Dancing Over Lights on Congress Avenue

In a packed rehearsal studio, Ellen Bartel fields dancers' questions about her concept. "Are we spooky?" one asks. "Should we smile?" questions another. The choreographer explains that, despite black costuming, the mood she's going for in her site-specific First Night work is one of peace. Levity. Clarity. Optimism. That said, with no fourth wall – the dancing will take place outside at 100 Congress in the midst of the First Night crowd – anything can happen. "I'm going to try to mentally prepare you for people being right in your face," she tells the dancers, who sit on the floor, some stretching, others drinking coffee, a few furrowing their brows.

Bartel doesn't want to commit to details yet, but this much is clear: Nearly 40 dancers, lit from below by the ground-level lights at the site, will do 20 minutes of structured improv. That means the dancers make up their own movements based on themes explored in rehearsals, but simultaneous changes in dynamics will be choreographed. "The beginning will have lots of stillnesses, and then we'll build into an improv where there's vocalization and more dynamics, where they may be running back and forth," says Bartel. Each dancer will use a length of black tulle both as a prop and a costume piece. Live music by local musicians Adam Sultan and Miss Darlene, over strategically placed speakers, will create a "wall of sound."

Bartel says she has always visualized dancers over the lights. Four years ago, when she first submitted her idea to First Night, it was rejected, mainly for budget reasons. (She had factored in pay for the dancers.) This year, she halved the cost and put out a call for volunteer performers, no dance skills necessary. She had no trouble getting women to sign up – curiously, no men responded – and all do have some movement experience.

"What I think will happen is that it will feel like the sidewalk is hovering," Bartel says, emphasizing that the piece is designed as much for passersby as for those who stop to watch the whole thing. Depending on their viewpoint, she says, spectators may connect with an individual dancer or be witness to moments of synchronicity that seem spontaneous. "I expect people to be really into it, to be honest."

Light in the New Year! will be performed at 8 & 9:30pm outside 100 Congress.

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