BC Beat: Where The Community Lives
November 15, 2015
by Hannah Ehrenberg
Photo Credit Eli Fendelman
I am sitting in a dark corner of Cielo, a club in the West Village whose twitter proudly proclaims it as “WHERE HOUSE MUSIC LIVES!!” But it’s midday. The sun shines in through an open door. And there’s definitely no house music. Instead, there are five dancers rehearsing a narrative dance piece based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood. This unlikely juxtaposition sets the scene for BC Beat, a “Broadway Choreography Showcase & Dance Party.” Just as BC Beat finds itself in bridging places and concepts that might not otherwise go together – nightclub and dance-theatre performance, showcase and party – it has the same power to bring isolated people and groups within the theatre community together.
What is BC Beat? In each event, 10 choreographers present pieces with only the guideline that they should have a strong narrative component. Or, put simply by Jennifer Jancuska, choreographer-producer-creative director extraordinaire: “We’re celebrating dance in musical theatre.” But just as Cielo and its allegiance to house music might seem like a hostile environment for a dance piece with a theatrical focus, traditional pathways of musical theatre development often reject dance and isolate choreographers. And so as much as we can talk about defining the “theatre community” and how to make it as inclusive as possible, the reality is that different segments of that community remain, in practice, very divided from one another.
I had the pleasure of attending the sold-out 10th edition of BC Beat this past Monday and speaking to Jennifer about the event. Much more than just a showcase for choreographers, BC Beat connects different groups within a community that is too easily fragmented and is an incredible blueprint for how to activate future theatrical collaboration.
THE CHOREOGRAPHER COMMUNITY
Performers: have you ever noticed that if you want to find your peers, you don’t have to look very far? You meet them every time you do a project – even every time you go on an audition. Not so for choreographers. When you work on a project, you represent your entire peer group – and thereby meet none of them. In this setup, it’s easy to feel isolated and competitive. Jancuska initially started BC Beat as a way to combat this polluted environment. She explains her thinking: “If I’m going to live this as a career, I would be excited to have a community that’s doing what I’m doing – where we can learn from each other and support each other, know that there’s room for everybody, and be able to exercise our voices.” Though BC Beat functions as a showcase for the choreographers who participate in it, the impetus behind the event is one of celebration, inclusion, and collaboration.
These goals are evident in the event itself. Jancuska started the show by bringing the choreographers to the dance floor and introducing them to a loudly cheering audience. In another setting, applause here might feel like a formality, but on Monday, it felt distinctly warm and genuine. And after all of the pieces concluded, Jancuska called the choreographers back to the dance floor, where they hugged and high-fived one another. In most dance shows, the spotlight remains on the dancers while the choreographer(s) remain offstage, invisible. Just seeing so many choreographers together in one place presents them as a community in a new way. The end of the night, Jancuska says, is one of her favorite moments of every BC Beat: “The genuine smiles - and then it breaks into everyone dancing. We get to do what we love and we get to do it together.” The choreographers are part of a community not just by their collective presence – it’s also by their enthusiasm about and appreciation of one another’s work. They don’t just look like a community. They are a community.
CHOREOGRAPHY BRIDGES THE AUDIENCE DIVIDE
Another crucial element of BC Beat’s spirit of community and collaboration is the way the event positions the audience. When I first arrived on Monday, the dance floor was open to everyone; I later identified some people as BC Beat dancers, but by no means was everyone on the dance floor formally involved in the event. This relaxed atmosphere democratizes the relationship between dance and the audience: as Jancuska describes, “You’re on [the dance floor], you’re dancing, and then you know what it feels like.” From the moment you walk into Cielo, you’re not treated like a passive spectator. You’re part of the proceedings.
The role of the audience, Jancuska explains, is part of what makes Cielo an unexpectedly ideal venue. The dance floor is located in the center of the space, creating an “in-the-round” setup and forcing the audience to stand. All of that means that you can always see other audience members even as you watch the dance in front of you. Standing, and often craning to see, also forces you to watch more actively. Having a dance floor rather than a formal stage, Jancuska says, is part of the appeal, too: “I like that you kind of look down on the dance floor, vs. looking up. It’s like you share the dance floor.” A traditional theatre setup would create a physical divide between the performers and the audience, whereas here, the audience was perched right up to the very edges of the dance floor – as close to a shared space as safety considerations allow. And as the dancers passed through the crowded spectator area to get backstage, all separation between the dancers and the audience disappeared. That proximity “is just a different experience,” Jancuska says, “and it’s exciting to be that close.” While you might expect the focus to be exclusively on the choreographers and dancers at a showcase, BC Beat is dedicated to bringing the audience into the broader community of theatrical dance that it creates and spotlights.
