2019 McKnight dance fellow Elayna Waxse flipped the male gaze with choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith.
Elayna Waxse, photo by V. Paul Virtucio.
As much as the biannual SOLO event (Sept. 18) is about the McKnight dance fellows and the premiere of their commissioned solos, it's also about the relationship they build with their choreographers. Each fellow receives an unrestricted $25,000 grant and solo eligibility, and for 2019 fellow Elayna Waxse, that meant a chance to work with someone she had been aware of for years: Bobbi Jene Smith, formerly of Israel's Batsheva Dance Co., subject of an eponymous 2017 documentary, and more.
While the 2018 and 2019 fellows are premiering their dance films at the Cowles Center (and on demand), Waxse and Smith did the creating in New York City, where Smith is based. The two had never worked together before, but Waxse was drawn to the clear intention and emotion in Smith's choreography as well as her high physicality.
So, during what Waxse terms, "the magical COVID lull in July," the two collaborated on what came to be known as "Sincerely, Jane."
Changing the narrator
From the get-go, Smith already had a strong concept in mind. She was inspired by the women in arts and literature whom we only know through men's eyes, particularly Jane in the Leonard Cohen song, "Famous Blue Raincoat." Moreover, she wanted to finally give the women a voice.
"I wanted to see a woman set out to make a decision and still allowed to doubt and mourn," Smith says. "We began to dream about who 'Jane' might be. What letter might she write in return to the song."
Early rehearsals included taking phrases from the Cohen song, working separately, and then sharing what they made with each other. Music wasn't a factor until post-production when Smith brought in violinist Keir GoGwilt. (For a hint of what it could sound like, check out GoGwilt's music on one of Smith's recent works, "The Hopeful Parents.")
Smith's husband Or Schraiber filmed the dance on their last day together, but as Waxse said, the couple's prior experience in dance as film really paid off. "From day one Bobbi was considering camera angles and other film components as we created the movement."
Understanding through collaboration
Waxse came into the McKnight fellowship program with a lengthy dance career including work with Colorado Ballet, Black Label Movement, and TU Dance, as well as her own choreographic commissions from Minnesota Dance Theatre, the University of Minnesota Opera Theatre, and more. Even with those experiences, however, the dynamic Smith brought to the choreographer/dancer relationship stood out.
"Often there can be a large hierarchical power divide between dancer and choreographer, but I didn’t feel that during this process. I felt guided, supported, and empowered by Bobbi the entire time," Waxse says.
In return, Smith says, "It is very meaningful to me that [the process] is collaborative. We join together to make something larger than what we might make on our own. Through collaboration I am able to understand someone more. So I am very thankful for the chance to do that with Elayna."