This weekend I was lucky enough to get to Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2020 Jumpstart program. Formerly known as MoveMedia, Jumpstart is an initiative that gives company dancers the opportunity to choreograph and debut their own work. I attended last year, and it was one of my favorite shows of their 2018-2019 season.
Most of the works are shorter—this year they crammed ten pieces into their show—and with so many choreographers at work, there was a huge range of style, emotion, storytelling, and technique. In two hours, we spanned everything from classical steps set to Saint-Saëns to modern dance overlaying post-rock and industrial neoclassical, from ensemble choreography to duets, from high-production pieces with screens and silhouettes and curtains to stripped-back solos with the whole stage lit. Some of the dances came with extensive notes on the theme and purpose of the piece while others had none. The ballet company also collaborated with DisArt, a local organization committed to raising the participation of disabled people in the arts, so one of the dances included no music at all and explored interview narratives of individuals who have experienced PTSD, limb loss, and ADHD.
While contemporary dance is often an abstract art form and I work in genre fiction, typically with a realist or magical-realist bent, I still walk away from dance performances feeling like I have a better, broader understanding of creative processes and storytelling. I work with words, mental images, actions, dialogue, metaphor, foreshadowing, plot, three-act story structure—but I enjoy watching and studying the mechanics of storytelling that uses movement, music, tempo, equilibrium, balance, bodily interaction, lighting, contrast, facial expressions, surprise, and unison/harmony to convey its meaning. The media and experience are vastly different between a ballet and a book, but I often find that emotion, pacing, narrative arc, characterization, and suspense are achieved through techniques that are parallel in both art forms.
My favorite piece was the duet “Such as You,” choreographed by Matthew Wenckowski and set to a gentle ambient track by Brambles (“Such Owls as You”). The lighting was low, set toward the front of the stage, allowing the two dancers either to melt back into the shadows or move forward toward greater visibility. They mostly danced close together, emphasizing hand and arm movements, sometimes synchronized in unison and other times dancing in harmonized forms. The choreography clearly carried a story, although I couldn’t decide on the relationship between the two dancers. The back-and-forth was intimate but not necessarily romantic, at times tender and at other times violent. I sometimes struggle against abstract pieces, wanting to make a concrete meaning out of them. (Worse, the choreographer teased during the talkbacks that the dance was based on a story, but he wasn’t going to tell us what it was.) But even if I couldn’t “pin down” the piece, the emotion and movement of the dance were simply beautiful.
I’m already hoping that I’m able to make it to GRB’s 2021 Jumpstart program.