For choreographer Alison Chase, the best part of living in Maine also presents her greatest challenge. She can’t pull herself away from its beauty, which is a problem when much of her work is in New York.
“It’s bad for business,” she said of living on a remote spit of land in Penobscot Bay. “I don’t want to leave.”
Chase, who is best know as the founding artistic director of Pilobolus Dance Theater, devised a work-around to her problem by creating and presenting work in Maine. For the second summer in a row, Chase is traveling an innovative multimedia performance around the state.
This one is called “No Plan B,” and it will be presented in a large circus-style tent at Fort Knox State Park in Prospect for four nights, starting Thursday, before moving to Thompson’s Point in Portland for three performances Aug. 31 through Sept. 2.
Last summer, she toured a non-tented production, “Dancing with Steel,” to several communities in Down East and southern Maine, and got lucky with the weather. She almost got fogged out at Schoodic, but didn’t have to postpone or cancel. Not wanting to chance fate, she opted for weather security this summer in the form of a 57-by-96-foot oval tent with room for about 200 seated people.
“I thought, if we have a tent, why not project on it?”
Thus was born “No Plan B,” which Chase describes specifically as “not a dance. It’s a multimedia event of light, projection, music and movement.” She collaborated with University of Maine’s Gene Felice, director of the CoAction Lab at the university in Orono, to create projections and surround sound for the piece. Composer Franz Nicolay, a prior collaborator with Chase, scored and recorded the music.
Chase did a research residency at UMaine’s Intermedia MFA program, enabling the creation with Felice of the multimedia elements. They pitched a small tent inside a black box theater on campus and began playing with light.
“Most people are used to seeing video as a rectangled-shape backdrop behind the stage,” Felice said. “We are surrounding you with almost 360 degree of imagery, combined with surround sound creative an immersive feeling. It’s a shared virtual reality experience.”
The light projections bounce off the dancers and the tent’s surface, and become a character in the story, propelling it along. Chase has been interested in light as a component in her work for many years, and wanted to expand on that idea.
In “No Plan B,” the performers, wearing a thin layer of clothing, will self-illuminate with flashlights. Part of their rehearsal regimen has been learning to hold the light over their heads while moving, and keeping their hands and arms at precise angles. Chase prefers calling the six performers – four men, two women – dramatists as opposed to dancers. “They’re a different tribe of dramatic presence. They’re actors without words,” she said.
Other than the projections on the surface of the tent, the light created by the performers is the only light in the show, which lasts about 55 minutes. It’s a layered piece, bridging the disciplines of installation art, music, film, theater and movement.
Nicolay, who grew up in New Hampshire and lives in the Hudson Valley of New York, created a dark, atmospheric score of electronically processed sounds. “Alison really wanted it to feel like a score, with wall-to-wall music to set the emotional state,” Nicolay said. “Modern dance can be very abstract. There is lots of room for the music to guide the audience’s impression of what the dance is trying to achieve.”
Chase, who has a history of pushing boundaries and challenging norms in dance and theater, called “No Plan B” different than anything she’s done before, and ambitious in the sense that she’s never played with technology as much as with this piece. “I am way out of my comfort zone on this one,” she said.
That’s quite a statement, considering one of her previous site-specific pieces was set in a quarry on Deer Isle and involved excavators as part of the movement.
Chase has lived in Maine since 1997. She has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Connecticut Governor’s Award and was named Performing Arts Fellow by the Maine Arts Commission. She established Alison Chase/Performance in 2009 as a way to collaborate with other artists across disciplines and develop new work and new audiences by offering what she calls “beyond the proscenium performances.”
The “No Plan B” tent show falls into that category. In addition to presenting new work in an unusual venue and in unexpected places, Chase is making work itself that is experimental and risky.
That’s where she lives as an artist, and where she is most comfortable.
Despite its distance from New York and inconvenience of travel, never mind her lack of desire to leave her home on Penobscot Bay, Maine serves her creativity well. The state’s quiet and isolation gives her space to think more boldly, because she is less influenced by outside forces. It also allows ease of collaboration, because connections are easy to make.
“I could not have created something this ambitious if I didn’t do it in Maine and without the collaboration of the University of Maine,” she said.
WHEN & WHERE: 8 p.m. Thursday to Sunday, Fort Knox, Prospect; 8 p.m. Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, Thompson’s Point, Portland
TICKETS & INFO: $25; alisonchase.org/noplanb