For the 2016 Winter Dance Concert titled LEADING EDGES, IU Contemporary Dance professor Nyama McCarthy-Brown infuses her work with the festival traditions of Trinidad and Tobago.
In rehearsal McCarthy-Brown gives last minute instructions to her ensemble, craning her neck upward to instruct stilt walkers, who stride across the stage, limbering up for the run-through.
McCarthy-Brown’s latest work – Jam in the Canopy – will be featured this January in this signature event of the Indiana University Contemporary Dance season.
The piece is based on her recent trip to Trinidad and Tobago, where she researched Carnival and Emancipation Day celebrations. But Canopy is not meant to be a recreation of traditional dances. Rather, the 12-minute ensemble piece is a wholly original contemporary dance, inspired by those celebrations.
“I wanted to bring the energy of celebration and marking life with ritual and ceremony,” says McCarthy-Brown. “But I also wanted to connect that to the way nature marks life with a kind of ritual, and the way animals celebrate life.”
Canopy opens with a cacophony of movement, as 15 undergraduate dancers bound across the stage, moving to syncopated rhythms, bringing the frenzied excitement of a street parade to the stage. But soon this wild movement subsides, as a very different kind of celebration arises. Stilt walkers emerge from the wings, utilizing slow, lilting movements. And suddenly Canopy becomes a celebration of stillness, silence, and nature.
The precise, contrasting movements in the piece were created in collaboration with student dancers. In her second year on faculty at IU, McCarthy-Brown is developing an ambitious sense of possibility with her students.
“I tried not to be locked into a process. Some days I came in with a very specific set of movements mapped out, but at times I would choreograph on the spot,” she explains. “In the past, I’ve choreographed most of my work in the moment, because I was often working with more inexperienced dancers. I had to first get a sense of what they brought to the table, before I could create something for them. But, now, most of my dancers are in my classes, so I already know how wonderfully capable they are.”