The Real Story: Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble’s “i bet you think this dance is about you” with Choreographer Sara Maslanka
“How can you accept how these voices exist within yourself and speak your truth? How can you just be?”
Of the many ways to present dance, one of the most vulnerable is to take the stage as a solo artist. That moment when the soloist steps on stage alone requires an immense amount of preparation, courage and self-confidence — especially when the work is self-choreographed. Taking one’s innermost thoughts and self-reflections in front of an audience is akin to letting strangers into your therapy session. But in many ways, having a room full of strangers is much less anxiety-inducing than doing so in front of people that you know, whose opinions you respect. So imagine taking that solo, that vulnerable part of yourself, and sharing it with your professional peers. And then asking them to join you on that journey of self-exploration. That is what Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble Artistic Director and choreographer Sara Maslanka has done with her solo-turned-ensemble work, i bet you think this dance is about you.
In the solo iteration of this work, Sara sought to find a unified voice within herself – one that she could embody externally without having any doubts.
At a young age, Sara began her dance training in ballet and flamenco under the direction of Valerie Barsky. Those early days of dance eventually led to Bachelor of Arts in Dance and Pedagogy from Columbia College Chicago, and eventually an MS in Dance Science from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, UK. This lifelong commitment to expanding her dance horizons has led Sara to create a number of works for Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble including Doggy Dreams (2015), Love, Loss and Longing (in collaboration with Michelle Shafer) and Consumed.
Sara’s most recent work, i bet you think this dance is about you, began as a solo work in 2017 as a an exploration of perception, reality and the use of one’s voice. There are many voices within each of us – one that is hopeful, another that is encouraging and others that carry our shame and regret. But it is the combination of those voices, how we perceive them and what we choose to listen to that inform who we are and how we perceive the world around us. In the solo iteration of this work, Sara sought to find a unified voice within herself – one that she could embody externally without having any doubts. She first asked herself, and eventually her ensemble, “How can you accept how these voices exist within yourself and speak your truth? How can you just be?” With the help of some creative contributions from the public, Sara and her cast have united their voices under one common theme that is set to premiere Friday May 3 at Ebenezer Lutheran Church.
With so many intricacies involved in translating a solo work onto a full ensemble, DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera had to speak with Sara Maslanka about the challenges and triumphs of the process. Here’s what she told us:
I put a call for the public to share the letter they never sent or write the letter they wished they would have… the letters varied across the board, from angry rants and poems to well-thought out reflections and reluctant good-byes.
Kristi Licera: i bet you think this dance is about you was originally a solo work that you created in 2017 and performed again the following year. The version that will premiere this May is an evening-length production with a full ensemble of actors and dancers. The creation of solo works and full productions each have their own unique challenges, but it is often these challenges that lead to the most promising results. Can you tell us more about how your solo work informed and served as source material for the full ensemble work? What were some of the highlights and challenges in the growth of i bet you think this dance is about you?
Sara Maslanka: To move forward with the development of i bet you think this dance is about you, I related to my personal experience of finding my voices, and in part, to a conversation with Ellyzabeth Adler, Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble’s Executive Director and Founder. I wanted to continue this exploration to understand the relationship between voice, perception and reality. In my conversation with Ellyzabeth, I felt ready to take on this subject matter and express an increased level of vulnerability through my work.
To take this story beyond my own, inviting the public to share their stories felt like the right choice. The idea for using letters came from how I write in my journal. I tend to write letters, be it to the universe or to someone specific. Using that as my inspiration, I put a call for the public to share the letter they never sent or write the letter they wished they would have. I was pleasantly surprised with the responses I received. I anticipated that I would receive multiple romantic, love letters. Instead, the letters varied across the board, from angry rants and poems to well-thought out reflections and reluctant good-byes. The common thread among these letters I found was love, but not as one would think – love as a spectrum that shifts and the actions reflect that.
Moments from my solo are scattered throughout and mostly inform the Hero’s movement vocabulary and final monologue.
The Ensemble and I had a couple workshop rehearsals where we read the letters, discussed their meanings and debated the idea of love as a spectrum. After those initial workshop sessions, I went by myself to write and work on a narrative. Once I had that initial outline created, the Ensemble and I came back together to begin the official devising process. To find cohesion among the letters, we divided them into common voices. This division helped to create the characters we see in the show. The text used in the show is a mixture of letters, the Ensemble and my own writing. I also have incorporated texts from Symposium, by Plato, as well as poetry by Rupi Kaur and Emily Dickinson.
The ensemble needed to find a way to adjust their understandings and align the narrative with the movement.
