Dancing to different drum beats

By Brianna Wellen

For one year the dancers of the Breakbone Dance Company found themselves performing in unexpected places. One performance lead them to the top of a gravel-covered barge in Chicago, strategically avoiding sharp edges on the barge’s surface. Another found them exploring Chicago’s pedestrian tunnels, attempting to fill the overwhelming space with their movement. With Atalee Judy as their guide, the dancers are now utilizing their outside experiences and bringing them to the stage.

Through a grant given by the Chicago Dancemakers Forum, Judy was able to spend a year creating a piece to be performed by Breakbone Company, starting on Nov. 11. Using extended resources, she explored new ideas, developed a creative process and broadened her collaboration base to present “Course of Empire: An Excavation on Building a City of the Interior.”

After applying for the grant for five consecutive years and being rejected in the final round each time, Judy decided to change her approach. In the past, her shows revolved around social and gender issues; for her new project, she explored the human reaction to architecture.

“It’s about how architecture affects us as humans and what a large space does to us—either inspires us or intimidates us—and then what small spaces do—they can make us feel claustrophobic,” Judy said. “I felt it [was] really important to change things up and honor my proposal I sent in. [I wanted to] take it seriously and not default to my old comfort zones.”

Throughout the year, Judy took her dancers to outside locations and asked them to explore spaces like the top of a barge and inside a train station. Through these experiences and collaborative research, the dancers came together to incorporate a different feeling within their performances. Judy said she wanted the architecture to feel present without physically being at the show.

“We can’t bring the barge to the performance space, but we hope there is some kind of tentativeness or earnestness,” Judy said. “We’re trying to bring those places into the performance so when we do proceed cautiously, it’s not out of theatrically performing cautious. It’s actually trying to conjure up that moment on the barge where we had to navigate sharp metal objects.”

The $15,000 grant afforded Judy the chance to experiment more with the set design and the inclusion of film. Instead of using video as a backdrop to a performance as she usually would, this show uses three panels bent toward the audience showing clips of the barge and the train station as she usually would, this show uses three panels bent toward the audience showing clips of the barge and the train station shot with three different cameras. This is an attempt to draw the audience into the facets of the architecture the dancers drew inspiration from. For example, cameras bend over the railing in the train station from three different angles giving the audience the sensation of bending over the railing and exploring the space.

Collaborating with Chicago-based composer Barry Bennett to create music for the piece, Judy originally intended to have a live accompaniment with the entire performance. Realizing through all the changes in her process and approach she had taken on more than she could handle, Bennett’s role was reduced to providing prerecorded music for the performance’s climax.

“At the end of it, I’m really pleased we pushed each other because we came up with some good things,” Bennett said. “It’s hard for [Judy] because I think she’s someone who has a tremendous vision. I think she has a pretty complete picture in her head sometimes and with this grant and this process she’s been going through, it’s starting to open herself up to more collaboration and more input.”

Through the process, Judy came across another hurdle. One dancer who was a part of the year-long exploration is unable to dance in the performance because of a family emergency. The outlook Judy developed throughout the past year in creating the piece was that she could adapt more easily, as did the other dancers in the show. The loss of a dancer for the final performance wasn’t nearly as significant as having her along for the creative journey, she said.

“I think we’re all more open and willing to take what comes and work with it,” said Mindy Meyers, a performer and core company member with Breakbone. “This has been more of an accumulation—[a] research project. It’s more about the process than the final product.”

Judy knows this experience will change the company and the way she works though she’s not sure how. She said having the pressure of the grant to change her process showed her different ways exist to approach each Breakbone performance.

“I like that I’ve kind of ruffled things up, I think I needed it,” Judy said. “I feel like it’s been a really long year, but a really productive one.”

“Course of Empire: An Excavation on Building a City of the Interior” runs Nov. 11 to 20 at the Viaduct Theater, 3111 N. Western Ave. at 8 p. m. Tickets cost $16, $12 for students.