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Atlanta Dance Collective Explores Social Dynamics and Community in _Exhale_

Photos by Lizzie Baker/The ATL Dance Photographer

As I left the climate-controlled office and reception area at Kemron Environmental Services, I plunged back into the close, muggy heat of a late-July evening in Atlanta. The performance space, an unconditioned warehouse, had been carefully arranged to accommodate social distancing, with air purifiers placed at even intervals among rows of chairs grouped into pods of two or three. A huge banner emblazoned with the admonition “Safety Is No Accident” hung from the ceiling over the seating at stage left. Industrial fans thrummed, creating the faintest hint of a breeze as they circulated fresh, if still hot, air into the warehouse from the open doors of the loading docks. As both a workplace and a performance space, a warehouse is an inhospitable environment where individual failures to put safety first can result in harm.

Yet in this warehouse, Atlanta Dance Collective premiered Sarah Stokes’s new work, Exhale, set to an original score by Xay Zoleil and choreographed in collaboration with fellow ADC members Bekah O’Toole Crosby, Brian Crosby, Kaitlin Davis, and Leah Kelley. The company offered four live showings at 6:00 and 8:00 pm on Saturday and Sunday, July 24 and 25. ADC has done an amazing job documenting the process for Exhale, which began in early 2020 before the pandemic hit the U.S. The social media archive of video clips, photographs, and interview transcriptions provides a unique inside look at the strange pivot so many artists had to make and the unexpected creative serendipity they sometimes encountered as a result. As promised in the program, Exhale was an exploration of the individual’s relationship to the community, and the collisions between individual and social rights and responsibilities as we confront complex problems like climate change and the global pandemic.

Exhale began in silence. The dancers entered the performance space one by one, each of them walking in from an open loading dock at stage right (though with chairs on two sides, there were a range of perspectives to be seen). While their pace was pedestrian, they were alert, with gazes clearly focused on and attentive to one another, the space around them, and the audience. They wore clothing appropriate to their industrial surroundings: black tank tops, ripstop joggers, and white tennis shoes.

As the music began, the dancers gravitated toward one another like fish schooling or birds flocking. Zoleil’s hypnotic score featured percussive rhythms layered with simple humming, droning melodies, and occasionally the indistinct chatter of human voices. As they converged into a group, however, the individual dancers seemed to lose their awareness, their focus turning inward. They performed attentiveness, their postures hyper-erect, their heads moving left-right-up-around-down, but they looked without seeing. This transition, from external awareness to inward self-absorption and then back again, recurred a number of times. In some cases, during periods when the dancers seemed closed off from their surroundings, the frenetic head movements were replaced or supplemented with fine motor gestures of the hands, wrists, and fingers, calling to mind a busy office workplace or the “alone together” state of sitting before a screen and working from home.

Spatially, the separation of dancers from one another and into smaller groupings often marked the shift from internal focus to external awareness, as if physical distance provided opportunity for perspective and observation. Their attention captivated once again by one another, the ensemble would reconvene around one or two of the dancers and fall into a period of synchronous gesture and movement. One memorable and frequently iterated sequence began with a slow downward drift into a turned out grande plié. At the lowest point, the dancers’ bodies would fold left or right as one knee drew toward the other into a parallel crouch, and from there, they would rise to a standing position, often ending with a slowly rotating fan kick outward from the group.

Stokes’s choreography combined smooth, almost invisible transitions from one position to the next with shapes that emphasized the angles of joints and the straight lines of the long arm and leg bones. The dancers’ movements often employed torso isolations in contrast to spinal contraction and curvature to pull head, shoulders, and hips out of their customary alignment. The sequences appeared assembled rather than organic. As in Zoleil’s soundscape, the choreography drew attention to how coherence and a unifying aesthetic had been painstakingly constructed from individual elements that retained their distinctive structure even as they were absorbed into a larger whole.

About fifteen minutes into the piece, Davis, Kelly, and Stokes moved into an extended section of floor work. Because of the concrete surface, the acrobatics and level changes were necessarily slow and measured, but they were impressive nonetheless. Following the floor work, Brian and Bekah O’Toole Crosby initiated a section of partnering and contact work. Here again, the performance environment ruled out dramatic leaps, falls, and tosses, and the resulting movement sequences were therefore almost sculptural in effect. Coming as they did in the middle of the work, these moments where the dancers were so physically connected to their surroundings and each other seemed to signal the possibility for or maybe the potential of a more collaborative engagement with the environment and more precisely coordinated social behavior. Within the work’s context, it was offered as something that could be achieved but not sustained or repeated.

The pace quickened significantly during the final third of the performance. The dancers began running in a loose downstage to upstage line from one side of the performance space to the other. As they ran, one or two dancers might drop out to work through a slower movement sequence to be picked back up into the running pack as the other dancers crossed the stage again. At one point, all five of the dancers were iterating through the grande plié sequence when something seemed to break. Zoleil’s music shifted into a grinding crescendo, and the dancers’ movements slowed and became less coordinated. The moment of slippage passed, but it marked a turning point. The piece ended with the dancers walking together in a line, slow but alert, from one side of the stage to the other. Occasionally, someone from the group would call out a name, and that dancer would fall, climb to their feet and rejoin the group. Though nobody offered a helping hand, nobody was left behind either.

As a whole, the progression of the work was stochastic; Exhale came together as a collection of contingent moments in which beautiful patterns could be observed but not necessarily predicted. The dancers and their movement grappled with the complex dynamics of part versus whole by playing with strategies for collaboration or ensemble engagement as they seemed to emerge in context. As one might expect for a piece that had been in process for over a year, the dancers all gave polished, well-crafted performances and maintained their impressive stamina throughout the entire 45 minutes of the piece. Exhale left me excited to experience more from Atlanta Dance Collective and Sarah Stokes, and to hear more of Xay Zoleil’s work. It also demonstrated what a small independent company can accomplish when they are provided with time and space to work.

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