Desire to Inspire

NEW ARTiculations Dance and Kore Press team up to use downtown as their studio and performance space

On Congress Street, on the Friday a week before Halloween, a squad of dancers and writers crashed into a crowd of zombies.

The zombies, some 200 strong, were dressed in black clothes and whiteface, out for an evening Zombie Walk.

"They were the walking dead," says Kimi Eisele, special projects director of NEW ARTiculations Dance Theatre. "They had bloody arms and faces, and stiff arms."

The artists--NEW ART dancers and a team of writers representing Kore Press--were all in white. As part of an experimental arts project called The Invisible City, the women, numbering about 15, were "exploring the physicality" of the streetscape, dancing down the block and observing its rhythms.

"We were working both sides of the street," Kore artistic director Lisa Bowden recounts. "The zombies were on the south side, across from the Ronstadt Transit Center. Their group was enormous compared to the space we were taking up. Some of the dancers climbed on trashcans and hung on street lamps to get away from the zombies. We incorporated them into our work, but the zombies definitely stole the show."

The zombie encounter of the close kind was a perfect urban moment, exactly what The Invisible City means to trigger.

Artists and others frequently complain about the slowness of the city's efforts to revitalize downtown, Eisele says. With the project, "We were saying, 'Let's make something happen downtown. Let's just use the space as it is.'"

For four weekends, the artists worked outside, using the city as their studio, creating "site-specific art labs that explored urban space through improvisational dance, text and music." Musician Vicki Brown created music while the dancers danced in parking lots and plazas, and the writers wrote texts. Filmmaker Jamie Lee shot every session. Beth Weinstein, a UA architecture professor who has collaborated with UA choreography professor Doug Nielsen, offered counsel on the "intersection between architecture and choreography."

"It was sort of a dance improv," Eisele says. "You could happen upon it and interact or not. We had a desire to inspire wonder."

This weekend, the project ends in a grand finale with three events, including a live performance to be staged Sunday at the Pennington Street parking garage. Each lab attracted up to 15 women, but up to 25 might participate Sunday.

The exact lineup is not yet set, but Eisele expects a "sort of collage" of the work that was generated on the street. Brown's soundscapes will provide a musical backdrop, and Lee's film will be projected on whatever flat surfaces are available. Texts might be chalked onto the asphalt floors.

Choreographed dance works will mesh with "structured improvisation," Eisele says. "Writers will share works they've created in each lab. One idea is that the audience might move from station to station.

"It's tricky to describe and tricky to do. We're emphasizing the word 'experiment.'"

On Friday night, the public is welcome to a final rehearsal, also in the parking garage, and on Saturday to an outdoor screening of Lee's film.

The Invisible City got started about a year ago. As special projects director for NEW ART, Eisele has been trying to stage collaborations with unlikely partners. Last spring, for instance, she and NEW ART dancer Amanda Morse initiated a partnership with the Community Food Bank, Morse's employer. Food Bank workers and the NEW ARTers composed dances and spoken-word pieces about food, and performed them outdoors at the Tucson Botanical Gardens and at the southside Food Bank itself.

For Invisible City, she turned to Kore Press, which specializes in the work of women writers.

"We're a company of women dancers," she notes. "I thought how great it would be to work with women writers."

Bowden was impressed. "As modern dancers, they want to stretch what they're doing and reach new audiences," she says. That made them a good fit for Kore. Both arts groups strive to "push the edges" of their usual work and to interact with the community in new ways. Both want to "make female artists more visible."

And both Eisele and Bowden had already dipped into multiple genres. Eisele is a published writer and a dancer, and Bowden is a writer who also does body work. They encouraged the participants--all of the NEW ART dancers and writers such as Lisa Cooper Anderson and Laynie Browne--to think about new ways of merging the genres.

"The language (of the written texts) does not just describe dance," Bowden explains. "It's not just a caption or an illustration. The music is not just a score. We're creating something new."

Inspired by the book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (which also spurred an unrelated art exhibition of the same name this summer at MOCA), the project may end up as a book, or a book plus a DVD, or a book plus an audio CD, to be published by Kore.

The collaboration has already had some unexpected results. When the artists took to the streets, they were delighted to find so much happening downtown, zombies included. The plaza next to the Main Library on Stone Avenue was downright bustling.

Curt Brill's monumental sculptures of women in bronze were sharing the turf with a variety of people, homeless and otherwise, lounging on benches and the lawn. Early voters were hurrying to the Pima County Courthouse across the street, and a wedding party had even gathered at the plaza before proceeding to the church.

"It felt like a genuinely communal space," Bowden says.

If the signs of life downtown surprised the artists, the artists in turn surprised the public with their serendipitous scribbling and impromptu leaps to music. As Eisele says, "You don't usually see modern dancers rolling around on the sidewalk or hanging off pillars."