Five.Foot.One 2 'Five.Two.Ten'

Tiny dynamo Andrea Ariel works up short dances

Andrea Ariel and
Steve Ochoa
Andrea Ariel and Steve Ochoa

You've heard the adage that good things come in small packages? Well, Andrea Ariel, who stands a scant 5 foot 1, most definitely is one of those good things, all wrapped up in the bow of dance.

A dancer since she was a little girl, Andrea (pronounced ann-DRAY-uh) has been offering so many good things to the arts in Austin for nearly 20 years that it's difficult to keep track of them all. There are the numerous full-length dance works that her Ariel Dance Theatre has produced since 1993 and the choreography she's done for film (most notably Waiting for Guffman), theatre (Evita at Zach Theatre and The Little Prince at the State Theatre), opera (Candide, Aida, and Carmen for Austin Lyric Opera), light opera (The Gondoliers and The Pirates of Penzance for the Gilbert & Sullivan Society of Austin), and even television. (Remember that H-E-B commercial with Emmitt Smith dancing down the aisles? Yup, that was Ariel.) And as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Texas and Austin Community College, as well as a teaching artist on the Texas Commission on the Arts Artist in Education roster (teaching dance in elementary school classes), she's been training the next generation of dancers and choreographers. To top it all off, she's a certified personal trainer.

Given the depth of her experience, you might think that this tiny dynamo of dance must have choreographed an evening of short dances at some point fairly recently. And yet, though she's participated in evenings of short dance (most notably in Dance Carousel, the perennially popular series of one-minute dances put together for the FronteraFest Long Fringe by Ellen Bartel and Spank Dance), she hasn't herself produced an evening entirely devoted to short dance pieces in almost 20 years. But that changes this weekend and next, when Ariel Dance Theatre presents Five.Two.Ten, a series of short dance works, each lasting (I bet you can guess) from five to 10 minutes.

So why, after all these years, all this work, the return to short dance? Does Ariel need a respite from her ongoing three-year project, Gyre, which focuses on the mass of plastic swimming in a vast vortex in the North Pacific? Or has her recent work with Keep Austin Beautiful or with Michael Rohd of Portland, Ore.'s Sojourn Theatre prompted her to move on to something new? Or was it a sudden inspiration? Given the way she blithely and speedily jumps from one thing to the next, it might be any of these things. Or none of them.

According to Ariel, at least one reason is simple: "Change, change!" she says. "Something different. We made a decision to extend the development of the final version of Gyre because it feels like such a new form. How do you make a work that goes from a script, a story, to abstract movement and not become sort of, as [Gyre co-director] Christi Moore would call it, a dansical? I'm after something a little different than a dansical. I want to find the real merging point between theatre and dance. So while I'm using language in my work now, I still want to continue to develop movement. How do I bring those worlds, the world of words and the world of movement, and crash them together and have it make sense in the way I want it to make sense?"

Making sense of art and of the world is Ariel's central aim. "The great thing about art is it can distill and shine a light on something that we might not be paying attention to. Hopefully that's why people come to see things like Gyre, so they can walk away with their own inspiration. Not by telling them how to think but by sparking something in a new direction beyond the piece. We all have the same makeup. We all have the same emotions. It's just different degrees of where people put their focus. I really think that I'm just driven to connect art-making with the community.

"Two years ago, I had the opportunity to work with Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theatre. It's an ensemble theatre company that devises its work from civic dialogue. He does a lot of interviews and community workshops and really looks at all the perspectives. That's his whole point in making work, which really struck me. Because it's not like, 'This is what I want you to think,' or, 'Here's the dogma,' or, 'Here's how to look at this.' He shows you all the sides and lets you come up with your own decision about things. He looks at the people who live with curiosity and the people who live with certainty and asks, 'Can those two meet?' Is it possible? He teaches this methodology for everybody to take and use however they want. He's very, very generous about what he's doing, and I thought, I really want to share this and support other people to go out and make work like this. It really sparked something in me. Gyre was already in process, but it really kind of helped me go, 'Yeah, I would really love to be more involved with my community as part of the process of making our work.'"

And that's exactly what Ariel has done for the past two years, joining with Keep Austin Beautiful to assist with its yearly Clean Sweep event, a citywide cleanup aimed at keeping Austin one of the most lovely and livable cities in the country. "We performed at their volunteer party a year ago, and this year Brian Block [the executive director] called me and asked: 'Do you want to perform again? We're doing this big campaign about plastic bags. People can bring plastic bags and get reusable bags.' And I thought: 'This is so perfect! I really want to have a presence there.' So we made a piece just for it. I worked with some excerpts from Gyre with dancers and put together this piece and teamed up with [local designer] Kari Perkins, who became really interested in playing with plastic costume elements. She created these incredible capelike things out of plastic bags. She crocheted them together, and we did this piece outside for the volunteers."

That piece, along with seven or eight other pieces, will be seen in Five.Two.Ten. But if you think the show is just a rehash of all things Gyre, think again. While Gyre obviously holds a central, even centrifugal place in Ariel's heart, mind, and discourse, the choreographer has more on her mind than plastic: "Every year I go to New York, and I have another little life that happens. I become part of that world because I'm working every day, out in the transportation and out amongst the masses, and in New York there's so much going on; there are all these random intersections with people that occur. I've been thinking a lot about how sometimes when there's a random intersection with somebody that you don't even know, something magical can happen or something strange can happen, and it has an effect; it creates a memory; it has an impact of some sort. Sometimes that intersection becomes something that's on a regular basis, and then you have another level of possible occurrences. It just started to lead me to thinking about how we affect each other so much. We're unconscious and just, you know, going about our day and our schedules and our little lives, and then there are these intersections that wake us to consciousness. That's one thing all these pieces have in common. They're smaller pieces, all duets and trios with two brief solos, and some of them are funny and silly, and some of them are beautiful and hopefully profound and some of them a little more intense, but they're all about those moments where lives suddenly come together."

But unlike Gyre, with its videos and text, these pieces are all dance. And, maybe, more about a broader community than simply a community of art and dance. "I am most proud of the community that forms from the work I do and the process we undertake," Ariel says. "The seeds I plant, driven by my interest and wild ideas about the investigation of a subject and, most importantly, the bringing together of many diverse people to create it, generates something that is a true collaboration – many people sharing their skills and creativity. It becomes something that is way bigger than me. It's not mine; it's ours. I witness it and feel that it's a model for life in general. I believe it can be a model for utopia. Creation, work, sweat, tears, laughter, sharing, connecting, support, and working toward a common purpose or intent that invites fruition. The case of Five.Two.Ten almost demands it because of opening night. The creation and the community created by it grows and develops. It changes, day to day, with the fluctuations of people's lives, but we keep coming back to it. Giving something to it. Being part of it. It has a life of its own that everyone involved is a part of."

Five.Two.Ten runs Sept. 5-13, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 5pm, at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. For more information, call 474-8497 or visit

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Andrea Ariel, Ariel Dance Theatre, Gyre, Keep Austin Beautiful, Kari Perkins

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