THREE at the CORE: A Conversation With Sue Schroeder, Artistic Director of Several Dancers Core

Photo by R. Clayton McKee
Sue Schroeder; Photo by R. Clayton McKee

More than simply a dance company, Several Dancers Core is a multifaceted organization which includes a variety of performance and community-oriented initiatives. Not only that, it is a conglomerate that operates within two very different cities — Houston, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia. Sue Schroeder co-founded the company with her sister in Houston almost thirty years ago but shifted a portion of the organization’s operation and outreach to Atlanta in the mid-1980’s. Since then, they have produced and presented mirrored programs in each city that still manage to mesh with the two unique communities they serve.

Later this month, CORE Performance Company will present an evening of dance entitled THREE at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex in Houston. The performance will include three works, by three female choreographers, from three different locales.

Sue Schroeder, Several Dancers Core founder and artistic director, took some time to talk with me about THREE.

Tell us a little bit about how the project began for you and the company.

We have a history of inviting outside artists to come in and create original work for us and with us. As this project manifested I was scheduling to take my first sabbatical ever in 29 years. I proposed to the company that we work together to select choreographers to come in during my absence to create. The process of selection started at the end of 2006.

Why three choreographers?

One would have been an evening length; Two would have been contrasting or comparing internally, as well as from an audience point-of-view; Three felt more diverse. A lot of names were brought in. I contributed some, the dancers contributed some. My criteria was that this artist would bring to the company some new information to stimulate how we work and how we process information. Other qualifiers were that there be two international choreographers and one American, and that they be a professional that we felt we could be with for an extended period of time. Each artist was with the company for six weeks and, when you’re around someone for that long, you want to get along. Alicia Sanchez, we knew and had presented her work. Beppie Blankert had taught some workshops for us many years ago, and Polly and I danced many many years ago together with Space Dance Theatre in Houston.

It’s interesting that all three choreographers are women. There have been initiatives in New York City (Project Next Generation and Dancing Through the Ceiling are two programs) that focus on supporting women in the field of choreography. It is a realm often dominated by men. As a female choreographer, have you experienced the difficulties female choreographers face? And did this issue have anything to do with your choice to spotlight female choreographers in THREE?

There were men in the pool of choreographers. We never said we were going to pick three women but we did look back and say, “This is another layer of putting the work near each other.” I am very honored that we can support women in the field in this particular way, though. In certain circles, when competing for a residency or performance opportunity there are times when there is a men’s circle you can’t penetrate. Yes, it can be disappointing but you don’t give up, you just find another way to get your work seen and shown, and acknowledge that’s just part of the business side of the dance world. I don’t think it’s just dance, it’s the art world and, if you take it out further, it’s the regular world. But there is a lot of interesting and powerful work out there made by women.

Your company spent a good bit of time in Holland and Mexico while working on this project. Were there challenges?

When living and working in another culture there’s a lot of adjusting going on. You’re trying to be in the creative process, and you’re very vulnerable, and you’re not at home, and people aren’t speaking your language, and the food is different. It can be challenging and very stimulating simultaneously. Beppie speaks very fluent English. There was still some cultural nuance but not so much. Whereas Alicia spoke very little English. We had to keep a translator going the whole time and that is a very taxing way to rehearse; to make work when you are having to translate someone’s artistic vision from one language to another. The translating surprised us the first time but we knew what to expect and were ready for it the second.

Without giving away too much, can you tell us a bit about each of the three works?

Beppie Blankert’s work Cumulus uses e.e. cummings text interwoven with Charles Ives music. In her work, she is very interested in Ives as a composer. She came in with some things to try and it evolved with the dancers. It’s a physical dance piece that has performance elements. The quartet (three women and a man) speak the e.e. cummings text, it’s not recorded.

Alicia Sanchez’s work, Tus Pasos Encontrados or “Your Found Steps,” narrative elements, but not in a linear way. She does movement theatre and there is text. The women are in high heels. She’s always throwing off the comfort level and that’s exactly how she pushes her process.

Polly Motley’s piece Charmed Romantics, is a quintet. She had movement that she had worked with in the 80’s that she wanted to re-approach — some duet material. And we talked about that because the company doesn’t really do existing work. But she’s got this whole new work and it has a seed from this original movement phrase. What’s luscious about her is that she gets to the pure movement approach through improvisation.

The works are really very distinctive. Polly’s is highly athletic and technical dance with an American post-modern aesthetic. Alicia’s feels very theatrical, with heels, odd props, and theatrical lighting. You get a sense of the Mexican cultural influence and aesthetic. Beppie’s is maybe somewhere in between in that it’s got text but it’s the most unifying text, in a way. I think it will show the company’s versatility in doing some very different work.

Let’s go back in time a bit and talk about SDC’s two-city transition. The oil crisis of the 80’s made it difficult to maintain a company in Houston at the time and so you found a second home in Atlanta. I think most company directors would have just moved the entire operation to Atlanta and washed their hands of Houston altogether. I realize that you grew up here and that you have family here but, is there more to what motivates you to maintain a connection?

We regularly check ourselves in our mission, our vision, and our values to see if the two-city operation serves us. We are so fed by our work in Houston artistically. There is a very interesting and powerful influence from the visual arts community which does not exist in Atlanta and that we can’t get anywhere else. We love what that does for the company itself.

In addition, we have an annual commission from the Museum of Fine Arts. They are so incredibly giving to kind of let us do what we want in the museum and pick the exhibitions we want. We have a similar unobtrusive relationship with the Bayou City Arts Festival and we’ve had a long relationship with the Houston Area Women’s Center. We’re constantly getting to create and perform new work through these really meaningful partnerships, the seeds of which were maybe back there in ’86. Maybe home kept me wanting to be connected, but those partnerships have really thrived for us over almost 30 years.

We’re glad that CORE does so much performing here because we can forgive you for recently luring away two of Houston’s finest male dancers, Corian Elisor and Alex Abarca. Honestly, we’re happy for them. Corian and Alex walked into a full-time position, which is rare in contemporary dance. Many groups struggle to pay and maintain a consistent group of company members. I understand that for the first time, despite this economy, you’ve been able to offer 30 hours per week to your dancers. Is there some secret that other organizations are missing?

We’ve definitely made it a priority. And, I think I probably have a gift that I can look at the business side and the arts side and make some sense of how to speak of it, be passionate, gain support for it, and organize things so that funders can look at us and know that we’re accountable. Having this much history validates us. And, we always give back to the community. Everything we do, we do in partnership with somebody. Those partnerships sow a lot of goodwill, which can get you a lot. It’s not contrived; we believe in it. Our organization operates as a microcosm of a community; it’s not a hierarchy. It’s very much a shared leadership in the organization.

So, after THREE, what’s next for the performing company?

THREE will close out our season this year. The plan for next season is to tour THREE to the home cities of each of the choreographers, Mexico City, Amsterdam, and Burlington, Vermont. We have been simultaneously reworking my most recent work, Corazón Abriendo, which we made in relationship to the Maya in the Chiapas region of Mexico. We will tour that next season as well, going back to Mexico and a few other places. I’ll also be creating a new work called The Point. We have access to the work of San Diego writer, Raymond Federman, who has a very interesting writing style and is a contemporary of Samuel Beckett’s, and we’ll be working with German composer, Christian Meyer.

Performances of THREE will take place April 30, May 1-2 at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Center. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets here. Visit the Several Dancers CORE website for more information.

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Nichelle

Nichelle balances careers as a dancer, instructor, writer, and mother. She is a seasoned performer whose strength lies in bringing dramatic

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