Each summer, the company dancers of Thodos Dance Chicago get to show off their choreographic panache in the New Dances series.
Apart from supporting Thodos' mission to foster well-rounded artists who dance, teach and choreograph, New Dances has yielded a number of outstanding works, some of which are adopted into the company's repertory for the next season. Kentucky native John Cartwright has contributed works for the past several years, but this year the Thodos veteran took a different approach: His latest is a collaboration with theater and circus-arts specialist Danielle Gennaoui called Present Voices.
Present Voices' inspiration is society's current relationship with technology. Cartwright and Gennaoui aimed at showing the value of human connectivity and the need and desire of many to unplug in the presence of so much technology. It's a hot topic these days; nearly everyone must grapple between a desire for convenience and a need for less noise. "In the beginning [of the dance], everyone is isolated," Cartwright told Windy City Times. "Throughout the piece, we are gradually showing how we pull ourselves out of that to try and make physical connections. There's a huge difference in texting or emailing someone as opposed to being in the same space with someone and sharing the same same air and breathing together."
This is a conundrum with which live performance continually grapples: the ever-fleeting attention of audience members and the discomfort of unplugging to engage in tangible experiences sans Facebook notifications. "Everyone's there at the same time," said Cartwright. "Inhaling, exhaling, being alive together. That is uncomfortable. The more we get addicted to our technology, the more it becomes uncomfortable. I know personally, I hate talking on the phone, but when I was in fifth grade … that's all I did! Now, I dread calling someone on the phone. So, why is that?"
We are more connected than ever, but virtual connection through social media often comes at the expense of face-to-face interaction. In other words, we spend a lot of time by ourselves, talking ( or rather, typing ) about how we should get together, but never do. "It's always well-intentioned," said Gennaoui of the phenomenon that is Brunch ( capital B ). "It's, like, 'Yes, we should get together! Yes, we should go out to brunch!' But then it never happens."
"[The piece is] also about being free to speak and speak your mind" said Gennaoui. "We live in a society where we are kind of afraid of retaliation. If I say something that offends somebody, how is that going to affect me and affect my life and affect me professionally and in my personal relationships? Do I always have to please people?" Indeed, arts and entertainment in particular lean on social media to project a certain image, and today's society has the luxury of backtracking, erasing, editing, filtering, and curating our identities for public consumption.
"People aren't actually who they are," said Gennaoui. "I think this piece is about surrounding yourself with people that are willing to accept you and willing to love you and willing to hear you out, and want to know who you really are and what you have to say. Because once we respect and value people in that type of way, we're going to make a much more loving and peaceful community." By the end of the Present Voices, its characters are increasingly closer, sharing more weight and relying on one another.
In a way, Gennaoui and Cartwright's collaborative process and the journey to finding a shared vocabulary is a reflection on the work's subject matter. Cartwright knew Gennaoui from their time together at Butler University, and her theater background helped Cartwright explore the use of text ( snippets of Emily Dickinson, Audre Lorde and Pablo Neruda sourced by Gennaoui ). Working with dialogue provided a significant challenge to the work's five dancers, who rarely talk onstage. "We were really, really lucky with our ensemble," said Gennaoui. "They have been so willing and open to being vulnerable and doing things that are scary and a little bit weird, and just willing to learn and not afraid to look silly."
For Gennaoui, the challenge was not teaching dancers how to deliver text, but finding the vocabulary to give them instruction. "An actor's vocabulary is very different than a dancer's vocabulary. Today we were saying, 'Raise the stakes,' and I was realizing that might not resonate as well with dancers, so how do I describe that in dancer language?" Learning to find a common language through intense collaboration speaks to their joint desire to increase the volume and authenticity of human interaction, even if only in the dance studio.
The desire for human connectivity in the face of technology is not a new problem. Each generation has had to deal with modernity and its effect on how people communicate, be that the telephone and television, the Internet, or old-fashioned letter writing. "A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent, there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone." wrote Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, though Dickinson herself was not a particular fan of parlor banter.
"We've been inspired by conversation, expression and communication," read Cartwright's publicity statement. "We hope to inspire others to be more mindful of how they choose to converse with others and the impact it has on our society. … Rarely are we physically present and use the art of true conversation to connect with one another. Today, we isolate ourselves behind a screen. We convince ourselves that likes, comments, and shares are indicative of personal worth. In reality, we are still alone. How does being in room with someonesharing words, sharing touch, sharing breathdeepen our relationships? Humanity doesn't live behind a screen. Humanity lives in our ability to truly hear."
Present Voices premieres as part of Thodos Dance Chicago's New Dances July 16-17 at the Atheneaum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets are $14-40, available at the door, at Athenaeum.org or at 773-935-6875.