Creating Connections: CEMA Dance

CEMA Dance, a collaboration-based dance company in NYC, premieres its latest multimedia work, STILLED, Oct 2 and 3 at Gowanus Loft. In a recent interview, company Founder and Artistic Director Rachel Hagan reflected on the creative dimensions opened up by working in multimedia, her creative process, advice for young dancers, and more. Watch video excerpts of the full-length piece and get tickets here.

Could you please tell us about STILLED and the process of creating it?

We’re really excited. This is the company’s first evening-length piece and our first piece incorporating film. We started the process the first week in April, so it’s been quite a while in the making. We started initially with the question of what prevents an individual from moving forward. I posed the question to the dancers first to see what they’d come up with both verbally (what ideas resonate from that question) and physically. We did a lot of improvisation and building phrases from those ideas, and then build from that to see how the dancers and ideas could interact with the space, with the projected film we’re including in the show, with the music, and of course with each other. It’s very intentional.

Why did you choose to create STILLED as a multimedia piece?

This is the first large scale work that I’m doing with film, which is really different and scary for me. It’s been something I’ve been interested in for a long time, though. Once you work with film you have so many other elements to consider. You have more options and more ways to manipulate the eye. I’m always thinking about that in using a space. Where do I want the audience to look? How do I get them to look there? When they look in a certain direction, how will it affect the way they interpret what’s happening? With the addition of film you can go behind the audience, higher or lower, have someone in clearer focus than someone else.  It adds a whole other dimension that creates more depth and relationship within a space.

What are some of the challenges of working in multimedia and how did you deal with them?

You have to really think about what that added element will do. What does what’s being projected say about what’s happening? It’s been a lot of editing and reworking and planning! We shot a lot of phrases and interactions in July.  For example, if there was a trio interacting, we’d shoot it a lot of times: one dancer at a time, with two dancers, with a different pair, and with all three. So we had different shots to bounce between within a single phrase of movement. Then you get to editing, deciding where to put images in the space and how to coordinate it with the physical performance. There was a lot of playing with and moving things around. It’s been a ton of work and thinking and rethinking but it’s very exciting for us. 

What do you hope your audiences take away from STILLED?

I want everyone to have an individual experience and feel like whatever emotions or reactions come up are correct. There’s no one right interpretation. A lot of times when I discuss art with non-artists, they say things like “I’m not sure I got it” or “I didn’t catch the narrative.” I don’t make narrative work, but I don’t want anyone to feel like they’ve missed anything. So with the film element I wanted to create narrative constructs (things like a feeling of reminiscence, reference, or foreshadowing) without creating an actual narrative. I hope the audience can say “I felt ‘this’ because of ‘this,’” and feel valid in their interpretation and response.

I also want all of our audience members feel something that they can connect to. It’s not just dancers in front of us doing cool physical things. Yes they’re talented movers, but what can they say?

What are some of the challenges and benefits of running a young company (CEMA Dance was founded in December 2013) in NYC?

I’m still at the point where I’m excited about all the people creating work here and the chances to collaborate and see work and talk about it. It does also create challenges. My dancers have other jobs and work with other choreographers, so it can be hard to coordinate. But if you’re invested in your work and you have people working with you who are invested too, then it’s all worth it. I love that there’s so much happening. It keeps me motivated, interested, always asking questions and investigating as an artist, which is what I want to always be doing.

As a choreographer and director, what do you look for in dancers? 

It’s changed over the years. I remember in high school you’d have teachers tell you that it’s not about being the most talented dancer but rather how you work. At the time I was like “Oh yeah, sure.” Now that I’m on the other side of that I totally get it. Of course physical ability is important, but I also need my dancers to be reliable and invested in the work. You can’t just show up because it’s a dance job you got. You have to be interested, have questions, bring ideas to the room. I want my dancers to come into the studio every rehearsal with an investigative approach. It keeps it the process constantly new.

What advice would you offer dancers interested in founding their own companies?

Really dive in. In college (I went to NYU Tisch) I was always looking to do festivals and to have as many experiences as possible outside of , as well as through, school. There’s a level of experience that comes with producing and seeing other people produce work, being part of fundraising, and all the other elements that go into actually running a company that’s incredibly valuable. It’d be lovely if you could just focus on creating your work, but the reality is you have to think about all these other elements. It becomes so much more complicated, especially when everyone’s out of school and freelancing. You need a foundation in funding, working with designers, coordinating/managing everyone’s schedules, finding space, etc. If you have those managerial skills it gives you a huge advantage and makes it easier on everyone.