The Earth Moves
Getting into the orbit of Ellen Bartel and Spank Dance Company
Let's get one thing straight: Dance doesn't make the world go 'round. Although the world itself, the terrestrial globe actually going 'round, well, that is a kind of dance, yes. The Earth spinning on its wobbly axis, circling its partner the sun, performing a long-term promenade with fellow dancers Mercury, Venus, Mars, and all those others: That's a dance, of sorts. And the activity on the planet, the various industries and interactions of the dominant species, the human race, that's another, almost infinite series of dances.
But that's pretty damn metaphorical.
Leave it to Ellen Bartel, artistic director of Spank Dance Company, to make such things literal.
"Brenda Meets Barbara was about the female aggressive behavior toward another female," says Bartel, speaking of the complex and jarring work that premiered as part of last year's FronteraFest Long Fringe. "It was about what they do to get their way, to show who's in charge."
And this was based on general observations?
Bartel smiles. "I was working behind the counter at Little City," she says, "and some of the people that would come in regularly were these businesswomen. And women can be really, really bossy, you know? They can be so catty. And there was this, like, this weird sort of female macho feeling going on between them. There needs to be a word for that: female macho. It all comes from self-consciousness -- well, so does the male macho thing -- because they're hiding their insecurities. And women have the same feelings, but their insecurities are completely different from men, so they have this whole different thing. They're really, I think, hiding their own personal ugliness, what they think is ugly about themselves.
"So I stripped all the dancers down, I greased their hair down, and created movement that was mutually aggressive. I got all 20 women looking the same, because it was just about two women, really. But I set it up so there were all these wild egos portraying two women who had to meet for the first time."
Brenda Meets Barbara, performed at the Blue Theater, stunned the audience with its tightly synchronized movement, its stark evocation of tension and jockeying for power, its staggered phalanx of women defining social combat in costumes of lingerie and deconstructed business attire. Its tautness and violence was redolent of the kind of dance you'd expect to see in a gutted, smoke-stained art space in New York's Greenwich Village.
"I was born in New York," says Bartel, sipping coffee at a cafe she might be working behind the counter of, who knows, in a month or two. "I started dancing when I was 12, taking jazz and tap out on Long Island. I wanted my life to be like Fame; I wanted to dance in Manhattan." She laughs, shakes her head, dirty blond hair falling to obscure her eyes. "Then I got into modern dance when I was about 19 or 20, and I took to it like a fish to water."
And then came the big city?
"I couldn't do the Manhattan thing," she says. "I don't have the competitive nature to emotionally succeed. It would've killed me; I probably wouldn't have been very successful. I needed to get into a smaller city environment where I could be myself. And so we, my husband and I, moved."
But not to Sheboygan, say? Not to Butte, Montana?
"We could've gone to Portland," says Bartel. "We could've gone to any of these other smaller, funky cities, yeah, but we moved here. It was weird, because at the time, in New York, we were reading books whose authors were from Austin, we were listening to music from Austin, we had a friend who was going to school here. Everything was pointing in this direction. That's why we came to visit, and we both liked it. I moved down here first -- 10 years ago exactly. A decade has flown by! I was 25 when I moved here, right outta college, and I immediately got into Ariel Dance Theatre. Two weeks and I was already in a company. I also started working with Toni Bravo, but I couldn't do both, and Ariel was more exciting."
Eventually, after multiple performances with Ariel Dance Theatre, after many months of dancing, Bartel began a group of her own. But it wasn't Spank yet. It was an improvisational group called the Creeps.
"The Creeps came out of wanting to give people who were going through their daily lives an experience that they wouldn't otherwise get that day," says Bartel. "For the first year, we performed on the street. Unannounced. Downtown -- where everybody was. We had between three and eight dancers at a time, it changed, it was whoever I could convince to do it. Because we did it in some pretty weird places."
The "it" that they did was movement reminiscent of Butoh: an extremely slow-motion progression from one point to another, mostly improvised on the spot.
"Maybe there'd be one action all the dancers had to do once, like roll on the floor," says Bartel, "but other than that it was improvised. And it was very slow."
