Past, Present, and Future in The Neighborhood

Montclair State University students Megan Theobald and Waverley Leung discuss experiencing community through rehearsing and performing The Neighborhood, a new work created by Kathleen Kelley.

Rehearsal Footage with Projections at Montclair State University

Rehearsal Footage with Projections at Montclair State University

Megan Theobald (sophomore) and Waverley Leung (senior) are students in Professor Neil Baldwin’s course Danceaturgy. In this course, “selected dance students/writers are chosen from repertory classes to examine the works in which they are performing, and given the task to develop a critical analysis of the works by ‘stepping out’ and looking at pieces objectively.” Megan and Waverley wrote and presented this analysis of the Neighborhood on April 26th before a live audience at Dance Day at Kasser Theatre at Montclair State.

M: The neighborhood choreographed by Kathleen Kelley, a modern professor here at MSU, in collaboration with her dancers, explores the ideas of creating an intimate world shared with everyone present in an instant. Her piece looks at the past, present and future as the dancers dive into different personas for moments at a time, then moving on to the next. Through this piece, Kathleen addresses what it is like when a community comes together to make something bigger than themselves. She challenges us to deeply invest in the present by accepting where we were in the past, having a goal of where we want to be in the future but also acknowledging where we are in this exact moment.

W: This piece stands apart from the rest because rather than having set choreography, “The Neighborhood” is driven by an improv score performed by the dancers. Meaning, the dancers are making split-second choices on what they want to do at that present moment. Therefore, just like you don’t know what you are about to see, they also don’t know what they will be doing for you on stage. So that being said, Megan, what did you think of the process in creating this piece?

M: First semester we improv-ed every rehearsal. Kathleen would give us different prompts and these prompts later turned into parts of score we perform on stage.  For me this was extremely different than other rehearsal processes. We were not given specific steps to do. Instead, we were given an outline such as picture a person you know really well. Once we had this person in our minds, we would slowly being to embody this person, exploring how they walk and move throughout space and their mannerisms. We had the time in a supportive space to really explore this idea fully to the point where this person we were trying to embody almost became an extension of ourselves. So even though this process was not traditional or something any of us were used to, as a cast we were really able to connect with each other in a new and different way. We created a community through supported exploration. So Waverley what did you take away from this process?

W: From this process I became more conscious and aware of the people I am dancing with. It is so important to be able to communicate with the people we are dancing with directly as well as the group as a whole. Since we were never really sure what exactly would happen in rehearsal, I had to be able to adapt to any situation given to me. Additionally, it was a huge challenge to remember what the improv score was, as sometimes we would get carried away with what we were currently doing. This contributed to our experience in the piece with time (past, present, and future), which you will all see when you watch the dance.

Projection Text from The Neighborhood

Projection Text from The Neighborhood

M: I definitely agree. This process has been eye opening to the fact that there are many different ways to create a dance. Another thing that added to the challenges of this rehearsal process was the music. We did not add music until towards the end of the process and similarly to the piece, the music is heavily improvised. We have been lucky enough to work with Glenn Fittin, an accompanist here at MSU. He will be playing live and interacting with us on stage. What did you think when you found out Glenn was playing live?

W: I was surprised… But not as surprised as when she told us we were going to be talking on stage… Honestly as a dancer I am not as confident in my voice than I am with communicating with my body, which made this idea very intriguing. However, I was excited to challenge myself, and I find it is now one of my favorite parts of the piece! Like in one part we-

M: Wait, don’t give away too much! That being said, we hope that you take away from this piece that when a community comes together they can create something unexpected and amazing. And today when you are watching this show, we hope that you will see the beauty in the present because we are all here together.

Proteo Media + Performance | Smart Snow Interview

Production Intern, Victoria Strata interview with Kathleen Kelley and Sarah Rose Nordgren of Smart Snow

VS: What is your field of expertise and what are some of the challenges that come from your field of study? What are some of the benefits that you face? What are some things that are exciting being in this field as a woman?

SR: I’m a poet with particular expertise in hybrid poetics (work that blends poetry with other writing genres and artistic forms) as well as feminist poetries. Wonderfully, and not coincidentally, these two areas often overlap. There’s a splendid history of poets from marginalized groups such as women, queer/lesbian/trans, and people of color who’ve challenged hierarchical and patriarchal thinking by subverting genre boundaries.

One of the big challenges many poets face is one very familiar to artists of all sorts: finding support (in the form of time, money, or other resources) to get the work done. This challenge is taking on new meaning for me the past couple of years since I became a mother, has also led me into a wonderful matrix of communities that I was never aware of previously: the online community of poet-moms. I’ve come to find that there is a world of incredibly brilliant and accomplished poet mothers who are ready to support each other in the largest and smallest of professional and personal ways from near and far, many of whom are activists to boot. They are really an astounding group of people, and I’m honored learn from them.  

KK: I am a dance artist, but within that role, there are a lot of sub-roles for me: teacher, media artist, dance filmmaker, performer, mentor, and choreographer. I am always trying to understand the experience of having a body in the current velocity of technology and culture.

Echoing Sarah Rose, the greatest challenge to making creative work is finding resources to make it happen. Money is an incredibly important and rare resource, of course, but I often struggle with the limits of time. I always want more time to play. I have to be very intentional about making time to nurture my artist self.

