Every human being has a very personal relationship with their body.
Most of us rely on our body to be present in space for our careers: however, “presence” in the acting world has a slightly different meaning. When actors address their presence in a scene, we are discussing our “presence” holistically: Were we in character? Were we listening to our scene partner? Did we feel connected to our environment? How about our character’s emotional life.
These questions are essential in acting because if we are not feeling connected to our circumstances, we cannot perform from a place of truth. Unfortunately, for a long time, I neglected the physical extension of “presence”: movement. Before my acting training at the University of Texas at Austin, I would always get notes from my directors for my physicality on stage. I remember getting a reminder that my arms were extremely stiff during a scene where my character was experiencing emotional turmoil. As a result, I spent the first year of college speaking with acting faculty about a resolution. I would always tell them, “I don’t know what to do with my arms” This was technically true. However, I found this to be less than an accurate explanation of what I was experiencing. In reality, I was not truly connected to my circumstances. Therefore, my body wasn’t connected either. You’ve heard of “mind, body, and soul” which can be visually represented as a Venn diagram that formulates a person. This applies to acting also.
During college, I started taking movement courses. We studied multiple techniques including Pilates, Yoga, Clown, improvisation, and mask work. Most, if not all of these techniques, encourage you to lead on your impulses; to let your body speak for you. In these courses, I learned that our physical vessels are simply a continuation of our emotional expression as actors.
Furthermore, I have always been surrounded by dance. My work with Dance Waterloo and observing training dancers at UT makes this so. I have come to admire how a dancer’s brain and body collaborate seemingly effortlessly. There is an evident impulse in each and every dancer that I have seen work.
The impulse comes naturally to us from a young age. When we are children, we jump, scream, cry, speak our minds, and run when we want to. It is not until we are socialized by external influences such as our parents and environments that we are trained to no longer behave from impulse. This is often useful in specific settings– might it be professional or academic. However, it can hurt us in communication and everyday life. When you sit down on a bus, move if you think you’d be more comfortable at a window seat. If you want to take a picture of the skyline in public, do so. If your friend makes a hurtful joke, explain to them you’d prefer they didn’t again.
These ideologies apply to all performers and artists. However, they are useful for all backgrounds and bodies of work. When it is helpful to bludgeon our impulses and when is it not?
First off, what does site-specific art mean?
Site-specific art is artwork created to exist in a certain place. Typically, the artist takes the location into account while planning and creating the artwork.
Ok, now that we’ve got the literal definition covered, let’s dive into the “why” we do it for Dance Waterloo.
Our founder, Morgan Teel, discovered her love for site-specific dance out of the necessity for space during her final years at the University of Southern Mississippi. A tornado had destroyed their performing arts building. There was no longer a conventional stage space, but that didn’t mean art and movement couldn’t still be produced. It was merely another piece to the puzzle, another opportunity to discover, explore and push boundaries of where dance can and should be. It was this pushing of conventional boundaries that eventually led to Dance Waterloo.
When Teel moved to Austin, one of her goals was to integrate bringing art and movement to the hands and feet of her new community. So it was, Dance Waterloo was created with a focus on Community, Collaboration, Education, all taking place in Public Space. This meant coming to places where people were already living their lives, and probably not searching for art; i.e., your local park, the deck of your favorite coffee shop, or under an overpass in your neighborhood.
Sometimes, but not always, the location includes a piece of visual art. The art might be permanent, temporary, or placed their specifically for our project. Whatever the case may be, it is never just a background element, but a crucial component to the performance as a whole, as is the location.
This typically means that the site of production is the first decision we make, with every creative decision following and being influenced by the advantages and challenges unique to that specific place.
Personally, I have found that the challenges of site-specific work are what make it exciting. It encourages us to really open our eyes, and draw inspiration from the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of the moment and draw upon it to create a movement within that moment. This leads to something so extraordinarily ordinary that it causes people to pause for a moment, or longer, and look at a familiar space with a new lens, and hopefully a greater appreciation.
A Dancer’s Career Post-Graduation
“What are you going to do when you graduate?”
The question that haunts (probably) every college senior. I was stuck between grad school and picking up everything and moving somewhere to dance professionally.
In February, I received my acceptance letter to graduate school. It was an amazing opportunity, but I didn’t feel excited. After trying to figure out why I felt this way, I resolved that it was just nerves and that I should go to grad school when I graduate. A week later, my senior class received a forwarded email from one of our professors. The email came from Morgan, “a department alum who has her own company in Austin, TX” (I had previously met Morgan over the phone for a project, and, of course our professors loved her and always used her as an example of success from our program). The email informed us of auditions Morgan would be holding for the company, Dance Waterloo.
She wanted to reach out to our senior class so we could have it on our radars. It was a paid gig, a year-long contract, with a legitimate non-profit professional modern dance company. WOW. I got a sinking feeling in my gut, similar to the one I felt when I was accepted to grad school, and I immediately started to question my decision. I knew I loved ATX already, and I knew I wasn’t 100% sure about grad school… so what do I do????
Four months later, I walked into my new apartment in Austin, TX. I knew no one, I had no job, and I had less than $2000 of scholarship money saved up. Luckily, I moved with one of my best friends, and I was now geographically closer to my parents than I had been in a few years.
Within one week, we had driven to Austin, looked at apartments, and then moved. There were days where I sat on the couch searching and applying for every single job on every single job site. I felt so anxious, thinking, “What if I can’t get a job? Would I have to live with my parents?” (I love them, but NO THANKS.) But within a month, I had a retail job.
Then I thought, “Am I ever going to be able to find a dance job here?” Within two months, I had a teaching job at a studio. And finally, I thought, “What if I don’t get into the company that is basically the reason I decided to move here?” But within three months, I did. Now, I am a manager at my retail job, I teach almost twenty dance classes a week, and I perform and teach for a professional dance company.
I was struggling to choose between comfort by going to graduate school or discomfort by moving to a new city where I knew no one and had no job prospects. The hope of auditioning and then maybe dancing for a professional company pushed me to choose the latter. I wanted to perform while I could… I can go back to school later, but it sure was scary picking up and moving so quickly with no ideas of what to do.
The thing is, none of this would have been possible without a community. In the beginning, it was my graduating class and our professors. They encouraged me to go with my gut and move to a new city. They believed in me and knew that I’d figure it all out. From there, I found comfort in my parents and now roommate, Katie, who dealt with my nerves and uncertainty with what I wanted and what I should do to make it happen. I then found a community within the studio where I teach.
The teachers, parents, and especially the kids embraced me wholeheartedly, and I feel like I’ve grown up there alongside these people. And finally, I found so much joy in the family that is Dance Waterloo. The women within this company are not only immensely talented, but they are kind, funny, and a blast to dance and create with. These people have helped me feel at home in this brand new and unfamiliar city.
It’s been about six months since I first walked into my new apartment in Austin, Texas. I wish I could tell college Noelle that there was never any reason to be nervous to move here like I did. It was just the beginning of an adventure.