It’s 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and I’m watching sculptor-turned-choreographer Norma Bradley work with members of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre. “Wake up this hillside in a way it hasn’t woken up before!” she calls out to the dancers as they move along the knoll, improvising with tree branches and bamboo poles.
The dancers disappear down the side of the hill, merging with the forest. As they reappear at the back of the Hazel Robinson Amphitheater, I have to turn in my seat to see what they’re doing — which is precisely the point.
“It’s a big space, and we’re outdoors, and all the elements of nature are there around us, but the performance is also going to be all around [the audience] so they might have to turn around in their seats. Or it might turn out that the person beside them is actually an actor or a musician or whatever, and suddenly starts playing the saxophone,” says dancer/choreographer Giles Collard, co-founder (with Susan Collard) of ACDT.
This vibrant dynamic with the audience is an important part of The Sights, Sounds, Smells And Tastes Of Summer, the company’s upcoming, open-air festival.
The initial inspiration is, of course, the season. ACDT wanted a program that reflected two key themes of summer — the outdoors and being in community. The open-air setting, the mix of participants — dancers, actors, musicians, cooks (the food will be both for show and for sale, as part of the festival refreshments) and a sculptor — and the fluid boundary between performers and the audience all conspire to meet that goal.
The festival also gives ACDT the chance to work with other artists whom they admire. “That’s one of the reasons we’re doing this show,” says Collard. “It’s a great opportunity to bring in people who have shown interest in working with us, or [whom] we have worked with a long time ago.”
Besides Bradley, those people include Circle Modern Dance from Knoxville, Tenn., and Asheville’s Dancing Spirit Drummers, the Tyler Ramsey Trio, and tap dancer Ira Bernstein.
The program won’t be limited to traditional modern dance, though it does include a piece originally choreographed by Isadora Duncan (to be performed by Jean-Ann Marshall-Clarke). Local dancers Kelly Davis and Jerri Reeves will perform African and Indian dances, respectively; and a Buto piece will be brought to life by Susan Collard and Julie Becton (who’ve just returned from San Francisco, where they staged a Buto performance on the beach). A couple of physically risky performances — one using stilts, and the other (called “Innocence”) performed blindfolded — round out the festival. Even in a traditional performance space, notes Collard, “Innocence” demands an enormous degree of trust. But in the amphitheater, the work takes on an added dimension.
“It’s a piece about trusting your environment,” he explains as we sit in his downtown Asheville studio, adding that spotters will be on hand, “because it is a dangerous piece. [Practicing] here in this room, I’ve leaped into the wall or the mirrors several times, so over there … you could actually leap offstage and into the grass.”
How will all the elements of Sights, Sounds fit together? No one really knows, at this point. The various artists have been working on their individual pieces, but there will be time for only two all-inclusive rehearsals before the festival goes public. Collard isn’t worried, though, noting that all the performers are professionals, and “nobody’s going to freak out.”
Bradley, perhaps best known for her compelling “earth quilts” (outdoor garden sculptures planted in quilt patterns), is thrilled to be working in this spontaneous environment. “I like to take a lot of risks in my work,” she says, “[to] just go in and say, ‘Let’s see what this is all about.'”
And what exactly does a sculptor do as part of a performance festival? It’s here that Bradley’s role becomes intriguingly ambiguous: She won’t be standing in front of the stage, say, pounding clay or arranging wood. In fact, her materials here are the performers themselves. She blurs the line between sculptor and choreographer as she uses the performers — the tension among them and the relationship between them — and the audience and outdoor environment as her media.
“Really, what you’re doing as a choreographer is sculpting — creating shapes, color and form through movement,” she explains.
When asked what’s most important to him about The Sights, Sounds, Smells and Tastes of Summer, Collard’s reply is quick: “[I’d like the audience to come] with a really open mind about what a performance is, and also leave … behind them the stereotype of [experiencing] a performance: ‘Here I sit in my little chair and I watch what’s going on.'”