"Everyone Can Dance" with the Big Action Performance Ensemble

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On Friday, March 18, Tiffany Rhynard, artistic director of Big Action Performance Ensemble (Big APE) dance, introduced the troupe’s most recent performance in the Town Hall Theater in downtown Middlebury with the following rules: everything is intentional, and the piece will be performed as it was intended, even if everything goes wrong, everyone is in some way responsible for the outcome of this piece, everything that can happen will happen, everyone is different and yet they are the same, and everyone can dance.

In establishing a sort of meta-movement relationship with the audience right from the start, the performance took on a completely new format that was unlike anything the audience had probably ever known and unlike anything they would ever know again.  The dancers in front of the audience had become a community in the last four weeks, and now the audience was invited with open arms to join their dance family.  The usually effaced and hidden audience found the spotlights turned on them, and keeping in mind the freedom bestowed by Rhynard’s five rules, the rest of the night took flight.  It was an experience of sheer joy, transmitted through the spirit of dance that filled the theater.

Big APE created a dancing community. Photos by Andrew Podrygula.

Another way Rhynard blatantly and delightfully broke the fourth wall of dance in this performing experiment was by giving the audience a vote on certain artistic choices in the piece.  For Rhynard’s solo, they were asked to pick her costume and her music from two choices in each category.  On Friday night, they decided that Rhynard should wear an orange jumpsuit and dance to a classical piece of music.  For the performance on the following night, those choices could have changed; what happened in the Friday night performance was entirely unique.  The audience could tell that whatever happened would never happen again, and they sat forward in their seats so they wouldn’t miss a moment of it.

The performance was made up of different sections of many permutations of dancer groups.  Some sections consisted of original Big APE members, some of different community dancers and some of both types of dancers combined. The show moved quickly and drew everyone along for the ride.  There were slower movements without being boring, and all who experienced it were clearly having a grand time all the way through.  One adorable piece

involved a little girl doing a comical duet with her father; another was a powerful dance of masculine bravado and energy by four young men. Comically, an all-corps section was initiated with Rhynard’s shout, “Are you guys ready for a little techno squaredance?”

The meta-theme continued in an intriguing section in which the dancers spoke out loud the movement they were about to dance, so while they rolled their shoulders, they said “Roll my shoulder.”  Much of the work was very unlike the closed-off, mystical modern dance style full of heavy breathing and floor scraping.  Instead, this was about playing with those ideas and giving them to people whose dance comes from a more natural place of un-trained beauty and magic.

Dancers perform in "Everyone Can Dance."

The costumes made for a wildly colorful stage, seeming to consist of the most vibrantly patterned clothes found in the participants’ closets.  They were sometimes visually jarring and clashed with the more solemn sections, but generally the pieces were suitably lighthearted for the bright clothing.  The makeshift “I-got-dressed-in-the-dark” ensembles also served as another rebuff of the stereotypical dance image of sleek uniformity.  The rumpled, varied looks of the group enhanced the man-off-the-street personality of the entire show and implied that each person got to have fun picking out a wild costume that would be most comfortable for them.

The music was an entire treat on its own, with Philippe Bronchtein ’10 DJing everything from pulsing electronic dance beats to a live performance of his original composition under the name Hip Hatchet.  During the acoustic Hip Hatchet song, one of the most moving and beautiful moments of the piece took place, where dancers asked people from the audience to come up on stage for a slow dance with them.  The couples waltzed around a darkened stage to the music’s deep and melancholy voice.  Another breathtaking moment appeared near the end, when the music became “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saens and an elderly couple emerged from the audience and went up on stage, dancing together in a way that only two people who have been together for years and years can achieve.

Through much of the performance, I turned around in my seat to see the faces of the audience.  I saw tears, I saw smiles, I saw engagement.  “Everyone Can Dance” not only integrated the dancers who were committed to weeks of rehearsal, but it also made everyone in the room a participant, both emotionally and physically.  The show included many surprises: at one point, a catchy remix of Michael Jackson’s music filled the room, and the audience sat bobbing heads and blinking at an empty stage for a while until someone suddenly bounded down from the audience and broke into a high-spirited solo inspired by the King of Pop.  The biggest surprise came at the performance’s end when the entire audience was encouraged to get out of their seats in the grand finale, a demonstration of the show’s ultimate mission.  Audience members poured out of their seats and the stage was filled with a complete dancing family of moving bodies.  From the audience reaction and participation, Rhynard and Big APE successfully proved that everyone can dance.

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