Letters from the Road: Ann Arbor

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by Matthew Baker

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Since I began my dance career I’ve imagined what it might be like to return to my hometown to perform. I recall joking around several times with colleagues about how fun it might be to do a “Hometown Tour.” This past week I got that opportunity when Abraham.In.Motion visited Ann Arbor, MI to perform both of our newest programs, The Watershed, and When The Wolves Came In, at The Power Center presented by the University Musical Society.

Perhaps it’s best summed up in a conversation I had with fellow dancer Penda N'diaye: Almost everywhere we go we get asked about how we got started dancing, or our background. We’ve heard the quick answers from our fellow company members so many times we could easily spout them off for each other… Penda launches into her scary good impersonation of me: “Well I started out as a gymnast.. and then ballet, sports, college, modern, dance.. etc etc.” It was a special feeling to return home and feel like that short bio has come to life in front of you in a complex and multi-layered community to appreciate and share. Another AIM dancer, Jordan Morley, said he felt like he didn’t really know me until this trip, until seeing where I was from.

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We performed at the Power Center in Ann Arbor. When we arrived backstage the circuitousness of life stared me down. The studio where I started taking ballet (“Sylvia’s Studio of Dance” just down the road on State St) had their annual dance recital here. This was the first stage I ever danced on. Growing up here I’d seen countless performances as part of UMS’ rich performance series. I remember seeing Baryshnikov perform there when I was about 12. The place is filled with personal and family memories. 

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Before one of our performances I shared with the dancers one of those memories backstage: I performed my first solo on this stage, a solo that was probably more gymnastics than ballet. I was 9 or so and played a little frog prince. Being backstage in the same halls and dressing rooms I was filled with a familiar feeling from that day, butterflies, excitement, curiosity, joy, J.O.D. (or Joy Of Dance as one of my mentors Nicole Wolcott would teach me to call it). I felt bad for not being able to show the company more of the town and my community while we were here, but I was so excited, so over-J.O.D.’ed, to share us with them. I felt a deeper understanding for that oh-so-frequent post performance discussion question, that I’ll summarize as: “Why dance?”

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The latter part of my dance background story Penda could tell you will always have to do with college and how I didn’t discover modern/contemporary dance until I got there. Western Michigan University across the state is where I ended up. Coincidentally so did my soon-to-be friend and future AIM colleague Jeremy Neal. I was nervous and excited back then when the modern dance professor, Carolyn Pavlik, plucked me out of the freshman crop to be in one of her pieces. Having never taken a modern class before or knowing anything about all the varieties of techniques and training, I fell in love with the endless potential I saw for movement and dance as I discovered this new form. 

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I felt some of that same nerve and excitement waiting backstage for the curtain to go up on our opening in Ann Arbor. I was honored and a bit nervous to hear that so many of Jeremy and I’s professors made the trip over to see the work. It was a special and all too short moment to visit with them afterwards and hear their impressions. They had each been an important step in making it possible for me (and Jeremy! I’m sure he’d agree) to be doing what I love. Performing for them felt like a chance to say thank you.

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Along with my professors, family, extended family, friends,  I felt synergy with the audiences through our Hometown/Ann Arbor/A2/Ace Deuce connection. I enjoyed getting to hear from the community I grew up in during the talkbacks and all the outreach and residency activities that the company participated in throughout the week. I felt a deeper understanding for who I felt I was in the work, and how my history helps inform that.

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In addition to getting to connect with the community at the post performance talkbacks, it was wonderful to get to do so many residency activities surrounding the performance and really feel like we were experiencing and sharing with Ann Arbor rather than just being there.  After carting us around and accompanying us on various events, Jim Leija and Mary Roeder from the UMS staff, and Clare Croft from U of M’s dance program felt like friends and colleagues as well, and their spirits, knowledge, and hospitality made the busy schedule not only manageable, but moving.

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I taught a Master Class for some of the dance department students, accompanied Kyle on a lecture with alumni in the evening called Night School, and gave a lecture to a group of students in the Michigan Union. Connecting with the university and UMS in this way was very special for me. With a deep seated respect for the school’s history and reputation, I had to pinch myself getting to share and work in these spaces. Those were only a few of the many activities that AIM did in Ann Arbor. I wish I had time to experience more of them, like Kyle’s Master Class with the musical theatre majors. We also got to wrap up the week with a brunch and conversation at the alumni center that was open to anyone who attended the performances and wanted to know more. It was great to see so many familiar faces from the residency activities coming to the performances to continue the conversations.

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I feel blessed to be a part of art that can transport and transform people and ideas. I feel thankful to have connected with Kyle and grown in our collaboration and to be able to support his vision. I cherish the relationships and bonds I’ve made with our other collaborators and the support we give each other and the generosity of the group toward the communities they visit. Somehow after leaving home I felt all those things a little stronger.