I find it frustrating that I will never know how the other version of my life would have turned out. I guess this piece has been my way to reconcile that in some way…
Every now and then, we come to a crossroads in life — a moment where a single decision could affect the trajectory of what is to come. Once the choice is made, we must move forward on our chosen path, but often we wonder, “what if?” What if we missed out on something greater than what is set before us? What if the path we chose is littered with more hardship than we expected? There is no real way for us to know, but we can imagine.
For Abby Williams Chin, Artistic Director of Cattywampus Dance, imagining wasn’t quite good enough. Instead, she took those machinations of the mind and transformed them into the company’s upcoming premiere of If/Then. This immersive evening-length work explores, not one, but three different iterations of its main character’s life. Three Cattywampus Dance Artists perform parts of the narrative in separate spaces inside of Hairpin Arts Center, each with a different motivation for their life choices: fear, ambition or relationships. But, just as in life, there is no way for an audience member to experience all three paths. Viewers must choose which life path they will follow; between scenes, viewers can either choose to remain in their current experience, or follow a different motivation/path.
DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera recently caught up with Abby to learn more about how she began to tackle this massive choreographic task, as well as how she curated and crafted the space in which it would be performed. Here’s what she told us:
Prescribing mannerisms and motifs that all three iterations of the character adopt and expanding the movement vocabulary from there was very helpful to hone in on their characteristics.
Kristi Licera: In the world of concert dance and dance theater, dance is commonly presented in one of two ways: as a collection of mixed repertory (shorter pieces that may or may not share a theme or concept) or as an evening-length show that follows a single story line or narrative. If/Then effectively took the latter approach and tripled the choreographic workload by incorporating three separate story lines of the same character. The story lines are performed simultaneously and the audience must choose which story to follow. It’s challenging enough to create one fluid narrative, so how did you begin to tackle three at once? Can you give us some insight to the creative process and the challenges involved in creating If/Then?
Abby Williams Chin: This was definitely the most ambitious choreographic project I have ever tackled. Initially, I thought the challenge would be to make the pathways different enough to make the choices matter in a real way. However, as we started working, I think the true challenge became defining a singular character. This is a story of one woman who gives in to different pressures and motivations. She has similar characteristics across all pieces that define who she is. This was particularly key when working with three different dancers; each brings their unique interpretation and experience to this character and embraces how that affects the execution. Prescribing mannerisms and motifs that all three iterations of the character adopt and expanding the movement vocabulary from there was very helpful to hone in on their characteristics.
Each dancer’s path has a singular, key motivation that guides their version of the character. In the beginning of our process, we discussed as a cast what choices in our lives led us to where we are today. What choice made all of the difference and how did we make that choice? What was the motivating factor? From there, these key motivations really developed based on how each dancer feels they’ve made their biggest choices — how they either embraced or denied their greatest motivation. Although we have extrapolated and expanded upon these ideas, the original impetus for each path was taken from the dancers and their experiences, as well as my own.
Audiences these days have so much control over how they view content. From Netflix, to YouTube, to channels on demand, audiences rarely just sit back and watch whatever is put in front of them.
Abby: As an artist moving to the city, I had a definite plan of how I thought my life would go, and very little has turned out how I’d planned. Although I love my life, I’ve been finding myself wondering how everything would be different if I had seized different opportunities. I find it frustrating that I will never know how the other version of my life would have turned out. I guess this piece has been my way to reconcile that in some way, and hopefully it’s something that our audience can relate to as well.
So much of this dance centers around the fear of missing out, which becomes not only a part of the dancer experience, but the audience experience as well.
Kristi: If/Then gives the audience control over their experience with its “choose your own adventure” structure. This is achieved by creating separate performance spaces that the audience can move through. Since the performances of each story line overlap, audience members will have different experiences of the same evening of dance based on their choices. Can you tell us more about how you crafted the space at Hairpin to create this fascinating adventure?
Abby: When developing the ideas for this show, we knew that the space would be key. We started touring unconventional performance spaces that might provide the structure that we needed, and we quickly found that gallery spaces provided great opportunities for us. They are often flexible in structure and include mobile walls for hanging art, which we were immediately excited to use.
This was definitely what drew us to Hairpin Arts Center. It is a newer gallery space that has a mission to produce local artists’s work. They also generously provided the opportunity for us to have a trial run in the space six weeks before the premiere. This allowed us to try out our structure, perform a works in progress showing and gain incredibly valuable feedback from our selected audience.
It made sense to us to create a dance experience that reflects this shift in our culture by providing our audience with control and choice throughout the performance.
Abby: This is the first piece I’ve created that pushes the boundaries of the fourth wall, and I wanted to create a holistic world where the audience could join the dancers in their experience (instead of watching at a distance). So much of this dance centers around the fear of missing out, which becomes not only a part of the dancer experience, but the audience experience as well. Part of the challenge of creating a piece like this is ensuring that everyone feels comfortable to make bold choices that are somewhat informed.
To this end, we’ve incorporated books into the decision making. After each section, the characters can be seen at the entrances to their rooms reading different books. The titles give the audience insight into what the character’s journey might look like in the next section in that space. From there, they decide what speaks to them the most.
Audiences these days have so much control over how they view content. From Netflix, to YouTube, to channels on demand, audiences rarely just sit back and watch whatever is put in front of them. It made sense to us to create a dance experience that reflects this shift in our culture by providing our audience with control and choice throughout the performance. I hope we have been able to achieve that through this show at Hairpin.
Cattywampus Dance presents If/Then Thursday, September 26 through Saturday, September 28, each evening at 7:30pm. Performances take place at Hairpin Art Center (2810 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago 60618).
Tickets are available online via www.artful.ly.
If/Then Trailer from Abby Williams Chin on Vimeo.