Imagine you’re surrounded by staring faces, some just inches away. There’s a bright spotlight on you, and you’re about to perform a solo dance that you’ve practiced on a space the size of a card table. Then you step up onto a box and begin to twist, bend, balance – and hope like crazy you don’t fall off.
That’s Ten Tiny Dances, an annual contemporary dance event that’s organized in Tacoma by MLKBallet as a fundraiser for the tuition-free dance school. Started in Portland in 2002 by producer Mike Barber, the Ten Tiny Dances concept offers 10 short works, newly choreographed and performed on a stage just 4 feet by 4 feet, and 1 foot off the ground. Works are mostly solos, but Tacoma shows have included duos and even a quartet. The event is staged in the round, and often in non-typical dance spaces such as bars. This Sunday’s 2013 incarnation will be at Jazzbones, with a lineup of Tacoma and Seattle dancers from MLKBallet and Tacoma City Ballet – all working hard at staying on the box.
“There’s something about the size and the height off the ground – it does throw you,” says Joel Myers, a Ten Tiny veteran who’s dancing in his capacity as associate director of Tacoma City Ballet. “It changes things.”
It also inspires long time Ten Tiny dancers such as Myers to explore the creativity of the format. While Myers’ usual choreographic style is athletic, contemporary and lyrical, this time he’s paying homage to traditional ballet and the artists who work so hard to achieve its perfection, in spite of negative reviews. Rehearsing Monday in the TCB ballroom studio, Myers executed poised developpés, arabesques and double pirouettes to Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” on piano — the dance was introspective, graceful and exuding that intense determination that keeps ballet dancers working so hard, even lifelong.
“I was having conversations with (TCB director) Erin Ceragioli about how artists continue to create despite negative feedback,” says Myers. “I remember even before I began ballet hearing negative things about Erin, and thinking, is she really like that? Some sort of Cruella de Ville? Then I trained at Evergreen Ballet and I heard the same things about (the director there). I began to realize everyone did this. And in five years of working with Erin, I saw the same thing – sure, she’s tough, but the Disney villain thing is overgrown.”
As an artist himself, Myers knows well the feeling of getting up to present work and hearing every bad review echo in your head.
“How do you get past that?” he says. “You apply yourself to the work at hand. You just have to dance.”
Doing it on a tiny box, though, makes things more difficult.
“It definitely limits your vocabulary because you can’t travel,” Myers explains. “It’s really hard to turn and really hard to jump; you lose your equilibrium.”
And raising the moves up off the floor changes everything.
“I had a Ten Tiny dance once where I was doing a double tour, and on the floor I could land it on a dime every time,” Myers says. “But as soon as I got on the box, my body revolted.”
Hannah Crowley, another Ten Tiny dancer this year, agrees. Unlike Myers, who has access to a box built previously by a TCB set builder, she’s had to create and practice her dance on a plywood square on her apartment floor – and she’s constantly thinking about how each move will feel up on the box.
“There’s a possibility you’ll fall,” she says.
For Crowley, who teaches at local dance schools and does improvisation work with local companies such as Coriolis, the challenge is also in compressing work from a big stage to a tiny one. Set to the dreamy, bluesy vocals of “Tessellate” by Alt-J, she’s put together swift, bird-like movements that extend the box’s space upward into three dimensions.
“Taking a dance from a big stage to the box, (the choreography) has to change,” Crowley says. “It’s a really good exercise. If you keep it the same, it’ll look really stiff because you’re trying not to fall off.”
The other dimension of Ten Tiny Dances is that unlike a proscenium stage where one part of a dancer’s body is always hidden from the audience, this performance is in the round.
“You have to make sure everyone sees an interesting part of the movement,” Crowley says.
And because the audience is up close, it’s a completely different dance experience than a theater.
“Ten Tiny changes the way the audience thinks about dance ... (from a distance) you see dance as just an aesthetic thing,” Myers says. “Ten Tiny is up close. ... You kick too far off and you’ll hit (someone) in the face. So people really see the dancer, what they’re going through; it’s hard, it’s dangerous. And you see ideas and concepts more.”
But ultimately, Ten Tiny Dances is about creativity: in the stage, in the venue, in the choreography.
“You know everyone is going to be thinking outside the box,” says Myers. “So it pushes you as an artist.”
Ten Tiny Dances 2013
What: Ten Tiny Dances, an experiment in confined space
When: 6 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazzbones, 2803 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
Tickets: $20 at the door, $15 in advance; $7 for students and those younger than 12thenewstribune.com