There are four characters in the upcoming modern dance performance I love you; I love you not: dancers Anya Cloud and Brian Gerke and two billowing hoopskirts. And sometimes it’s difficult to tell who’s in charge. At times the dancers playfully attack the skirts, breathing audibly as they flail at them, grasp them, even sink their teeth into them. At others, the skirts take the spotlight and act almost like shields—Gerke pauses to cocoon himself in his skirt and Cloud rests upside down, skirt over her upper torso like a shell. Physical closeness in the skirts is difficult, but when Cloud and Gerke do come together the costumes seem like natural extensions of their bodies.
Offstage, following a run-through of their performance, the dancers show off the scars they’ve accumulated rehearsing with these unwieldy partners. But they and choreographer Nicole Bradley Browning (disclosure: Browning is the wife of Indy Arts Editor Skylar Browning) appreciate the element of unpredictability the skirts bring to the performance.
“Even when you’re trying to control it, it has a life of its own,” says Cloud. “This time is not going to be the same as last time, but it will continue to be good because it’s different.”
Cloud would know something about continuation; she has been working with Browning on her solo I have a past—one of the five parts of I love you; I love you not—since 2004. Browning says the idea to develop the solo into a longer performance came after she saw a man trying on Cloud’s hoopskirt backstage at the American College Dance Festival, a regional conference where adjudicators chose the solo as part of the gala concert celebrating the event’s best work. Gerke joined the process in early 2005 and Browning worked with the pair through improvisational movement to find out, as she says, “what is this piece about, what are the hooks, and how can we develop them?” Over two years, the dance has been a constant work in progress, and with one week left until performance Browning, Cloud and Gerke are still tweaking the show.
I love you; I love you not is the first full-length dance piece to be performed at UM since Browning began teaching there four years ago. Most new choreography by students and faculty is presented in showcase format: several different pieces from different artists performed in one program.
“I wanted to see how we can surprise ourselves when we stick with an idea, trust it and make it more than a single seven-minute piece,” Browning says.
For Browning, this 45-minute performance marks a departure from her earlier, more structured choreography to an improvisational and collaborative style that puts just as much emphasis on the process as on the final product. Taking to heart an admonishment she once received in an adjudication—to “just get messy and stop thinking about it”—Browning says she’s learned to “take my hands out and step aside.” Instead, she focuses on finding “little pearls” in the improvisations—places where a motif develops—and manipulating their space, tension, rhythm and time. Those moments are common: for instance, the time Gerke’s skirt accidentally fell off during rehearsal and became a lasting part of the piece.
“It’s really scary,” Gerke says of improvising parts of the piece rather than following step-by-step choreography. “It’s personally risky and you feel vulnerable.”
Both admit that the process is satisfying, though.
“The more times I work [with improvisation], the more times I want to,” Cloud says.
Born from this method are Gerke’s most athletic, almost animalistic movements in his solo—he bends over, hip jutting, one arm extended and fingers spread before pouncing onto the collapsed hoopskirt. By contrast, Cloud is more emotionally direct in her solo, staring the audience in the eyes as she isolates her hips to swing the skirt from side to side. Improvisation during the piece’s development also led to a brief waltz and several nontraditional lifts in one of their duets; the woman does the lifting, and the waltz arrives abruptly following a biting, chasing, uncertain courtship between the two.
“The quality of the relationship—gentle, nice, nasty, mean—between us is different every time,” says Cloud.
It’s still unclear whether the show will mark the end of a two-year process. Gerke is leaving two days after the final run to dance with a New York-based professional dance company and Cloud recently graduated from UM, but the three are reluctant to leave I love you; I love you not after two nights of performance. One hope is to show the full-length piece at festivals in New York in the future.
“When you find people you work with so well,” says Browning, “you don’t want to give it up.”
One gets the impression she’s not just talking about Gerke and Cloud, but also the hoopskirts.
I love you; I love you not will be performed Friday, Aug. 11, and Saturday, Aug. 12, at 7:30 PM on the stage of the Montana Theater. Tickets are $5 general/$3 students and seniors/children free.