It’s a muggy, hot day in downtown Asheville, and Pack Square Park is overrun with screaming toddlers weaving through a maze of gushing sprinklers. Older kids hang together in packs, kicking soccer balls as their parents chat and maintain a watchful eye. It’s a typical June scene, except for the professional contemporary ballet dancers stretching their long limbs on the outdoor stage. Somehow the Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance performers manage to make sunburn look graceful.
Terpsicorps’ open-air rehearsals were born out of necessity: The company lost its River Arts District rehearsal space, Studio Terpsicorps, earlier this year when the building’s landlord failed to meet the city’s requirements. However, executive director and choreographer Heather Maloy has turned a crisis into an opportunity. The outdoor rehearsals for this season’s show, The Elements, spanned the first three weeks of June through rain and heat. “It was one of those falling-asleep-at-night moments where you go, ‘Maybe we should rehearse outside and be in the elements,'” says Maloy. The performance of the end result takes place in the climate-controlled Diana Wortham Theatre, Thursday to Saturday, June 25-27.
The public rehearsals have attracted the attention of everyone from tourists and passersby to Asheville moms groups. “It’s really wonderful because we don’t usually get that much exposure to young people, and I love that aspect of it,” says Maloy. “Sometimes we will have little girls just lined up on the steps, with their little eyes peeking over the stage.”
The unique rehearsal plan also affected the application process — in a good way, says Maloy. Now in its 12th season, Terpsicorps’ reputation has spread, and the competition has become fierce. “This year I weeded through all these applicants and their credentials and their videos,” says Malloy. “And then I asked them, ‘Are you willing to rehearse outside, in the heat, and get sunburned and wet, and do you have a good attitude, and does that sound exciting?’ And that weeded out a lot of people. … This is not an experience that most professional dancers have ever had. It requires a certain mindset and a willingness to be open to play. But that brought together a really nice group of people who are excited to be here.”
The group’s talent and playfulness is apparent, even in the drowsy noontime sun. It’s the first day of rehearsing the dance for the earth element. Maloy and her company are devising a way to lift a dancer from a seated position to standing — a task complicated by the sizable stilts strapped to her sneakers. The other dancers remain patiently crouched under Mother Earth’s long skirt, like seedlings waiting to burst to life. After a few false starts, the earth dancer sits on the back of one performer and is propelled to standing by another. Maloy and the dancers cheer at their small victory and swiftly move on to the next part of the dance. It’s a work in progress — but an impressive one.
The show will feature the five classic elements, including ether, which Maloy says was the most difficult to choreograph. “Ether means something different in every culture, and it meant something different in the past than it does today,” she says. In the end, she decided to approach the element from the perspective of quantum physics. “For a long time, science had ruled [ether] out … but now they’re discovering that there is something there in the void between particles … there’s this energy.” The dance seeks to embody that energy, she says. “Some people think that space between is where God lies — the spirit of the unity that connects all of us.”
The rest of the elements are slightly more literal. The water element will be performed on a wet stage, with dancers emerging from tubs of water. Maloy definitely had the possibility of rain in mind when she choreographed the dance, anticipating the issue of summer storms. In fact, she says, it hasn’t rained quite enough since they began, and their biggest challenge has been trying to keep the stage damp under the sun.
If this year has been an unusual and difficult journey for Maloy and her dance company, the finished product will be a testament to the director’s tenacity and creativity. “The open-air rehearsals are out of necessity, and it’s also to get attention,” she says. “We’re making it work for us. We do not want it to be permanent, but we’re making it work.”
WHAT: Terpiscorps Theatre of Dance presents The Elements
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Thursday through Saturday, June 25-27, 8 p.m.
$30 general/$28 seniors/$25 students/$20 teens/$12 children