Jill Johnson (left) observes the Cedar Lake dancers, photo by Evan
August 4, 2008
The studio was silent on Monday afternoon as four clusters of Cedar Lake dancers were weaving their arms together, paying attention to the way their wrists, elbows, and shoulders folded into or retracted out of the others. The complexity of the movement and resulting image would come from the layering of the limbs. “Don’t move until you’re moved”, instructed Jill Johnson, the Canadian choreographer of Cedar Lake’s upcoming installation The Copier. “Think of all sides of your arm, not just the inside and outside.” This exercise, which later Jill told me was informally called “spider-hands”, was one of several tasks that she gave the dancers on the first day of rehearsal. She walked around and offered suggestions, immersing herself in the process by being hands-on as well as clearly articulating her ideas. The dancers were focused and diligent, but occasionally erupted into laughter, which explains the type of relationship they have with each other and with Jill. They can have a laugh while collaborating and building something together. Everyone seemed extremely comfortable working with Jill, and she with them, suggesting how open the dancers are to taking on new ideas. As Jill pointed out, “They’re committed, talented, and cohesive”.
Jill watches a trio of dancers
The Copier is Jill’s first installation for Cedar Lake, but she’s been following the company for several years and has a great deal of respect for their vision (“Cedar Lake rocks!”). Her inspiration for The Copier stems from “a beautiful, quasi waltz” composed by David Poe that is based on the sound of a computer printer. In spite of the jarring sounds of cell phones and copy machines, the orchestration is wonderfully rhythmical, utilizing “digital chaos” in an unexpected, less recognizable way. Poe’s composition triggered ideas for Jill about doing a waltz, and she started thinking about how all people copy – standing in lines, forwarding emails, following trends – and how the dancers could construct this. Yet, even dancing is based on copying. “We learn dance by rote. You watch someone do it and you copy them until you embody it,” explained Jill. So I was curious about how originality would be incorporated into The Copier. The creative and choreographic process is collaborative, allowing each dancer to bring unique ideas to the table. Additionally, the installation is an interactive piece between the audience and the dancers. Without a defined boundary between stage and seats, the audience – collectively and individually – will become part of the composition, resulting in a slightly different performance each time. “I’m curious to see how the public will circulate. Hopefully I’ve designed a space where people will do that.”
Although Jill keeps the audience in mind while choreographing The Copier, she doesn’t cater to what she thinks they’ll like. Rather, her hope is that the dancers will “legibly convey their ideas” so that the audience will recognize that they – the dancers and themselves – are copiers. “If the public understands, then they want to come back, and that’s curating the art form”, as opposed to making it exclusive. Jill is quick to say that “there’s nothing that the public has to get”, and she and I agreed that it’s unfortunate when people leave a theater shaking their heads and saying, “I didn’t get it.” Cedar Lake’s installation series is exceptional because it invites audiences to watch dance with a fresh, engaging approach where they can choose how they are a part of the experience, and don’t need to be concerned about “getting” the dance. The company is cultivating a new kind of audience, one that doesn’t come to the theater with entertainment alone as an expectation. For Jill, an installation is “another kind of performance”, where the audience and dancers meet somewhere in the middle. The next two weeks of rehearsals for The Copier will be intense, but Jill is looking forward to collaborating with the dancers as they create the installation. “This is the kind of creative process I like a lot – that I prefer”, she said. I told her that I was eager to watch how The Copier evolves and progresses between now and August 20th. “Me too”, she laughed.
A group huddle at the end of rehearsal