Organized Chaos

Dance against the machine: Susan Scalf (center) and Concrete Farm

Early on a Wednesday morning, the four choreographers and dancers who make up the Concrete Farm Dance Collective are huddled around a small table at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, sharing a pitcher of coffee and tucking into a substantial breakfast. A long day filled with hours of rehearsal and meetings lies ahead, and it's clear these women require as much social as nutritional nourishment to jump-start bodies exhausted from weeks of intense work. Ostensibly they've gathered to discuss Scout, a new performance premiering at the Southern Theater this weekend. But with five years' worth of similar morning confabs in their shared history, Susan Scalf, Morgan Thorson, Kristin Van Loon, and Arwen Wilder are amply prepared to reflect upon their experiment in group dancemaking and the fragile art of communication.

While the concept of a dance collective is not new--such renowned artists as Meredith Monk, David Gordon, Trisha Brown, and Yvonne Rainer began their careers in New York's Judson Church and Grand Union during the 1960s and '70s--it's fair to say that the reasons for coming together are different for everyone. What began as a pragmatic vehicle for dancers to pool resources and establish creative autonomy has, in the case of Concrete Farm, blossomed into a working process wrought from personal philosophies grounded in contact improvisation, modern dance, and political ideals. "We still have a group aesthetic: rawness, intense physicality," explains Scalf. "But we've reached a level of sophistication with our movement. We're meshing sports and dance forms so we don't hurt ourselves. We have a strong point of view, we know how to dance it, and we can do it until we're 55." (Currently the women range in age from 28 to 35.)

Van Loon adds: "One of the reasons we've stuck together is that we have no conception that Concrete Farm is an organization. We have an impulse and we make it happen. We've done so much without contracts or binding rules."

Such confidence is rarely developed while hiding out in the dance studio, and the members of Concrete Farm are nothing if not willing to take their work to the street. In the summer of 1996 they toured Minnesota performing on the back of a flatbed truck and over the past year they sponsored a series of "Open Days," low-tech sessions in cafés and community centers designed to stimulate audience feedback. Considerable logistical and artistic challenges accompany these efforts, and the four have developed a work ethic that, by necessity, transcends your typical give-and-take. "It's really an exercise in trust and control," notes Thorson. "We have permission to be critical in a loving way. It's a negotiated thing we've developed. We wanted to train together to get better."

However "loving" that criticism might be, learning to choreograph collectively entails, as Wilder puts it, "figuring out what's really important to you and what's not." It's only natural that one person's pet idea may meet an untimely end in the group. Hourly impasses are the norm during rehearsals. "Little heartbreaks happen over and over again," observes Van Loon. "But it balances out. You learn to be resilient."

Having spent 15 hours a week rehearsing together during 1997 and early 1998 without any formulation of a final product, the Concrete Farmers are probably more resilient than ever. "We had to start from scratch and collaborate," says Van Loon. "Flatbed was more of a showcase; we each took on a part of the performance. Now all four of our voices are shaping a whole. We are four individuals who are not predictable in any way, yet we can read each other's minds. There have been moments of epiphany where we finish each other's choreographic sentences."

According to Wilder, Scout largely involves ideas created during this intensive period. The piece employs an installation inspired by a construction site to explore the differences between personal and public space--a familiar opposition for this intimate group of individualists. A recent rehearsal found the dancers totally engaged in the act of discovering new ways to climb up, slither under, wrap around, and perch on one another's bodies. Every craggy nook of the skeleton held the promise of a new resting place or launch pad.

With breakfast devoured and the day's events confirmed, Concrete Farm heads out onto the street. Two ponder a parting question before catching up with the others: After five years together, and signs of being well-established in the dance scene, is it fair to call the group an institution? "We'd have to rebel against ourselves if that's the case," laughs Scalf as she and Wilder pedal their bikes across the intersection--against the light.


Concrete Farm perform at 8:00 p.m. June 3-6 at the Southern Theater; (612) 340-1725.

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