Jennifer Sherburn's 11:11
This project of 11 different dance programs in 11 months goes through one stage after another
Hold on just a little minute, there, Mr. Bard of Avon.
All the world may be a stage, but sometimes you need a definition of space in which to frame performance as an event distinct from the rest of human activity. You need a theatre, a warehouse, a courtyard, a venue of some sort, for presenting what you've worked hard to conjure from knowledge, experience, and imagination.
You might need one of those structures for displaying visual art or for storing textual documents; but, even in these days when so much is accessed online, you especially need some type of structure for live performance.
Jennifer Sherburn and Natalie George have been finding and using several different venues – rather unusual venues – throughout Austin for their adventurous 11:11 project.
11:11 is a series of 11 site-specific dance performances over 11 months. It started last November and will continue, month by month, through September of this year. Just considering the scope and depth of its ambition, the project is remarkable. But this is a Jennifer Sherburn undertaking – we've rhapsodized about her kinetic arrangements of humans-and-environment before, for her horse-ranch spectacle Arena and her swimming-pool takeover Riverside. And we've attended the first six of these 11:11 gigs, where a new work by Sherburn follows a new work from a different choreographer each time, with all these presentations lit by George, with live music part of the mix, so we're not going to miss the chance to sound an impressed huzzah again.
But our focus here is on how a company can wrangle performance venues, one after another, in a city where such a task seems less possible each day.
Note that the first and second 11:11 gigs happened in a sort of glorified quonset hut lurking among urban foliage on West Fourth Street; the next two filled the empty rooms of what used to be Dario's Mexican restaurant on East Sixth; the fifth commandeered the Live Oak Brewing Company over by the airport; the sixth unfolded like a weird dream in the storage area of the KC Grey Home furniture store off South Congress; and the next show, 11:11:07, is coming up fast at Sertodo Copper, the local headquarters of master coppersmiths.
We're going to explore this operation, after learning how Sherburn and George first hooked up professionally:
Jennifer Sherburn: I was building some momentum with my earlier projects, and I was wanting to focus on that and to figure out a project that would not only keep me busy full time, but also make use of that momentum. And I thought, if I'm gonna do a project full time like that, I'd like to invite other people in to join me.
Natalie George: Before 11:11, I had lit ... three of Jennifer's shows? Three or four shows. And over all those experiences, our friendship and our collaboration and our style, our seeing things the same way, just kept growing and growing. And when we did Arena, it was such a great experience, because we were out of town and we were forced to commit to a lot of time out there, to spending the night out there, and having the luxury to really have conversations and mull things over. That led us to discovering how to talk about where does the audience go and how does the dance play out, so it grew from me being a lighting designer to engaging with Jennifer about all the ways her work is presented.
Austin Chronicle: A lot of people have difficulty finding spaces for their shows, even if they're looking for months in advance. And yet, here you are, with all these different places at the drop of a hat. How does that happen?
Sherburn: It's certainly a challenge. In some ways, it feels like the places just fall in our lap, but in other ways we work hard around the clock to find the opportunities. A little of it has to do with the momentum I was building with Arena and Riverside, and even earlier shows; there were things going on and people were becoming aware of the work. And when we started moving around, I think there was some excitement? Because people had seen us doing work in different locations already, so there was proof. So when I went to someone, they didn't think I was so crazy. Most of them have been friends or friends of friends or some close connection – and they'd seen my stuff or Natalie's stuff, so they didn't question that – so a lot of it has to do with our ties to the Austin community. But not just the arts community, but the restaurant community, the ranch community. So it's about keeping your finger on the pulse of things and talking to people. And I just approach people, like, "This is what's supposed to happen in your space." [Laughs]Also, there are a lot of people in this town who are entrepreneurs, and they have these empty spaces and they want to stay connected to the arts, they love the idea of breathing creative life into their project before it gets started. And for some of the business owners, just starting out, they haven't seen people in their space before. And often it's going to be a place for the public to be, so when we come in and perform, they're able to make some architectural decisions, some design decisions based on the flow of audience. They're impressed with how we're able to transform the space and make better decisions about it.
