This year, I had the distinct pleasure of not only getting to perform in a Dance Downtown work titled Fjorten (meaning “fourteen”, the number of cast members in Danish) by Ann Sofie Clemmensen, but also getting to act as her rehearsal assistant during the almost 3-month long process. Her movement was a huge part of why I initially decided to come to OSU’s Dance Department, so this was truly an honor for me. Having functioned in this role previously with my artistic director in New York, Bradley Shelver, I felt comfortable about the offer and excited to get to work.
Sofie’s process is extremely generative at first, as to create a large bank of movement from which to work. Bebe’s process last year was similar, but not to the same extent. At the end of every rehearsal (four days a week for two hours), she would document on her iPad both whatever we had come up with, as well as the material she had given us, and upload it a private external bank of videos online. This went on for about the first 6 or 7 weeks of the process, and generate we did. Sometimes we’d completely fail at attempting to complete her tasks, and other times even she was shocked at how well we’d interpreted something. Then it came time to start selecting the phrasework that was going to make it into the piece, and arranging it. All the while, Sofie had been creating an original soundscape for her piece in Logic Pro. This involves cutting, mixing, layering, and editing pre-existing songs or sounds.
As a cast of all women, knowing what a strong and willful woman Sofie is, I knew we were going to end up with something really impactful when we arrived at the final product. We ended up centering the piece around one very symbolic item: a dress.
At the start of the piece, we were in a horizontal line across the back of the stage in a way that could have been interpreted as confrontational. Wearing long, black, uniform-like dresses that hung loosely and weighted over the body, our individuality was usurped by sameness. We looked almost as though we had been manufactured, like beings born through an impersonal assembly line. We mirrored this physically by moving through sharp, small to medium sized gestures in exact unison. Moving downstage towards the audience as a collective front helped give us a sense of power and intent. From there, the piece took on different architectural shapes, with us being divvied up into different groups with different tasks and phrasework. At a vital turning point in the piece, the music dropped out and we were left trudging around in a silent circle, with our breath as the only accompanying sound.
From here, Sofie made the extremely insightful and creative decision to transform the dresses from costumes into props. One a time, as if by magic (or by the skillful choreography of Sofie and a lot of black on black) the dresses were transferred from one dancer onto the smallest member of our cast, Anna Hershinow (pictured bottom right center). Revealed under the dress were bras and briefs of different shapes, cuts, and colors. Our bodies were our own to display, and we presented them for the strength and ability they hold. Through this section, I think we implied that while every woman’s experience of femininity comes with it’s unique and personal struggles, we can all relate to the weight of assumptions that are uncalled for but still written onto our female bodies.
Through another ingenius move, Sofie transformed the dresses yet again, but this time from props into the literal set. Clothes-hangers were flown down to about eye level, and we hung a dress on each one. Raised back up moments later to roughly 12′ in the air, Sofie elevated the symbolism of the dresses both literally and metaphorically. The very emblem of “female,” the one so synonymous with “woman” that it distinguishes our bathrooms from that of men’s, was now hanging over our heads. From here, the piece entered it’s most virtuosic state. Doing extremely physically intense movement and utilizing forward gazes that never drifted above eye level, we put forth the very picture of female strength. The piece ended with a visible reference to the opening unison line, though in this variation of it, we were moving as individuals making progress forward despite many physical crumbles and emotional collapses. Letting out a loud and frustrated scream upon reaching the downstage limits of the stage, we showed that no matter how hard the path may be, we continue to gain momentum and advance forward.
In the end, though we were still moving as a group like at the beginning of the work, both the movement and the costumes allowed for and encouraged differentness to be brought to the forefront. To me, this helped to show that women can and should work together to achieve greatness and support one another, but not because we’re assumed to be all the same or all nurturing or all collaborative. Our commonality lies in our resilience, and when we magnify that quality through unity we are unstoppable.
Looking back, I am blessed to have worked so closely alongside an inspiring and visionary woman such as Sofie. Through her process, I learned how to cater to the needs of individual dancers, how to anticipate the needs of a choreographer, how to navigate the intersection of those two things, how to both question and be confident in your decision-making simultaneously, but more than anything else it confirmed for me that my true passion lies in helping take someone else’s creative work and helping it succeed to the highest degree possible. It’s an experience I will cherish forever and never forget.