With the premiere of my newest work, Stargazing, rapidly approaching, I’ve been spending a lot of my time attending to all the minutiae of the production at hand. It is always this way. Right when I am at that crucial point in the creative process where I am piecing a work together, my focus gets pulled in a myriad of directions–production meetings, costume fittings, publicity e-blasts, postcards, emails and more emails. All those things are an exciting part of the process of bringing a work to the audience where it will really live for the first time, but they can also be distracting, fragmenting my vision and sapping my creativity. Sometimes the only thing to do at this point is to stay up late enough that the rest of the world slips away, and I’m too tired enough to stop crossing things off my to-do list. Up that late, I can let my mind wonder, question, consider and daydream. And, it is exactly that experience that inspired my current project, Stargazing.
I live in a second floor condo with lots of windows, so I live at eye level with the trees and all their inhabitants. There’s even a window above our bath tub. When I’m up late, I like to take a night shower with a starry view, if the sky is clear. Although it isn’t the most spectacular stargazing experience I’ve ever had, there is something about the dailiness of this small moment of wonder that energizes me. About a year ago, my nightly sky searching sparked the exploration that has led to the creation of my current work, Stargazing. I started the process of creating the piece with an interest in the sense of wonder I experienced scanning the night sky.
As part of my inquiry process, I chatted with a friend of mine who works as an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland where I live. Her passion and enthusiasm for her work resonated with me. She is working with incredible equipment like the new James Webb telescope and applying the knowledge she’s gained over years of schooling, but, fundamentally, she is stargazing; she is engaged in an act of wondering, questioning and discovering. Just like me, in my humble shower time searches for Orion’s belt. And, like her, my work requires me to ask questions, remain open to new possibilities and keep searching for meaning through a process of experimentation, failure and revision. This is how I work in the studio to make dances, and it was delightful to discover that someone engaged in such a different inquiry was working through a similar process.
Over the past year of working on Stargazing, the project has shifted and changed many times, and it has taken a form very different from what I first envisioned. That’s pretty typical of my choreographic process. I started out imaging the work as a fable about wonder with the night sky as more of a backdrop to the narrative, but my research and curiosity slowly shifted the focus of the work until diverse stories of the night sky took center stage. There are so many stories–ancient myths, childhood wonders, new scientific discoveries, personal moment of revelation–that cast the night sky, specifically the stars, as a main character in a drama of sorts. From the spectacular death of a star to the wonders visible in our backyards, the starry night plays a pivotal role in the human experience. In the rehearsal process, I used these different perspectives to inform our movement explorations.
We work collaboratively with everyone, myself included, creating material based on the concept at hand. We videotape everything, and, over time, I curate the process of choosing the phrases, gestures and moments that will ultimately have a life in front of an audience. By this point in the process, we have a collection that resembles a gallery exhibit in the sense that diverse pieces of expression are presented together, united by an underlying conceptual framework that lends meaning to the elements in relationship to each other. In Stargazing, our explorations have yielded a sort of triptych in time and space with the work unfolding in three sections that tell a different story–one mythical, another informed by scientific concepts and a third crafted from the personal experiences of the performers. These different stories are presented in succession without attempt to make them fit with each other. They simply co-exist in the same way that our experience of something as ever-present as the night sky is at once so complex, multifaceted and unconscious.
With just a few weeks left to work on Stargazing, I’m still searching for an ending, a closing moment that feels right. And, tonight I’m up late again listening to the soft murmurs of the night world and trying to capture this feeling in hopes of evoking it in the final moments of the piece. With another rehearsal in a couple days, I’m looking for the right images and words to bring into the process in hopes of bringing the work to some satisfying closure. Even if the solution doesn’t present itself to me tonight, it will be worth it to have had this quiet time and, even on a mostly cloudy night, I can still look out my window and see a few stars peeking through the darkness which reminds me why I embarked on this path to begin with, so many months ago. Wherever it lands, living with Stargazing constantly in my thoughts for the past year has helped renew my sense of wonder in the mundane beauty of the natural world that borders the increasingly engineered landscapes in which we live. And, I hope that the audiences that see Stargazing later this month will walk out of the dark theater into a starry night and find themselves stopping to look up and take a moment to appreciate all the stories being spoken through those distant glimmers of light.
Angella Foster is the founding artistic director and resident choreographer of alight dance theater. She trained at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio and earned her MFA in Dance Choreography at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her choreography has been performed in New York City, Washington D.C., Houston, Atlanta, and Moscow, Russia. Her evening-length work Speechless was commissioned by the Kennedy Center Local Dance Commissioning Project and supported by the Prince George’s Arts Council and Community Foundation for the National Capital Region. Angella has performed the works of Steve Rooks, Clay Taliaferro, Ed Tyler, Joe Poulson, Nejla Yatkin and Colleen Thomas. She danced with Ad Deum Dance Company in Houston, Texas. She has taught at Towson University and University of Maryland-College Park and currently serves as the Director of Studio Dance at Greenbelt Community Center.
Stargazing premieres at Dance Place in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, June 29 at 8pm and Sunday, June 30 at 7pm. Click here to visit the Dance Place website and purchase tickets.