photo by Rachel Bruce Johnson

Rachel Bruce Johnson is a modern choreographer, in every sense of “modern.” She runs The Bell House, a collaborative dance and arts cooperative. She has an MFA in Performance and Choreography from the dance graduate program at Texas Woman’s University, one of the best in the country. She has a particular interest in dance on camera — creating choreography specifically for film and exploring how the two mediums interact. She teaches modern dance at ORU and performs with the Living Water Dance Company. And, as you can see in the artifacts of the project she was working on today, she is one tech-savvy woman.

I have the great pleasure of getting to work with Rachel and one of her mentors, choreographer Melody Ruffin-Ward, on a duet for the EXCHANGE Dance Choreography Festival, coming up August 5-7 at Holland Hall. (The performance is at 7:30 pm on August 6 and is open to the public.) Rachel, through the Bell House, is the festival’s organizer, with many people to get here and many details to keep track of, and she uses all the usual tools (laptop, smart phone, web) to make that happen.

Rachel’s creative process, like Melody’s, is intensely collaborative. There’s just one bug in this system — or is it a feature? Rachel and I are in Oklahoma; Melody is in Rhode Island. Turns out that the same technologies that help run a festival can also make possible dance works that might not otherwise have had the chance to happen.

Not surprisingly, creating a piece in this long-distance way turns out to be a looser process than when it’s one-on-one with the choreographer right there in the room. But it’s no less intense. Here’s how it goes. Melody recently made this duet for two other dancers. Instead of recreating it step-for-step on us, we are all literally “re-creating” it together. So Melody gives us a movement idea — in this case, the way our hands carve and shape space — and a few phrases from the original duet to work with. (Music’s on the iPhone, video’s on the web.) Rachel and I get together and develop what Melody’s given us, then record on a laptop or a digital video camera what we’ve come up with and e-mail it back to her, after which she responds with additions, subtractions, variations, changes in dynamics, and whatever else she’d like to see. And then we do it all over again. And again. We’ll meet face to face for the first time at the festival and have a big chunk of rehearsal together to finish up the last details, and then … we’re on!

Rachel talks about this sort of collaboration as an experience of “extreme trust.” First and foremost, trust in the simple (but not easy) process of how choreography emerges. Before I started working with her, being the recovering bunhead that I am, I had very little experience with improvisation or “process.” We’ve been creating a different duet together for a couple of months, and that experience has made this one — which might have been rather nerve-wracking in its open-endedness — a pure delight. Starting with a concept or a gesture or a point of focus (in this case, the hands), she just starts moving, seeing where it goes. But it’s not just moving any old way, as I think many people conceive of improvisation. It’s movement with intention, with direction, following the flow of where an arm or a hip naturally takes her, and then making a conscious decision to continue in that direction or to take it somewhere different. She tries a lot of things, and because she is so skilled in improv, very few of them go nowhere. I love choreographer William Forsythe’s description of this kind of rigorous, detailed, exploratory work as “improvisation technologies.”

Johnson in "Standing at the Edge," photo by Megan McKown Miller

Once the movement framework is in place — once we’ve made firm decisions about where to go when — then we begin to talk about “performance process.” This is the task of getting inside the movements, which came from intentional physical choices but which now need to be inhabited in a richer way. In this part of the creative work, Melody encourages us to use different tools: the focus of the eyes, the breath, subtle shifts in timing and phrasing. Performance process is an exploration of presence, of who we are as the people moving in this way. The purely physical, mechanical “why” gets expanded and brought to life by a personal, even spiritual “why.”

Grounded and ultimately practical as this process is, it’s all a little mysterious, just as the revelations that come through ballet technique, which I wrote about in the last post, are mysterious. In Rachel’s words, “It’s totally about trust.” Trust in the choreographer with whom you’re collaborating from afar. That choreographer’s trust in you as an artist. Trust that the simple tools of form, direction, space, focus, timing, and breath will enable bodies in motion to do what everyone involved wants them to do — namely, to connect, both with something true about ourselves and with the audience.

And, of course, trust that you’ll get good high-speed WiFi at the studio.