I’ve been lucky as a woman to grow up in a field surrounded by strong women and to now get to mentor strong young women (and men!) I really value my community and my collaborators and the ways that we show up for each other. I get to make beautiful things with people I care about, and that’s a pretty wonderful way to live life.

VS: How did you come up with the name Smart Snow and what does it mean to you?

SR: Smart snow is the name of a virtual substance that saturates the futuristic/dystopian environment in poet Cathy Park Hong’s brilliant book Engine Empire. The phrase is so evocative to me because it connotes the pillowy but chilling comfort of digital connection, as well as blurring the line between a digital and physical substance.

VS: What does your collaboration consist of and what is your process?

KK: We’ve been collaborating formally and informally since we met in high school at a party. We recognized each other right away as artistic soul mates, and as we worked together more,  we realized the ways that our creative processes intertwined. We started out both dancing and writing, then both separately trained in our prospective fields for many years, but have been sharing drafts, videos, notes, letters, inspiration, and ephemera for 20 years.

We started our formal collaboration in 2013 as a way to spend more time together. We began with our first project “Digitized Figures”, which was a collection of dance/poetry hybrid videos that culminated in a live performance installation in Brooklyn in 2016. We then made a dance/poetry film “Territory” that premiered in 2018, and are currently in pre-production for a new dance/poetry experimental film that we’ll shoot in May.

Our process is centered around correspondence. We often write letters or emails, draw sketches, or make videos that we send to each other. This new video got started with a rolling Google Doc we would each post in every few days that allowed us to get our thoughts on (digital)paper. We also share imagery and text that draws us in, and we usually have a pinterest board with images, textures, or other visual ideas that inspire us. Once we are in the same place and working in production, we just bounce off of each other very freely, and work in a very focused pace getting everything filmed and done. We always take time for some body work or something in the middle though!  

VS: Who are the women that inspire you personally and are there any women that inspire the aesthetic and art of Smart Snow?

SR: Other than the community of poet mothers, I have so many inspirational women in my life. My mother and two sisters, first of all. I’m thinking a lot about my mentor and friend, poet Linda Gregg right now. For the past 13 years she’s been one of my most significant teachers. Linda didn’t just mentor my writing; she expanded my conception of what the artist’s life entails and what happiness can look like. Linda passed away this month and it’s a huge loss to me as well as to the poetry community.

The female artist that’s most directly inspired Smart Snow’s aesthetic is, without question, Bjork. Bjork is a singular figure in so many ways, and was exploring virtual spaces from a female perspective (and blending them with “natural” and analog environments!) when these ideas were still nascent in the culture. #Bjork4eva.

KK: I am so inspired by the circle of women that surround me. We are all trying the best we can to grow, develop, hold space for others, nurture, make bold choices, and leave the world better than we found it. This looks differently on every single person, but I am deeply inspired by the ways all of these women live their lives with integrity and depth. I’ve also been lucky to have incredible women mentors my entire life.  #bjork4eva!

Growing a Body: Dance Education with a Future Lens

How do we train our bodies for the future?

Students performing in their Final Showing as part of my Digital Technologies class at Montclair State University

Students performing in their Final Showing as part of my Digital Technologies class at Montclair State University

How do I train my students to be ready for a world that doesn't exist?

In physical training, we have to balance our drive towards the future with our ability to be deeply present in the body's current experience. Training becomes a deep struggle to identify, feed and nurture the future you (the dream), the present you (the body with its guts and gore and pain and pleasure), and the past you (with its preferences, fears, trauma, and responses).

It is that time of year when I meet individually with all my students to discuss their progress and their goals. One theme that is coming up this year is connecting deeply with the emotional capacity of the body. How do you move in a way that isn't about the image of the movement, but about the communicative ability of the body? I find myself saying: How can you work to engage your body so that plié actually means something and makes you feel something?

As a teacher I am often confronting my own history, past training and biases. I know how to prepare for the present world because I did it. But how does that translate to my student's world, which can be wildly different than my own?

In my training history, neutrality was valued. Anatomical simplicity was valued. Abstraction was valued. But now, I see "technique" becoming so much more about becoming human, not becoming abstract.

We are all cyborgs. Donna Haraway claimed it many years ago, and every student in my class who has on an Apple Watch is living that maxim. But then if we are deeply intertwined in these digitized abstractions, maybe dance training then becomes about enlivening the body to wrap around this digital sphere and give it blood and guts and humanity.

Frozen Baby: Inside the Process

Frozen Baby: Inside the Process

Learn more about the creative origins of FROZEN BABY. Artistic Director Kathleen Kelly writes:

“As I was developing the projections, I was thinking about the article Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid by Rufi Thorpe. I was thinking about the ways in which women choose and navigate the reproductive process as artists, and the ways that art becomes a child to nurture, a process that can consume. “

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Smart Snow's "Territory" published in TriQuarterly literary magazine

Kathleen Kelley and Sarah Rose Nordgren's newest work "Territory" was published in TriQarterly Issue 153 this January. 

“Territory” asks us to think about the everyday places where digital and analog rub up against one another, and can produce a type of confinement. It shows us how compressed spaces, like miniatures, ask us to consider their life-sized counterparts more carefully.
— "An Introduction to Video Essays" by Sarah Minor