanges. That is the perpetual existence and catalyst for man evolving. That is the essence of urban culture.”
Schedule for “Liquid Culture”
Saturday, July 9, 7:30 p.m. At Sol LeWitt’s “54 Columns” installation at the intersection of Highland Avenue and Glen Iris Drive.
Thursday, July 14, 7 p.m. At a surprise location to be announced on the day of the performance. For the location, follow gloATL on Twitter — twitter.com/gloATL.
Friday, July 15, 6 p.m. At storefronts of Little Five Points, at the intersection of Moreland and Euclid avenues.
Friday-Saturday, July 22-23, 7:30 p.m. At the intersection of Peachtree and 15th streets.