COLLABORATIVE CHOREOGRAPHY AND STORYTELLING
As a whole, what was most striking to me about BC Beat is how strongly it makes a case for the vitality of dance as a storytelling tool. The program featured an incredible array of stylistic diversity, but the pieces all shared a similar dexterity with narrative, regardless of whether the underlying music had any inherent narrative of its own. In “Little Red,” for instance, the music didn’t tell a concrete story; rather, choreographer Jancuska built recognizable movements into a heightened, narrative meaning to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood rejecting the fairy tale story constructed around her. Very different stylistically was Danny Gardner’s piece, “Trouble in Mind,” in which the dancers sang a cappella and created the beat by drumming on their own bodies and – ultimately, when the narrative called for it – each other’s bodies. Equally different and incredibly successful, “Churches,” choreographed by Daniel J. Watts, made use of text; it featured Watts performing a spoken word poem about the Charleston church massacre. I’d never seen dance accompanying a spoken word piece before, and I found that the dance took the already-moving poem to another level. I could go on. The ten pieces presented on Monday told very different stories – but even if all ten choreographers were given the same story to tell, I think each piece still would have felt as unique as they did on Monday. Even without the constraints of a full libretto and score, the choreographers demonstrated their adeptness with creating and expressing narrative.
In this context, it’s strange to think that the “new narrative dance” scene remains so separate from the new musical theatre scene. Jancuska hopes that as BC Beat continues to grow, more contemporary writers will get involved. In past editions of BC Beat, Jancuska has choreographed with writers twice: once with Adam Gwon and Sarah Hammond on “Uncharted Territory” from String and once with Matte O’Brien and Matt Vinson on “Revolution” from Cake. Though the processes were different on each piece – the “Uncharted Territory” dance piece came about after a separate work session on the story of String, while the “Revolution” dance piece was an intentional collaboration for BC Beat that required the production of a new backing track – they share a crucial quality. Even outside the context of a workshop, choreography enabled the shows’ creative teams to explore their stories and even revise their writing. And that means that the possibilities for productive choreographer-writer collaborations are endless.
Unfortunately, in current development pathways, those possibilities are just that – possibilities, not realities. Choreographers are often left out until too late in the game to have the maximum dramaturgical impact. Because “everyone’s goal is to have a cohesive piece that tells the story,” Jancuska says, producers and writers should take the “opportunity to integrate [dance] at an earlier stage so that it can be more organic and you can actually utilize it in better ways.” Even if actually dancing at an early stage isn’t a possibility, just having a choreographer in the room would go a long way towards making sure dance is a fully integrated piece of the storytelling.
But as things stand, the different elements of musical theatre development remain separated from one another. And that’s exactly where BC Beat comes in. “The first step is having communication so people know that it’s not a scary thing,” Jancuska says. Choreographers are generally brought onto a project based on a reel, a resume, and an interview, but if directors and writers were able to get to know choreographers through events like BC Beat, they’d be much more informed about what kind of collaboration they might have on a full project, and they could start learning about how to communicate with each other. As Jancuska puts it: the goal is to “blend the two communities. We’re all creating theater, so let’s learn about each other and play.”
At the conclusion of the show on Monday night, after bringing the choreographers out onto the dance floor again, Jancuska addressed the audience: “Come out here and dance with us.” As choreographers, dancers, and audience members partied on the equalizing plane of the dance floor, I was really struck by that statement and how it so completely encapsulates BC Beat’s sense of community. BC Beat creates the “us” – the otherwise invisible community of choreographers – and then expands it, inviting the audience to join in and, through dance, become part of that “us.” Cielo might be the last place you’d look for the theatre community, but I felt it there on Monday night, and I hope more writers, directors, and producers can take a cue from BC Beat to find more opportunities for the community to grow.