And out in the open, in public? With no warning?
Bartel nods, smiling. "You've gotta put yourself on the line to do street performances, you really do. People stop and look, and they try to make you laugh or whatever. We performed on Sixth Street one time, the day after Halloween, at night. That probably wasn't one of my best ideas. There were a lot of drunk guys around, harassing the women. That was an experience. ... And, even without that, the Creeps were physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging."
For the performers or the audience?
"For me!" says Bartel, laughing. "Just for me!" She takes a sip of coffee, gets serious, reflective.
"There were times when the Creeps could be transforming, when you'd switch to another mental state, a kind of meditative state. You'd feel really connected to your body and, dare I say, the universe. One of my favorite shows was at the Ritz. Graham Reynolds was playing music, Luke Savisky was doing the video, the Creeps were all in white and nude or seminude, and Luke was projecting images onto us, onto our figures. And that was transforming. That was an incredible show."
So what happened to those Creeps?
"I wanted to choreograph for real," says Bartel. "I wanted to do full movement ensemble work, full evenings of completely new ideas. And the first few shows I did, I was always being compared to the Creeps, they were always mentioned. I was known as the Slow Motion Person, and people weren't coming to see the shows because they thought it was all going to be like the Creeps. So I had to stop doing that kind of stuff. Spank isn't anything like that."
Which you might guess, given the name.
"Well, I wanted to be different," says Bartel. "I couldn't name the group after myself, I didn't want it to be so much about me. And other dance companies have a sort of New-Agey, sort of cosmic name to them. Also, I thought Spank was funny and that it would represent something new and fresh."
And is that what dance is about? Being new and fresh?
"I think it's all about the human connection," says Bartel. "Like in live theatre and live music -- there's that connection. We still need that. And dance is an expression of bodies, trying to portray an idea. I think that the best dance -- choreographed properly, performed properly -- can express something that words cannot. All you need is that experience once, to understand that expression, to appreciate dance. To love dance. To go and see it.
"But there's a fine line, you know? I did a lot of performance art when I first got into town, and those guys are so cool, they're the cool kids on the block. Their raw energy is impeccable, you can't train anybody to get that. They think of a show on Wednesday, that Thursday they rehearse it, that Friday they perform it! And that's great ... but you can't ask a general audience to pay $12 to go see something like that. Sure, it's fun to do, it makes you feel cool, you can meet people, you can probably get laid ... but you can't ask a general audience to understand it, because it's not well thought out from beginning to end."
Bartel spends a lot of time thinking about the beginnings and ends of her work, whether it's a solo project, a collaboration (like the recent Sonambulo, in conjunction with writer and visual artist Ricardo Acevedo), or part of her efforts in promoting the Austin Independent Choreographers, the group she co-founded in 2002. The time and consideration Bartel invests is evident in her current offerings for FronteraFest 2004: Spank's Black Things and the AIC's Dance Carousel anthology of 40 one-minute dances by 10 local choreographers. What else is evident in those works and their many precursors is that, for Bartel, dance does make the world go 'round.
"I really think art needs to be about something," she says, looking through the cafe's front window and into the chance choreography of early-morning traffic. "You need to be touching somebody somehow. I don't want the audience to be thinking about me or even the dancers, necessarily. I want them to be thinking more about themselves. And they have to be offered the opportunity and the space for that; they have to be offered the time to feel something. Art isn't about testing or tricking the audience, you know? You have to give them something to think about besides 'oh, that artist was really weird' or whatever. You have to give the audience something they can connect with."
Spank Dance Company will perform Black Things Thursday, Jan. 22, 7pm; Sunday, Jan. 25, noon; Wednesday, Jan. 28, 9pm; Sunday, Feb. 1, 8:15pm.
Austin Independent Choreographers will present Dance Carousel Friday, Jan. 23, 7pm; Saturday, Jan. 24, 2:15pm; Tuesday, Jan. 27, 9pm; Saturday, Jan. 31, 4:15pm
All performances of both shows at the Blue Theater, 916 Springdale. For more information, call the FronteraFest box office at 479-PLAY or visit www.hydeparktheatre.org