Ready for My Close Up

Dancing Where the Audience Can See Everything

Don't expect to see sweet little dances if you go see Kathy Dunn-Hamrick's Close Ups. Just because they're in the informal studio space of Cafe Dance doesn't mean that her dances are at all intimate or quaint. They're big and breathy, executed by some fine dancers. The only thing it does mean is that you'll see them, well, close-up. They weren't created for the Zilker Hillside Theatre or Bass Concert Hall, but specifically for that little space, which also houses Hamrick/Warren Dance, the teaching company Dunn-Hamrick shares with Kate Warren. "Stephanie, I love dancing," the choreographer tells me. "I love to watch dancers move. And to be close up is the best way I can see it."

"And no," she says, "it's not a work in progress," usually the first idea people get when thinking of studio shows. "You have to keep up the integrity of the performances and the choreography.... I don't think that your work has to necessarily get bigger and bigger and bigger... I don't have to get bigger; I have to zoom in tighter."

What Dunn-Hamrick is saying is that choreography presented in a studio has to be more refined and cleaner than that shown on a proscenium stage because you can see everything. This can be a performer's best friend or worst nightmare. Warren, who performs in all three dances that comprise Close Ups, says that when she's performing in a large stage space, her energy seems to get lost in a big, black hole. "I don't know where it goes between me and the audience.... I think there are other people who are completely the opposite. I just don't think that I know how to bring out that kind of energy. So [performing in the studio] is real comfortable. It just seems real to me. It doesn't seem theatrical. It just seems real."

"I do use gesture very much," adds Dunn-Hamrick, "and I want people to see that -- what's going on in the eyes and the face." In a space where the audience is at the performer's elbow, people don't need much help from the dancers to be able to do that. Some of the challenge in putting this concert together has been to help those performers used to working in larger spaces to tighten their focus, to understand that they don't need to exaggerate their expressions for them to be read here.

The choreographer says that there haven't been any other complications from producing a concert in a studio space mainly because the production demands are much more limited. She has a one-man technical crew in Dave Robinson, who is lighting designer, sound operator, and stage manager all at once. "When I work [on other concerts] with Paul Addington, the lighting designer, I know that when we get in that theatre, just with his artistry, he's going to put this magical sheen on everything and it's going to pop out and be more than I brought in. We're not going to have that [in here]. We have up and down. On and off. We have bright and not so bright. We don't have color. We don't have him to add drama. That's why I have insisted that every movement has integrity and truth and clarity behind it because we can't get away with anything."

Nor is there any room for Dunn-Hamrick to get away with anything as a choreographer; Close Ups consists solely of her own choreography. It's the first such show she has produced. Although she has received funding from the city and presented her own concerts every year since 1994, she has usually shared the evenings with other choreographers. The decision to present a full concert of her own work came largely through the urging of outsiders, in particular her most valued collaborator -- and friend -- Warren.

The two have known each other since Dunn-Hamrick's choreographic career began in 1981 with a piece in Dance Umbrella's choreography competition Work-Outs. Dunn-Hamrick had made it to the finals, and when one of her dancers didn't show at performance time, Warren -- then named Kate Fisher -- was recommended to her as a fill-in dancer. Just after that, Dunn-Hamrick left Austin for several years, but when she returned, she began a deep creative and personal friendship with Warren. The two started Hamrick/Warren Dance in 1993 and have been learning and growing together ever since. Dunn-Hamrick says she is "a good friend with whom she can rely on for truth, honesty, and compassion."

Warren was ready for Dunn-Hamrick to do her own evening: "I didn't want her to share with anyone. I'm ready to have Kathy's choreographic intentions toward me become extremely clear, so that I can do more with them. It's almost like we just get started [working on a show] and the concert's already over and we've only worked on one piece. But if there are three pieces I can touch on, we can reveal more of ourselves to each other."

The three pieces in Close Ups are Stumble Stones, danced by four dancers with five rocks; Swing Shift, a trio; and the autobiographical quintet Edges.

Dunn-Hamrick won't exactly tell me her story represented in Edges, but in general, she says, "it's about me making choices about how you're going to balance your life and how close you come to the edge."

"No, wait. That's my story," I tell her.

"That's why I don't feel self-indulgent when I dance about myself," she says. "You're not going to hear my story, personally, but my story as it relates to other people. I think everybody has that in some way. They might not know it or see it but it has fear in it. It's really the choice of when you get that close to the edge and you're either going to fall down or get up. Sometimes you can't get up and you've gone over.

"A lot of times I live with this fear of balancing and sometimes I come home and I'll say, [she holds her arms out steady] `Okay. I am on the edge. Don't push me or I'm falling off.' And there has been one day where I couldn't get out of bed. That's the closest to the edge I've ever been. Over the edge would be if they find me in the closet rocking and sucking my thumb. I didn't quite get there but I do walk that line a lot."

And that's how Edges begins: Five dancers enter single file in a line upstage. They face the audience and in unison begin a soft rocking phrase to John Lurie's score. Slowly one of them peels off into a minimal solo which leaves her on the floor. Another peels off, and then a third, until all three are left on the floor. Of the remaining two, one retreats and one hovers over the edge, not making a choice about whether to jump or stay.

Most of Swing Shift is also about jumping and staying, and all that's in between. Dunn-Hamrick says the dance was a vehicle to get an abundance of movement material out of her body and to see it on others. It's performed in silence and is pure design and imagery. Dancers fly through space, often bouncing off each other.

Working in silence was new territory for Dunn-Hamrick, and she struggled to find the dance's mood and organization without the structure a score often imposes. It also puts pressure on the dancers because they are forced to be in tune with each other and become more clear and present in their dancing. She says the dancers seem like musical notes on a page who create their own score. "Now I love the way it sounds. You hear the feet sliding on the floor and you hear the dancers bringing their breath back down to go into the next material."

The third piece, Stumble Stones, deals with issues of space and of being invaded by others and their stuff, represented by the rocks. Much, but not all of the movement centers around the rocks, which are tossed around quite freely. Springboarding off her own spatial problems of living in a 2-1 with a growing family of four (she admits she's a clutterer), the piece reflects overcrowding and the offense it inspires.

I ask Dunn-Hamrick if she is going to present solo concerts from now on. She is unsure, saying she will wait and see how she feels when this show concludes. She does enjoy collaborating and sharing concerts with other choreographers but says that it presents its own problems. "What happens is, you have no idea what the show's going to look like. You don't have any control in a way when I say, `You do whatever you want, as long as my children can come see it.' It's hard to find a concept for the whole evening because you don't know what it looks like.

"It also presents a problem when I work with a marketing person or a member of the press, and they want the hook. `What is the hook?' And I just usually don't have one. My hook is that I'm trying to make dances."

Close Ups runs through Nov. 16, Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, at Cafe Dance, 3307 Hancock. Call 451-8066 for info.

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