The movement vocabulary throughout the show was greatly developed in collaboration with the ensemble. Moments from my solo are scattered throughout and mostly inform the Hero’s movement vocabulary and final monologue. However, everything has been taken to the next level and the level beyond that to fit the narrative.
This is the third year I am working with some of my ensemble members and that is such a luxury. We understand and respect how each of us works. We know our strengths and support each other’s weaknesses. We are also friends. I love how we make each other laugh and can play in the space. Going into this rehearsal process, I knew the importance and felt the need to shift how I create and devise work with an ensemble. I wanted to have this script to ensure the vision remained clear and at the forefront of the rehearsal process. In the past, my process has normally started wide-open and narrowed as we build and figure things out. It has taken some time to shift to this new approach and level of specificity for all us. The ensemble needed to find a way to adjust their understandings and align the narrative with the movement.
I hope the audience member feels encouraged to be present in their experience of these elements collectively and individually.
Kristi Licera: If multiplying the number of performers in i bet you think this dance is about you wasn’t a big enough challenge, we must also consider the effect that it has on the production elements including lighting, costume, stage and sound design. Can you tell us about your approach to insure these elements come together in a cohesive fashion? What significance does each element have in supporting the overall theme and plot line of the performance?
Sara: I like to have conversations with my technical designers from the beginning of the rehearsal process. A devising process exists with lights and sound, just as it exists with the performers. I want the technical elements to connect with the narrative as much as the performers do. Lights, sound and movement are all independent elements. But as soon as you bring them into the same space, those elements become so much more and tell a richer story. The overall performance does not exist in the same way without this interdependent relationship. As an audience member watching, I hope they feel that. I hope the audience member feels encouraged to be present in their experience of these elements collectively and individually.
For the process of i bet you think this dance is about you, I realized video wasn’t going to be enough due to the intricate nature of the narrative.
Another major reason to connect with the technical designers early on is because we all speak a different language. Clear communication and understanding takes time and patience. The technical designers can’t really, officially enter the rehearsal process until movement gets to a certain point. The movement needs to be more officially set and structured to allow the designers to gauge a better understanding from initial ideas discussed in a production meeting. Video from rehearsal is key as it allows them to begin designing remotely. For the process of i bet you think this dance is about you, I realized video wasn’t going to be enough due to the intricate nature of the narrative. I created a shared outline that breaks down specific sections of the narrative into lights, sound and movement. Looking at this document, the technical designers (and performers) can look to any moment and understand what needs to happen. The beauty of this document is how it has evolved and influenced the editing process.
Mike has been very intentional in how he creates motifs with color to relate to the performer’s character. He’s also found ways to bring movement into the lights, as if the lights were an additional performer in the space.
For i bet you think this dance is about you, lights and sound really set the mood and tone in the space. I am working with Mike Rathbaun from Bread and Roses Productions for light design, and Andrew Stefano for sound design.
With Mike, we discussed how to create clear relationships between the lights and the performers. Mike has been very intentional in how he creates motifs with color to relate to the performer’s character. He’s also found ways to bring movement into the lights, as if the lights were an additional performer in the space. The space is arranged as an alley to represent the journey the Hero takes towards self-acceptance. The two ends of the alley represent the start and the finish of the journey and the choreography follows that pathway. The way Mike has arranged the lights supports this intention and convey the journey’s path. The spatial arrangement and the lights make the performance feel very intimate. We hope the audience feels present and with the Hero on her journey and the emotions that come with it.
The sound Andrew has imagined to represent the abstract mind is truly beautiful and could tell a story on its own.
When in the rehearsal process, music is very important to me. It sets the tone for how the ensemble and I will build movement. I also find that it sparks new or improved versions of ideas for building in the moment. When it comes to my work, the final sound score usually comes at the end of my process. Sound is not something that I hear as we devise. That’s why I value the ability to work with someone, like Andrew, who can compose an original score. Andrew and I previously worked together in 2017 for a work I created, titled Consumed. To have an existing working relationship has been such a luxury for this process.
For this process, Andrew requested more points in the script detailing general ideas for sound. My points are movement-based or related to feeling. While Andrew appreciates and enjoys choreography, he does not quite see the narrative set in the movement. Gillian Butcher, a friend and collaborator, has acted as a translator for Andrew and me. Having Gillian and the working outline has helped to bridge that gap. Andrew composes the score based off our conversations and watching video. We go back and forth until the final product is something we are both proud of. The sound Andrew has imagined to represent the abstract mind is truly beautiful and could tell a story on its own.
Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble presents i bet you think this dance is about you at Ebenezer Lutheran Church (1650 W Foster Ave, Chicago 60640) Fridays and Saturdays May 3-18 at 8pm.
Tickets and additional information are available online at www.danztheatre.org/i-bet-you-think.