School of Dance
Post-MFA, Ellen Bartel has a brand-Spankin'-new choreographic point of view
The dancers were unhurried as they paced and pivoted, evoking the human machine of mass transit in Ellen Bartel's MFA thesis dance, "Watch the Gap," presented in March by the University of Texas. Awash in asphalt gray, accented with yellow and red, the stage setting merged with a looming video projection of a commuter rail station, multiplying the volume of the performance space. Of the works by Bartel I have seen, this was the clearest and most complete. I have often thought of her dances as having an endearing, scrappy quality, but "Watch the Gap" was calmer and more refined, its purpose resounding more fully in a lower frequency.
For most dance artists, a master's degree means the stability and resources – plentiful student dancers and health insurance, for example – that come with teaching at the college level. But Bartel, who has been dancing, choreographing, promoting, and presenting independent dance in Austin since 1994 and is happily settled here, isn't holding her breath for a coveted faculty position to open up within the city limits. Instead, she's funneling her newly focused energies from three years of grad school into her 12-year-old troupe, Spank Dance Company, planning an ambitious and diverse season that includes the Big Range Austin Dance Festival June 22-July 1. I asked Bartel, post-thesis but pre-graduation, how the hard-won fruits of academic study will flavor new work with her troupe.
Ellen Bartel: I have a point of view now, whereas I'm not sure I really did all these years. I've always had certain styles and aesthetics that I've sort of tapped into for different ideas and used them, but I never really honed them into a point of view that I feel like is more clear and can give my company direction. In other words, I can design my website around where I see my work going, and I can design grants. I'm writing about where I see my work going as opposed to just saying, "Well, I work project to project, and yada yada yada."
Austin Chronicle: Back to your application process: Did you know that was what you were going after – that point of view? Or did you have other reasons for applying?
EB: The reasons I applied were more personal. It's kind of a landmark, turning 40, and wanting to know where this [career] is going. I went to school with this idea that I might stop dancing and just pursue being a producer, being a presenter. I called it "arts administration" – they don't really have an arts administration program over at UT, but that's what I was kind of putting it in the box of. So I went to study and to understand what the indie dance community was here in Austin, what does "indie dance" mean.
But ultimately, whereas I had a lot of interesting questions, I'm not sure if the answer was that interesting. I'm not sure if it was much of a research question, and really, why do we want to define indie dance and put it in a box so that it becomes this quantitative thing that we know about? Also, I was realizing that there was no creative endpoint to that research, either.
About a year and a half into school, I was working on what became my [Cohen New Works Festival] project in 2011 [Transitional Spaces III]. Through the school and through the New Works process, they bring in professionals to respond to your work. So [choreographer] Patrick Corbin from New York City came in – he danced with Paul Taylor, and he has his own company now, and he works a lot with [choreographer] William Forsythe – and he was my responder. And he was supernice. I picked him up from the airport, and we hit it off right away. He came and saw my piece both times. And he was really engaged in the work, which was his job, but, you know, it had an impact on me. I changed my thesis research at that point to continue to pursue choreography.
That's when my focus became very clear, that this whole idea of spaces of transition and finding the in-between spaces all connects with [Bartel's Nineties slow-motion troupe] the Creeps and Butoh and site dance and the way I like to choreograph and the way I like to find movement. It all comes from this exploration of spaces in between destinations, arrival and endpoints. All the things I've always enjoyed doing, I realized, have the same baseline. So that became my focus; it's very clear to me now.
AC: I feel like there used to be this idea among dancers that you didn't go to college for dance. Maybe you went to college for something else, but you didn't go to study dance, because why do that when you could just go dance professionally? But it seems more accepted now that going to college for dance – or writing or whatever artistic purpose – actually forces that to be your purpose and gives you the head space to develop as an artist, to come to a point of view.
EB: Yeah, it hones that point of view for you. And it kind of snuck up on me. I knew that I was getting the rigor that I never gave myself, as far as intellectual [challenges] and scholarship. I always did research with my dances, but only to the point where I had time to do it – I would never push myself past that. Same thing with writing and especially analyzing dances, which, like choreography, came very naturally to me. But I had to then put my idea out there and get graded and have people comment on my ideas – that's a completely different thing. Being able to analyze choreography and dance, coming from a queer perspective or feminist perspective or historical perspective or futurist perspective – having those lenses made me analyze my own work. What lens am I producing work from? And it all seemed to come from the same idea of this desire to understand the spaces in between.
AC: I'm totally thinking of "Watch the Gap" while you're saying this, because – and maybe it's a very literal interpretation on my part – it's in this commuter station that's a means to an end, and yet the whole dance takes place there. And I just love the part where the video and the set design merge, and you make it seem as if the dancers are down by the third rail. It's almost like another society was living down there. Of course, there are things that live down there, like rats, but it wasn't an ugly society; it was this beautiful, weird society doing these vignettes. So I can see in that piece that you took this thing that's a means to an end and you just kind of expanded it. Oh, wait, but why didn't you dance in "Watch the Gap"?
EB: Yeah, so the other thing is that I started not dancing in my work, which made my work a lot better. [Laughter]
AC: Was that part of that halfway point you were talking about?
EB: Yeah. What happened was that I went to New York and went to a workshop with [choreographer] Susan Marshall, and when I was there I made like 14 dances in four days or something like that – short dances, little snippets – but I wasn't in any of them. And I was like, "Oh, this is fun." For one thing – and I don't know a better word – it gave me more power. To say "yes" or "no," to say, "Do this again; do it differently." And, obviously, I could see better.
Even if it's not my choreography and I'm dancing with somebody else, I can still see the dance in three dimensions in my mind. Not perfectly, but I get a sense. I don't watch a film of a dance after we've performed it and get surprised [by] what it looks like, whereas so many people are like, "I didn't know what that looked like! Oh my god!" I'm like, "Of course, I knew that's what it looked like." So I can always put myself in there and make the piece, but it's better when I'm not. Because then I can really start crafting and, for lack of a better word, tell people what to do. Or how to do it differently or how to approach something differently. And it just looks better. So that's why I wasn't in it.
One of the dancers [in "Watch the Gap"] hurt her shoulder, and I needed a replacement. So I put myself in the piece, and I was extremely uncomfortable. I was in the piece for about three rehearsals, then I took myself out. That being said, I recently put myself back into a piece of mine that was made for two other dancers, and I was fine. I was really happy to be there; it didn't feel weird. It took a while to get into it, but I haven't gone two years without performing in my entire life. So I don't want to say I'm out of my work forever – I'd hate to say that, actually – but I do feel like my work is better without me in it. And I would dance with somebody else, so I'm not done dancing, per se. But I'm definitely done dancing hour-long, evening-length work. [Laughs] That's over with.
For more information about Spank Dance Company, visit www.spankdance.com.