On Stage: the Dance Co-op achieves artistic fusion in sensational breakout performance

  • Jenny Terpischore Abeles

  • The Dance Co-op will perform “Perception” at Deerfield Academy on June 23 and 24. Contributed photo

Monday, July 17, 2017

“What is the first image you take each day? How does that translate into your daily life? What if our perception was guided from a heightened, compassionate place? What if, instead of talking about the weather, we spoke sonnets to each other? Brief moments of beauty are a balm for the soul and impact the way we navigate existence.”

This is how dancer, clown and artistic director of “Fine House,” Lori Holmes Clark, introduced that show, an exhibit of living art pieces that preceded the Dance Co-op’s breakout performance “Perception” at the Hess Center for the Arts at Deerfield Academy on June 23 and 24.

The show creatively fused installation art, make-up and costume, clowning and dance, song and poetry for a uniquely expressive and provocative entertainment served up to audiences who registered delight, wonder, and perplexity in response. “A juggler invites us to balance feathers, an enormous nest contains our comments which reflect fabulous creations hatched by Eggtooth Productions. Amidst this swirl my senses are captivated, enhanced, distracted...smiles come easily. I am observer and participant,” wrote David Fersh of Charlemont.

Truly, audience responses were collected in a giant nest, as Fersh claims, and as I read through them with Clark and Dance Co-op co-founder Meg Van Dyck over tea a couple days later, I was struck by the variety of experiences the audience had, some contradicting each other, but all marveling over the vividness of what they saw and how they felt in response. Many responses, in fact, read like poetry in their own right, the artistry of the performance releasing artistry within the viewers.

“Fine House,” a human gallery that preceded the dance performance “Perception,” featured work inspired by Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh, whose self portrait was painted over the living body of makeup artist Joe Dulude II, a stunning transformation of human into art, the process of which was shown in video during “Perception.”

Libby Maxey described the images she perceived in “Fine House”, “Against the back wall, woman in red, 8 feet tall, wrist in the crook of a bare tree — silhouettes make her smaller, darker, taller, lighter, no less stuck. Tiny black prints down her neck, fall off her hand, like something fled her ear. What did it steal?

“Bare tree made chest of drawers with holes for hands and face — another woman trapped in this enchanted forest. She recites the sonnet cheerfully enough, but isn’t she like Ariel, imprisoned in a pine? Did she, too, disobey?

“Here are the creations of men. Van Gough, self-painted, paints woman after woman in his frame. I do not see a single male face remade. The woman in red holds very still, holding up the tree holding her. The woman in the tree of drawers can change her gloves, black to white, white to black, and she can open doors in her heart to take out trinkets — delightful to the small, fearful to those grown. The giant bird to her right, frozen in flight, is like a bottle with all the clouds stopped inside it.”

Van Dyck, Dance Co-op co-founder Christy Clovis, Holmes Clark and producer Linda McInerny purposely set out to ask questions to which there were no correct answers, the audience’s experience being the only answers they sought. “’Fine House’ is about framing ideas so the audience can marinate in that atmosphere,” Clark Holmes told me.

The two portions of the show together wonder over questions about the relationship between what we see and who we are. Van Dyck and Holmes Clark described to me how we use vision to acquaint ourselves with others while it is impossible to see ourselves except in reflection. “Perception” asks, “Do you see what I see?”

These philosophical matters are part of all the Dance Co-op performers’ work in their role as dance teachers in schools throughout the Valley. “We spend so much time helping kids focus,” Meg says, “helping them to like what they see in the mirror, but dance can help them have the experience of themselves rather than only aiming for performance. Dance becomes contemplation, an opportunity to relax in space and find unique structure.”

This intuitive process was utilized in the highly collaborative creation of the show, wherein the eight dancers, musician Emma Ayres, and clown Jack Golden individually contributed to the vision and execution of “Perception” without ever occupying the same rehearsal space together at the same time. It was important for all involved to honor what each contributed to choreography and other details while finding enough unity and cohesion to make sure the show hung together without confusing the audience.

The Dance Co-op is currently comprised of Holmes Clark, Van Dyck, Clovis, Hayley Descavich, Christy Maerlander, Verity Nichols, Rebecca Rideout, and Stephanie Shumway. They are open to new members and are eager to collaborate with other local musicians and artists.

The idea of a Dance Co-op is somewhat radical for this area, where dancers tend to function as teachers of dance with rare opportunities to take creative control of and produce their own work, and thereby bring modern dance to the forefront of arts in the Pioneer Valley. Holmes Clark talked about how McInerny mentored her in the production of such art on a grander scale and stage. And truly, Deerfield Academy’s gorgeous new Hess Auditorium has a professional ambience.

“We needed bravery to accomplish this,” Van Dyck said. She referred to the collaborative creation of the show, to the desire to elevate it to the level of the stage they presented it on, and to relying on local audiences to attend and appreciate their efforts, their usual artistic support network of fellow teachers and students having just dispersed with the end of the academic year.

One of the pieces, “Perception,” is a good example of the simultaneous courage and trust required when choreographing and creating in a team. The original idea was to represent their collective vision of what the soul looks like, but changed dramatically as the sheer ambitiousness of that desire became more obvious. Clad in white body-stockings, the dancers discovered the humor inherent in their goal, “the joy of trying to find the soul,” as Van Dyck put it, while also poking fun at the profundities of modern dance.

In “Art Essence,” choreographed by Nichols, five dancers represent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in gentle, undulating movements that perfectly recall the strobing stars of that famous painting, and in “Crill’s Companion,” choreographed by Holmes Clark, the whole company mesmerize the eyes while the mind drinks in fascinating poems written by Hildred Crill. For me, these two works managed that magic of stopping time, suspending reality, and putting me in touch with forces beyond mundane perception.

I know from reading the audience comments that not everyone had that reaction, some finding the wordiness of the poems a stranger accompaniment than music, but I daresay the near full-house audience had their own moments of being transported beyond the everyday through inspiration.

“What if the first thing you saw in the morning was a piece of art, that higher aspiration of humanity,” Clark Holmes asked me over tea, “instead of 15 snippets of daily news? How would that affect your daily grind? Would it inspire you to make your own life more fully realized?”

This beautiful, unusual series of spectacles and visions produced by the Dance Co-op and their collaborators indicates how significantly art helps us to process our perceptions of society and the world. “Fine House” and “Perception” comprise a stellar debut for this company, and bode of rich experiences to come for the lucky, lucky souls who swim within reach of its radiance.

My thanks to Libby Maxey and David Fersh for their lovely perceptions/contributions.

For more information about the Dance Co-op, see:
www.facebook.com/thedancecoop. For more about “Fine House” and “Perception”: see