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Unexpected intimacies: Reflections from the front row of Breaking Ground

I am in the very first row of seats at the Tempe Center for the Arts on Friday night for the 2016 Breaking Ground festival of contemporary dance and film. The girl sitting one seat away from me might be eleven years old. It is the first piece of the night, and together, we are watching Amalgamations, a collaboration between choreographer Fumihiro Kikuchi, visual artist Heather Couch, and sound artist Tony Obr.

My small neighbor shifts in her front row seat in order to get a better view of the stage, where a woman, a potter, squats, thumping a slab of clay against the stage in a steady, repetitive thwack. Sharing the space, dancer Fumihiro Kikuchi moves with a feline grace and aggression, as the electronic ebb and flow of Tony Obr’s soundscape shapes the space.

“What is she doing?” the young girl wonders out loud, into the ear of the man seated next to her. He is old enough to be a younger father, and young enough to be an older brother. He hesitates. I note that I feel surprised to see him here, because of his age and gender, the casual jeans and hoodie he has donned, and the jumbo beverage from QuikTrip at his feet. I am not sure how I expect him to respond—shrug his shoulders, or say something ironic about art.

Instead, in the heartbeat that follows, he responds thoughtfully:

“Making music.”

When the piece is over, I turn to them in curiosity. I want to know how this unlikely couple ended up in the audience of Breaking Ground, a space I expect to be occupied by those in the dance scene, young artists, and white-haired dance aficionados.

“Are you a dancer?” I ask, glancing at both faces so the question is directed to both.

“I’m not, but she is,” says the man, and I can hear the gleam of pride in his voice.

“I’m a contemporary dancer, actually,” she informs me. “And acro.”

“Wow!” I respond enthusiastically, as my own memories of visits to the theatre as a young studio dancer come streaming back. I wonder how this young contemporary dancer will describe what she has seen to other young dancers in the studio when she goes to class again. There is a wide gulf between the “contemporary dance” of the dance studio and the “contemporary dance” shown at Breaking Ground. My own studio training as a little girl (the classic ballet, jazz, and modern) did not prepare me for my first encounter with postmodern dance: watching Trisha Brown’s dancers run in repeated circles onstage for what seemed like forever at the time.

I want this young dancer to know that it is okay if she is not sure about what she is watching; it’s okay to take in the wash of images and sounds without straining to decipher meaning or affix a story. I desperately want both of them to feel welcome in this space. So I smile.

“I’m so glad you both decided to come tonight. Is this different than what you expected?”

“Well, it’s kind of what I expected,” she begins. The man sitting with her interjects. “I don’t think she knew it was going to be so ‘artsy.’” The quotation marks around the word “artsy” are there in his voice, though not in gesture. “But actually, I really like it so far.”

The lights dim again, bringing our conversation to a close.

The program tonight is mature: artists address sexuality, autism, identity, memory, and political history, through movement, video, mixed media forms that are non-linear, sometimes improvisational, and abstract. I am happy that my new friend feels free to whisper during the pieces, giving voice to her wonder and discomfort. I am impressed with the way the two engage with the experience together, asking each other questions, sharing an ongoing commentary. I smile when she wonders if the part where Kikuchi runs suddenly across the stage was “supposed to happen.” Overhearing the fragments of their whispered conversation helps me see with fresh eyes.

For me, the personal highlight of the night is the surprise of sudden intimacy when I am selected by performer Daniel Burkholder to have a brief conversation, which he uses to inspire a tapestry of improvised movement and vocal recollections in Solo #14. Before beginning to move, Burkholder dedicates the dance to me. I feel tears come into my eyes at being seen and listened to so familiarly in the midst of a crowded theater where I expected to blend anonymously into my seat.

Maybe it is as simple as the fact that I am sitting in the front row, when last year I was high above it all in the balcony, but tonight the performances feel more vulnerable, more personal, and more human than the previous year. I feel like I am involved in an exchange with the performers, and not simply a spectator. Carley Conder, dancer, choreographer, director of CONDER/dance, and the producer of Breaking Ground, shares a compellingly vulnerable performance in her solo ‘Red Belt,’ choreographed by Nadar Rosano. In this solo, inspired in part by Rosano’s interest in touch senstiviity and autism, Conder takes on a character who seems naïve, needy, defiant and sometimes unpredictable.

‘Red Belt’ closes with Conder’s middle finger punching the air, flipping off the entire audience. We all share laughter at this moment, perhaps because of the extreme contrast to Conder’s own warm and polished persona in her earlier stage appearance as the producer and host, welcoming us to the festival. We want to celebrate with her.

Producing Breaking Ground. festival is a huge gift Conder offers to our community in Phoenix and Tempe. For the visibility that it brings to the Phoenix arts scene, for the opportunities it provides to local artists, for the quality of the national and international artists brought in, and for the classes and workshops offered during the festival, the festival helps to grow and energize our local dance scene. Tonight, though, I am reminded about the most important reasons why this festival matters. I hear it in the whispered exchange between my seatmates. I feel it in the tears that come into my eyes during Burkholder’s dedication. I read it in the words of the man who speaks up during the post-show dialogue to share: “Usually I spend my nights working late at the office. Tonight I got to spend it taking in art.”

At the close of ‘Map of Broken Glass,’ which ends Friday’s festival, the camera is turned back on the audience. As the night of performance comes to the close, the last image that we see is of ourselves, reflected back. It’s a fitting close to a night that has created an unexpected intimacy between audience and performers. I hope that we all leave feeling seen.

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