The Company You Keep

For dance artist Andrea Ariel, it's all in who you work with

The Company You Keep
Photo By Beverly Barrett

Andrea Ariel is smiling a big, happy smile. Now, this in itself is not unusual. Smiles come easily to this Austin choreographer and dancer – the kind of person for whom writers coined the words "elfin," "sprightly," "puckish," and a pack of similar adjectives that I'm sure by now she's tired of hearing used to describe her. And she is sitting outside enjoying the sun on what is, even for Austin, an atypically warm day in January. But it isn't the weather or her own sunny personality that's prompting this smile. She's listening to Leese Walker, artistic director of the New York-based Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble and Ariel's chief collaborator in Detour, the new Ariel Dance Theatre project, premiering this week at the Off Center as part of FronteraFest 2005. Walker is describing how she and Ariel have worked together, explored and melded their respective disciplines of theatre and dance together, learned together, created something new together. That's what has Andrea Ariel smiling: the collaboration.

In a town rife with artists breaking through those barriers between disciplines, collaborating with one another across traditional creative lines, Ariel is a collaborator's collaborator. For her, every project is an opportunity to seek out someone new to work with or try something new with a trusted creative partner. She relishes using their talents as the springboard for her own, sparking new directions for her choreography, and the discovery that comes from the interchange with different kinds of artists: finding that she can do things she didn't know she could, seeing them do things they didn't know they could.

"When I first started making work, it was mine," Ariel says. "'I want to really control this and make this mine,' [I'd think]. Then when I would put it out there, sometimes I would feel like, 'Ah, I just want to mess this up!' As the years have gone on, I have found the more that I open up and bring other people in, all these wonderful new things happen, and then I get inspired back. So it's definitely inherent in the process now. It's like, what could I do differently?"

It might be to develop dances that respond to the poetry and music of singer-songwriter Patrice Pike or choreograph a dance around operatic soprano Cheryl Parrish as she sings. Maybe it would be to move to a sound-painting score by improvisational guru Walter Thompson or incorporate into a dance projected images by videographer Colin Lowry. Ariel has done all those things in the past few years and more, and each project has taken her and her collaborators into unknown territory, with stimulating results for the creators and for those of us fortunate enough to witness their efforts.

Now, Ariel is teaming with Walker to merge the worlds of dance and drama, text and movement. The two met through Walter Thompson, the New Yorker who composed the score for Ariel's Red Light/Green Light and whose improvisational orchestra has brought together artists of all stripes from all kinds of places, including Austin. (In addition to Ariel, its local alumni include Jason Phelps, Margery Segal, and Elizabeth Doss.) Walker and Ariel seemed almost destined to hit it off. Besides their mutual interest in creating work improvisationally, both were heading small, independent performing arts companies and were on what Ariel calls "this parallel track": fighting to take the company to that next step financially, shouldering the weight of that struggle alone, and trying not to get burned out. But even more than being administrative twins, the two shared a deep interest in collaboration.

"Collaboration is so much of what my company is about," says Walker. "My group is jazz musicians, modern dancers, actors, and visual artists, and everything is created through improvisation." It's work – and more so, play – that requires a desire to create in the moment, a chemistry with one's fellow creators, and a willingness to give and take with the other members of the ensemble. Through her experiences with Ariel in the Walter Thompson Orchestra, Walker found Ariel to possess all three in abundance, so she began inviting the Austinite to perform with Strike Anywhere, where she fit in so well that, as with the Thompson orchestra, she's become something of an honorary member of the company. "Now, whenever I'm in New York," says Ariel, "it's uncanny how often Walter and Leese will be doing something that I can jump into and be part of. It's great fun."

As their friendship grew, Ariel and Walker kept up an ongoing conversation about running a company and how not to be burdened by it and how to keep the administrative frustrations from affecting one's creativity. "We talked a lot about 'Could we maybe work together collaboratively as a company, maybe even co-produce between Austin and New York?'" says Ariel. "Then we decided that we'd played together, we'd moved together, but we'd never actually done a show together, so maybe that would be a good place to start, just to make sure that we wouldn't kill our friendship."

