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Modern Garage Movement


by K. Olive McKeon

July 27, 2007 -- The Bird School of Music, San Francisco

Imagine this: groups of young people in every town in the United States are forming dance troupes and rehearsing in their garages. Without formal training and experimenting as they go, they choreograph original dances, make tee-shirts, and write fanzines for their favorite choreographers. They host low budget shows at community centers and in each other’s backyards. During the summers, they tour in a van, performing wherever they can as they drive across the country.

Imagine dance had the same cultural weight and do-it-yourself philosophy that punk music had. Inspired by the low budget touring of hardcore bands, the three women that comprise Modern Garage Movement conceived of a five-week tour for their dance, “GREE,” in which they traveled across the US performing in garages, backyards, packing sheds, wine warehouses, wherever. Dancers Felicia Ballos, Biba Bell, and JM Leary choreographed their dance in a long hallway in Leary’s Brooklyn apartment so that it had precise timing but malleable spacing, to allow performance at any venue.

San Francisco was the last city on their summer tour and their performance at the Bird School of Music marked the 27th time they performed “GREE.” Dressed in matching red satin tank tops and short shorts, the dancers introduced their piece to the small audience and promptly walked out of the building to disappear across the street. Unsure whether to follow them or wait inside, the audience members looked at each other and chuckled.

“GREE” began across Polk Street with Leary and Bell standing close together doing a series of simple knee bends and arm movements in a precise sequence and timing. The audience watched through the window of the music school observing not only the choreography but also its relationship to the people and cars that passed by or stopped to watch.

A central component of “GREE” was its play with sampling. As Leary informed us, only about ten percent of the movement was original material; they had copied the rest from varied sources: West African dancer Youssouf Koumbassa, New York choreographer Sarah Michelson, and “You Tube.” The effect was a smattering of movement vocabularies that mingled warm-up exercises, cheerleading, go-go dancing, hip hop, and curving modern dance. The music for the piece was a collection of pop songs that abruptly cut in and out, suggesting and interrupting a number of different contexts and settings.

“Because it makes us feel more human”

Despite its experimental spacing and performance venue, “GREE’s” tone and style was not far from popular culture. Wearing large fake eyelashes, high pony tails, and matching outfits almost out of a high school slumber party from the ‘80s, the well-groomed dancers moved with precision similar to the cleanly produced pop score. 

The piece explored the relationship between proximity and distance between and among those present. At one moment during “GREE,” the performers took their movement deliberately where the audience could not see them. At another, they split up and went to opposite corners of the room such that the audience had to decide where to stand and who to look at. The performance space did not have clearly defined boundaries and instead shifted, morphed, and divided during different sections of the dance.

The piece required its audience to make decisions about its spatial relationship to the dancers. The dance gave the viewers no clear sense of whether they were in the way or not. “GREE” confronted the audience’s fear of interference and the don’t-touch-it conventions of museums and proscenium theaters. To emphasize its experiments with proximity, the piece ended with each dancer hugging an audience member.

Returning the subject of punk rock shows, the expectation when one goes to see her/his favorite band is that the more the audience interferes with and participates in the songs, the more enjoyable the show. The singer gets lost in the crowd and members of the audience lunge toward the microphone, yelling the lyrics at the top of their lungs. Band members lose their shoes and drum sticks as the audience’s energetic dancing weaves and pushes into drum kit and amps.

Choreography does not have a precedent for this kind of audience. If Ballos, Bell, Leary, and other choreographers continue with experiments such as “GREE,” a new audience for dance could emerge.

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