Getting Into the Groove

As a college student faced with choosing a career, Sarah Skaggs
was drawn to anthropology. Somewhere between academia and downtown New York, however, the Virginia native became a modern dancer, and eventually a choreographer. But she never lost her fascination with the science of humanity. That may be why, a few years back, she had a hunch that the energy she tapped in her work should not be constrained by traditional venues. Soon after, she recast herself as a populist choreographer with a rep for taking dance to the people, and giving them the opportunity to respond in kind.

Her current vehicle is Higher Ground, a simultaneous dance performance and dance party that comes to First Avenue this Saturday night. The work sprang to life in 1993 within the walls of a community center in the artist's Little Italy neighborhood. The serenely elegant 39-year-old transformed the center's worn gym into a nightspot that featured DJ music before and after her company's performances.

"The locals who came had probably never been to a dance club," Skaggs explains, "but they stayed the night dancing. It's about understanding dance on a kinetic level--at a theater you're consuming it intellectually. Higher Ground reflects how dance functions in three-quarters of the world."

Since its premiere, Higher Ground has shunned the usual theater circuit in favor of clubs, parks, Elks lodges, American Legion halls, a Navajo reservation, even an abandoned swimming pool. Central to the work's premise is making local connections. Thus Minneapolis-based choreographer Morgan Thorson will open the show with DJ Danny Schaeffer, a regular at the Saloon and South Beach, at the wheels of steel.

"The DJ is like the glue that connects the dance company to the city," says Skaggs. "They'll play whatever music the local audience is into." Skaggs recalls a recent collaboration with a rave DJ in Baltimore whose fans, she enthuses, were "blown away" by the experience. She herself is inspired by worldbeat and free-form radio, and the score for Higher Ground reflects these interests through a combination of hip hop, art rock, and traditional musics.

Skaggs calls her pairing with Thorson "a good match." An independent choreographer and member of the intrepid dance collective Concrete Farm, Thorson is also a DJ. She won't be spinning records on Saturday, but she will present "Bottom Heavy," a piece originally created with Schaeffer in 1996, which draws upon her experience observing club-goers from the DJ booth. The result is a tongue-in-cheek reconstruction of disco dynamics. "People have a really specific way of responding to music," explains Thorson. "Each person has their own style; it's really precise."

Like Skaggs, Thorson is dedicated to reinventing movement, and to utilizing the body to its fullest potential. "I'm trying to play with how people dance," she continues. "Often their pelvis is the part that primarily responds to the beat. But I move that center to the wrist and head. It's funny and quirky, but that's part of the choreography, showing the movement in other places where people aren't used to seeing it."

Aside from the DJ and local talent, what further unifies Higher Ground with its settings is the participants' response. "In every single city people jam on the dance floor," says Skaggs. "It's amazing. We're out there dancing with everybody, and people ask us to teach them moves from the show."

And what moves they are. Skaggs describes her technique as "precise abandonment," and suggests she and her dancers probe the "edge of chaos." While her early influences centered around American modern dance, recent commitments in Hong Kong, Taipei, Bali, and Europe have provided a layer of cultural complexity to her company's repertory.

Ironically enough, Higher Ground has prompted Skaggs's return to the theatrical setting. "It's a challenge to make concert dance accessible, but now that I'm working on a solo project that is pure concert dance, I've noticed that, after four years of dancing among people, that I've tapped into a deeper range of motion. I feel like I have a much bigger vocabulary."

Sarah Skaggs and Morgan Thorson perform Saturday at First Avenue at 7 p.m. (ID show). Call 338-8388 or 375-7622 for information.

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