George: A lot of times, people don't know what they have access to or don't imagine their space being used like this. And one thing that Jennifer and I have done well is pulled things out of people? They think we're looking for something pristine and clean and big, with tall ceilings, and all these requirements – and in our emails and conversations with people, we've done a good job of being like, "It doesn't matter if it's weird, it doesn't matter if it's multiple rooms – we're looking for anything and everything, and we're happy to adapt, so let us know." And people are like, "Wellll, there is this one thing that we – " And we're like, "We wanna go see it, we wanna go see it!"
Sherburn: And our work thrives off that. At least it's the challenge of 11:11 – the artists couldn't plan too much in advance, couldn't preconceive a piece and then just superimpose it into a space if you don't know what that space is gonna be. You have to keep your ideas flexible. The works don't have to be super site-specific, but they have to at least fit into the space. And that keeps me fresh with ideas. If I was just walking into another black-box theatre every month, it'd be very different.
AC: And some of your shows are extremely site-specific. Like, when you have people dancing on top of giant fermentation vats in a brewery?
Sherburn: I think that that's where some people struggle? Because they have a more traditional style of theatre or dance, so they're looking for a space that accommodates the need for a backstage area or wings or a certain floor where they can bring in a dance-floor covering to do a certain style of dance, or they want a proscenium. And there's nothing wrong with that, of course, but we're so flexible that we can fit in any space, if we want to – as long as we can make it wheelchair accessible.
AC: Are people who have venues coming to you now?
George: Well, KC Grey Home, where we performed in April, they did. I found that place through Big Medium's Shea Little. We just keep emailing people out there, saying, "What do you have, whattaya know? We're still on the hunt!" And KC Grey didn't necessarily come find us, but when they met Shea, they said, "We want something in this space." They were actively seeking engagement, they'd talked to Art Alliance, and I think they're still trying to schedule a Pecha Kucha night there? So they were putting the idea out into the world, and it took Shea to connect the dots that brought them to us.
Sherburn: Sam at Dario's was that way, too. He wanted to have some arts projects going on in his building while it was just sitting there, just a shell that was being vandalized. It was part of the East Austin Studio Tour, so he was already interested, and he welcomed us in.
AC: I doubt I've seen a site-specific performance greater than what you guys have done at some of these places already – with only a month's notice. Don't you ever wanna just Atlas-shrug-it, just throw some dancers in there and whatever? What drives you to this level of complexity and engagement?
George: For me, personally, I'm a stubborn person. So it's just the challenge of it: This will not defeat me. And it's kind of like Christmas, really, to get to walk into a new space, to have like a new toy every month. It does have that effect on you, when you get to the point where you're exhausted and a little grumpy and tired – but that's in the middle. And then at the end, you're excited about what just happened. And it's the next day, maybe, where you're like, "Oh God, I have to do this again? In, well, 18 days, basically?" It's such a fast cycle that the emotions cycle quickly, too.
Sherburn: I do some amount of research about the space, considering it and the people there, but I use most of the time to generate movement material. From day one, we have ways of working very quickly. And the limitations of the space make so many decisions for us. In a way, it can be easier – if you're open to being that flexible. And some parts of the process are so formulaic now, they're becoming streamlined. A few more stresses are eliminated each time, because we're getting better and better at producing, and that gives us more time for the creative components.
AC: Do you already have the rest of the 11:11 venues lined up?
George: Well, we know May, we know September, and we know one that will be either June or July.
Sherburn: We're still looking around for the other two months. You got a space?
11:11:07 will be performed May 10-13, Wed.-Sat., 8pm, at Sertodo Copper, 3615 Oak Springs Dr. For more information, visit www.1111austin.com