The two agreed to test the waters in Austin, with Ariel bringing Walker in as one of the collaborators for an upcoming project. The trick was settling on a fixed amount of time short enough that Walker could afford to be down here yet long enough that they could realistically develop a complete work. A month was what they calculated as the maximum amount of time they could set aside. But that prompted them to ask themselves, "Can we really make a piece in a month?"

As it happened, life was handing Ariel some experiences that gave her tools for working quickly and "a lot of faith" in making things happen. She'd spent part of the summer at the North American Cultural Laboratory in the Catskills, where she'd been part of an inspiring group that developed new works in as little as four days. When she returned to Austin to get deeply into work on Divine Dogma, her September collaboration with Patrice Pike, a family illness kept her away from rehearsals until just five days before opening the show. Thanks to a group of very determined collaborators, they pulled it off. Then, between that production and a late autumn trip to New York to do some final planning with Walker before she came to Austin, Ariel's father died. "I was in this state of, 'Oh my God, I don't even know how I'm going to be able to make a show,'" she recalls. "It was crazy to go to New York. I was very raw. We had just been through the funeral, but I had decided to just tumble through life somehow – maybe it would help pick me up."

With only the vague idea of "detour" that Ariel had suggested earlier in the process to guide them, the two did what Ariel calls "a lot of raw writing about experiences of meeting death in different ways, coming up against something that had to do with death that changed your life." Getting those pieces out under such trying circumstances proved affirming for Ariel and actually gave her and Walker a direction for the work, characters and ideas they could use for inspiring the artists they would work with in Austin.

The point was always to have the material in the show represent not just the collaboration between Walker and Ariel but all the artists. "It was real back-and-forth with the performers," says Walker. "For example, the first day I came with three monologues, one for each of the characters. We had them dig into them a little bit, and then write their initial impressions, and then I went away and wrote based on what happened in the rehearsal room."

Creating an environment in which that kind of give-and-take, that kind of collaboration, was possible was crucial to Ariel and Walker, especially since the only performers they had worked with before were each other. "Because we were all new with each other," says Ariel, "we started the process with lots of improvisation and group-building activities, things that really connected everybody, that allowed us to really bond, to really feel safe. It opened up a nice situation for lots of exchange. Because we told them, 'We don't want to just write this and give it to you. We really want to make it all a give-and-take.' So they participate a lot, and we do improvisational games or studies to create source material so we can draw not only from movement I make but movement they make. And also we're learning each other's movements. It's really like we have this tremendous vocabulary now that embodies the characters."

"It's all new territory for a lot of us," Ariel notes, but she also observes that "you'd think we've known each other a long time the way we've connected. It's really sweet."

"It really is," says Walker. "Even when we're exploring dark territory, there's an incredible amount of trust and respect that's been generated in an incredibly short time."

"Which is what we prayed for," adds Ariel, prompting both to laugh long and hard. "We were like, 'Oh boy, if we don't have that, we're gonna be screwed.' 'Cause we don't have time to nurture this thing that you want to have happen really fast."

Ariel and Walker might not have realized it, but they didn't need the prayers. They were both artists accustomed to working in the moment, to taking whatever was thrown their way and playing with it until they had something. They are open, open to each other, open to their fellow artists, open to the creative impulse, open to life. And in their collaboration, they made sure to surround themselves with collaborators of like spirit, artists who are open and can play. It's all in the company you keep.

Ariel acknowledges the importance of openness and play to her way of working. "The more we open up, the more we realize that we're all connected to this wonderful thing. It's like a stream. You're creating, and it's this stream, so you're open to whatever else is happening, and that can influence you or you can groove with it or decide to change it. It's that stream of creativity that just feeds on itself!

"That's why I love the week that's coming up right now. This is the most fun week, because soon everybody will be in the room – the set designers, the musicians, the actors, the dancers – and everybody is jumping off that seed that we started with, and now it's not ours anymore. This started with this seed of an idea, and then it goes fwoosh and it's not mine anymore. It's everybody's. It's so cool! [Laughs] That's my favorite part." end story

Detour runs Jan. 27-Feb. 5 at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. For more information, call 474-TIXS.

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Ariel Dance Theatre, Detour, Leese Walker, Strike Anywhere Performance Ensemble, Walter Thompson Orchestra, FronteraFest 2005

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