This weekend, RAWdance presents informal, but in no way unprofessional, contemporary dance via its seventh iteration of its growing-in-popularity CONCEPT series, held at the James Howell Studio in Duboce Triangle. While the neighborhood prides itself to being home to one of the city’s best dog parks, I urge you to leave your pooch at home while you pull up a chair, nibble on some popcorn, and catch the latest from some of the Bay’s most unique dance minds.

What: RAWdance’s CONCEPT series: 7
Where: James Howell Studio, 66 Sanchez Street
When: Saturday, Sept. 4, 8PM, and Sunday, Sept. 5, 3PM and 8PM
Tickets: Pay-What-You-Can at the door

Along with RAWdance’s own choreography, each evening includes presentations by Lisa Townsend Company, ledges and bones dance project, kelly kemp & company, Catherine Galasso, and Laura Bernasconi & Carlos Venturo. Earlier this week, I spent a few minutes chatting with RAWdance’s artistic directors, Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein, about the CONCEPT series.

Becca Hirschman: Tell me a little about RAWdance and the upcoming CONCEPT series.

Ryan T. Smith: We’re going into our sixth year as a company, and I think part of the reason we started the CONCEPT series is we found ourselves going through the pressure of doing your usual, annual performances and some of these larger-scale gigs, but not necessarily having a chance to know what any of the work looks like or breathes like before we were actually putting them on the stage for good.

This is a chance for us to give an incubator time to the work and put it in front of the audience, do some testing grounds, allow ourselves to have experimentation time, where we’re thinking more of process and about trying something new and different than necessarily about having the most perfect, polished piece, fully realized.

We’ve done a lot of full-length work at this point in time, like 45 minutes to an hour, and we wanted a chance to be able to test parts of that out beforehand…

It gives us a chance to showcase some of our other colleagues that our group [I think he said group; my recording got fuzzy! — BH] really likes, and to give them similar options, like a breeding ground for work. It also gives us a really good opportunity to break down some of the barriers. We see a lot of proscenium work with dance, and there’s always that formality. So this is a chance for us to present a piece, or several pieces, without these boundaries, to strip it down to being up close and personal with the audience, kind of creating a different level of intimacy with them.

Wendy Rein: That’s one thing that we kept hearing from audiences. Their reactions afterward, would be something like, “Well, I liked this, but what do I know about modern dance?” They didn’t feel like they even had the right to express an opinion because they didn’t know enough about the form. So the way we do it is so casual. We have food, we have chairs all around. The audience actually picks up their chairs and move it to a different part of the space, depending on what part of the theater the artist is performing in. And it really gets them a little more involved and a little more able to talk about it afterward and feel like they’re allowed to have an opinion.

Smith: Contemporary dance can sometimes feel so, like, high-fallutin’, and there’s often an air of….[Recording went fuzzy again; unnamed voice recorder company, we need to have a chat! — BH] which we both think is kind of silly, so this is our chance to make it feel like you’re watching contemporary dance in your living room.

I mean, I do literally throw popcorn at people throughout the evening. We take coffee orders, and you can tell me you want coffee light with two sugars. It totally breaks it down.

You’re watching it, and you’re accessing it without having to feel like you’re distanced from it or that you have to appreciate it because of a formal presentation. It changes the way you can take in dance.

Rein: And it works really well! We had to idea what to expect the first time, but we’ve had an increasing repeat audiences since then, and because we switch audiences every time, it’s kind of bled onto itself. And we have a huge following at this point, and it’s always exciting.

How do you select the artists or colleagues that you work with each time?

Smith: At this point, it’s by invitation. We do somewhat jury. Now that we’ve been doing it several times, a lot other artists, friends of ours or acquaintances or colleagues, will ask if they can be involved if they’re at a point to test out work. They’re all professionals in the field, people whose work we respect. And then we work, before each concert series, to try and craft an interesting evening. You want to show a little diversity, you want to make sure the work is going to complement itself, just so that we’re giving an interesting cross-section of the field.

Rein: That being said, we never know what an artist is going to do until they show it to us a week before the show. So it’s [their selection] really what we’ve seen from that artist in the past or what they tell us they might be doing, and then they pretty much have free range within the confines of up to 15 minutes…

Smith: Actually, we would love it, and it has happened to some degree, but we would love it if one of the artists came in and did something totally unexpected, totally different than what we would predict from them, because that’s what it’s about. It’s about trying new things out. So we’ll tell you more on Friday or Saturday [about what to expect this week], but we won’t know more until then, either!

Do you do a Q&A afterward? How do you get the audience talking?

Smith: We don’t do a Q&A as part of it. Most of the communication does happen after. Because there’s food and coffee, people don’t leave very quickly!

There’s a milling period where we get feedback and start engaging a little bit more. Some artists do put their contact information down, and some have handed out pens/paper or surveys to interact/communication, but we don’t really institutionalize anything in the CONCEPT series. That’s more artist-specific. We more provide the platform and snacks.

the author

Becca Klarin writes about dance. Her first stage role was at the age of four, where she dressed in a brightly colored bumble bee tutu and black patent leather taps shoes. She remembers bright lights and spinning in circles with her eleven other bees, but nothing more. Becca also has an affinity for things beginning with the letter "P", including Pizzetta 211, Fort Point, pilates, parsvakonasana, and plies.

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