The Real Story: Choreographer Shannon Alvis on Creating “A Place Between Earth and Sky” for Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre
…so much to say about the power of dance! Dance was such a rich part of our nation’s history: dance for personal expression, for harmony in the universe, for rain to water crops, for healing and hope, for fun, for renewal of spirit. Community, ceremony, meditation, ritual. These are all ideas we explored within this piece.
There are so many reasons to love art, and in particular, so many reasons to love concert dance. Some love it because they see and appreciate the beauty and magic of moving bodies on stage. Others love it because the time in the theater is a reprieve from the pressures and perils of everyday life — a chance to escape into the world the dancers, choreographers and designers create and whisk you off into, if only for a couple hours. But, of all the reasons to love concert dance, the most special of them all is often this: it gives all involved and all observing the chance to learn something more about themselves, something deeper and potentially more profound than you could have ever learned on your own or through any other avenue other than dance.
That last reason to love concert dance certainly came to fruition for choreographer Shannon Alvis as she completed her latest work, A Place Between Earth and Sky, with the artists at Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre. DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera recently had the chance to speak with Alvis about the research and development of her latest work, as well her experience collaborating with Grammy nominated composer, pianist and vocalist, Clarice Assad on an original score. Here’s what she told us:
To truly connect to the present and each other, we must understand the past and honor the earth that holds the ancient history that we all carry.
Kristi Licera: Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre thrives on collaboration; its dancers, musicians, choreographers, designers and leaders have a unique approach to creating new work that thrives on the melding of minds, movement and music. Over the last few seasons, Artistic Director Wilfredo Rivera has taken this collaborative process and focused on using it to explore ideas of culture and identity and how the two coalesce. That thematic prompt, process of creation and CRDT’s commitment to the research and development of new works have created stunning results in the past, and your latest work on the company, A Place Between Earth and Sky, is no exception. Can you tell us more about how you began to explore the themes of culture and identity in A Place Between Earth and Sky? What were some of the most influential parts of your research, and how did they affect your choreography?
Shannon Alvis: In thinking about the word ‘identity,’ I tried to honestly look at my own personal experience and what I could contribute to this topic. I was immediately drawn to stories that my grandmother had shared with me before she died — stories that have influenced my life every day since.
My grandma was sent from Montana as a five-year old girl to live in the Midwest and be raised by her grandparents. She had many questions about her identity, much of which was unknown to her, and this was the way she lived her entire life. Her questions eventually became mine, and when my father passed away in 2001, there were some events that occurred which started the journey that I am re-embarking on now with this project.
My research is centered around Native American culture, and while I feel that I have only brushed the surface of discovery, what I have learned so far has contributed to a realization of self in many more ways than I could have imagined! My choreography has always been inspired by nature, that of the earth and sky, but also what it means to be human — made of spirit and body and the stories we hold within. I could not imagine a more beautiful place to look to for inspiration than to the Native people that first inhabited this land that we live on. While diverse and varied, the beliefs of the Native Americans center around a simple connection to spirituality and nature. Nature is built on the principle of diversity, and we are dependent on it for our very existence. Today we are confronted with so many issues facing race, gender and the environment, but nature is the thing that unites us. We need to differentiate life and to honor the nature in ourselves that expects diversity. To truly connect to the present and each other, we must understand the past and honor the earth that holds the ancient history that we all carry.
Perhaps the piece is simply about one woman’s journey from Earth to Sky and back to Earth again but working with myth allowed us to investigate the power of dance to tell a story relevant to all people…
Shannon: A Place Between Earth and Sky is layered and symbolic of several ideas. Infused with great inspirations taken from a Blackfoot Star Myth, I structured the piece in sections that occur at different times of the day. This is then paralleled to the cycle of a lifetime, and then also to an ever-circling evolution of self. Perhaps the piece is simply about one woman’s journey from Earth to Sky and back to Earth again but working with myth allowed us to investigate the power of dance to tell a story relevant to all people: stories that help us find deeper truths in our lives, stories that help bind communities together and create a sense of belonging.
And oh my goodness, so much to say about the power of dance! Dance was such a rich part of our nation’s history: dance for personal expression, for harmony in the universe, for rain to water crops, for healing and hope, for fun, for renewal of spirit. Community, ceremony, meditation, ritual. These are all ideas we explored within this piece.
Lastly, one of my most special inspirations for this project has been, a now friend of mine, Native American artist Gerry Lang. His words really gave me everything I needed to create this work. We spoke for hours the day that we met, and he told me to ‘just trust myself and what I already knew inside, and that the information was there and not to worry about doing anything right or wrong.’ Meeting him, was not only a day I will remember forever, but also a defining moment in my life.
There were moments in the process where I had to consciously choose to just let go and trust. I maybe didn’t know what we were going to end up with or how something was going to work, but I made decisions to embrace collaboration and the ‘not knowing.’
Kristi: One of the major collaborations in A Place Between Earth and Sky occurred between yourself and Grammy nominated composer, pianist and vocalist, Clarice Assad. Original compositions (not to mention a live jazz band of accomplished musicians to play them) are rare in the world of concert dance. Dance makers are given the chance to play their hand at influencing a different dimension of their choreography, but this often comes with its own unique set of challenges, especially if you are accustomed to using existing music to inspire or influence movement. Can you tell us more about collaborating with Assad on A Place Between Earth and Sky?
Shannon: This has certainly been an amazing experience for me. I am a dancer and choreographer that has always been moved by music first, so starting with a blank slate was very daunting. However, Clarice and I really hit it off right away. We had many discussions, and she was extremely open to my ideas while always contributing her own thoughts. There were moments where I would say, “Can you give me three minutes that sound like this or that?” But there were also other ideas that she brought into the piece that were solely hers that I never would have thought of. It felt like a true collaboration in every sense.
To look back and see that every little idea or instinct that I had was made possible, and that my story could be told the way I dreamed it, is very cool. And special!
Shannon: There were moments in the process where I had to consciously choose to just let go and trust. I maybe didn’t know what we were going to end up with or how something was going to work, but I made decisions to embrace collaboration and the ‘not knowing.’ I wanted to challenge myself, and I learned a tremendous amount having done so. Wilfredo did a wonderful job at pairing us together and I am very grateful. He has a knack for that, I think!
Working with live music is also new for me in terms of creation, and we took some risks. There is improvisation and vocalization woven into Clarice’s brilliant score involving both dancers and musicians alike. We hoped to build a community of people all part of the same experience and in turn, draw the audience in to become a part of it as well. I think this sort of collaboration is really the ultimate experience for a choreographer. To look back and see that every little idea or instinct that I had was made possible, and that my story could be told the way I dreamed it, is very cool. And special! I am so excited to see it all come together onstage.
See Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre in the world premiere of Shannon Alvis’ A Place Between Earth and Sky Saturday, September 28 at 8pm at Studio5 at Dance Center Evanston (1938 Dempster Street, Evanston, IL). Tickets are available via Brown Paper Tickets.
A Place Between Earth and Sky will also be performed as part of Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre’s Benefit Performance, Saturday October 26 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts (915 E 60th St, Chicago, IL). The performance begins at 7:30pm, followed by a 9:00pm reception with the company. Tickets are available at www.eventbrite.com.
For more information on Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre’s 20th Anniversary Season and Fall Concert Series, visit www.cerquarivera.org.