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Local choreographer Patsy Collins debuts riveting new work “SWARM”

by: Ashley Gibson

The gentle rush of wind permeated the dark stage, covering it like a blanket. The soft whooshing soon gave way to a darker, more sinister pounding of thunder and rain. A sharp downpour of light on center bathed the cast in a cool white hue. The spotlight created a boundary around the performers -- a tight bubble of community. The dancers shifted their weight side-to-side like tightly packed atoms in a molecule. The movement loosened emphatically as invisible, outside forces beyond the bubble began to impact and electrify the movement. The result was pure magic.

Atlanta-based choreographer Patsy Collins presented her new work, “SWARM,” on March 25 and 26 as part of Dance Canvas’ 2022 Performance Series: Introducing the Next Generation under the direction of Angela Harris. In this work, Collins explored the intricate manifestations of the fight or flight reflexes throughout the body. Collins beautifully crafted an internalized world where external stressors weighed down thick like ice-cold maple syrup on her seven dancers.

With the emergence of a low rattling sound in the original score by PTAR, the dancers crouched to heavy second position with the feet set apart. The cast hunched forward animalistically, rolling back one shoulder at a time with fine-tuned precision. Dancer Aryanna Allen carried the work into the next movement with the sudden toss of her arm skyward. The momentum ricocheted through the rest of the cast with vigor as the group hoisted dancer Amber Kirchner in a lift face-first into the air.

The choreography that followed was resplendent with swift floorwork and intricate visualizations. In a particularly memorable scene from the work, the dancers pressed up into a reverse tabletop, perched tensely on forced arches with eyes lifted skyward. A bold hand slid against each dancer’s own forehead, as if trapping each of them inside their own minds with indecision and fear.

A tasteful gesture series began with a diagonal that outlined the space from the front of each dancer’s shoulder to the opposite hip using the inside of the wrist and palm. The dancers tossed their heads back in unison with one hand flying up overhead in front of the face and bringing it back down instantly with the movement of the face, as if palming a basketball. The dancers methodically looked right, center, and back to the right. Their right knees swung out to the side wildly, as if suddenly kicked from behind, before returning to stand in parallel.

Eerie, deep red lighting flooded the space, bathing the dancers and everything around them in a sickening bloody glow. The movement was sinuous and sleek, and with the aid of the lighting, gave the illusion of racing through the very veins and capillaries of the heart as it responded to an urgent conflict.

Through pedestrian-driven movement, Collins crafted an even more direct visualization of fight vs. flight. Two by two, dancers approached each other, timidly at first before darting away – evidently choosing flight. This section, still cloaked in the stark red lighting, morphed into a confrontation between partners. The couples ran up to each other face-to-face, chest puffed out and ready to engage, showing how the same person can respond differently in different situations.

Collins’ concept materialized through the sense of physical touch as well, with the effects of external conflict sinking deep into the skin. Hands, weak with fatigue, pawed lightly at the knees. Fingers marched like fire ants down the dancers’ shoulders and arms -- sometimes their own fingers, sometimes other cast members’. Certain movements persisted with a stiffness that felt like the body paralyzed in its choice between fight or flight. The movement came off as compact and rigid.

The movement vocabulary Collins developed for “SWARM” proved a successful channel for communicating the thorough research behind her work. The intellectual gravity of the piece was stunning. The choreography itself was unsettling at times and provocative in the best way. The movement was inquisitive. It invited audience members into a vividly depicted internal dialogue propelled by the seven dancers of the cast. The work asked questions in a way that made the questions themselves their own kind of statement. I look forward to seeing more of Collins’ future work as she continues to develop her own unique choreographic voice.

Photos by Richard Calmes; Courtesy of Dance Canvas, Inc.

Ashley holds a Bachelor of Arts in Dance from Kennesaw State University, where she

performed in works by both Christine Welker and McCree O’Kelley. She currently

serves on faculty at the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education and Studio Go

Dance. Ashley also volunteers for DanceATL and is the chairperson of its writing

committee. She is a freelance writer/copy editor in the Atlanta community, contributing

to publications such as DanceATL’s Promenade. When she’s not dancing or teaching,

she enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors.

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