Go Deeper

Present at “Absence/Presence”

Posted September 2nd, 2010

Meandering through the streets of Kensington and Fishtown, I finally come upon the choreographer Ellie Goudie-Averill’s live-work space. On the second floor of renovated industrial building on Hazzard Street, Ellie and Rain Ross are rehearsing a duet—likely to be called “Lessons for Your Love”—that is one of five dance pieces in their Philly Fringe show Absence/Presence.

“It’s about small changes that happen every day that add up to a big deal,” Ellie says.

In the sun-dappled loft, they open the duet silently, with about 20 seconds of movement before music begins. Rain and Ellie collide awkwardly, literally negotiating space with each other. Their movements are just out of sync, as if they’re struggling to align themselves. Coming together to clasp hands is a motif, and a tenderness evolves over the course of the piece.

They finish a little early—the soundtrack still plays, so they re-run the duet to find spots to slow down, and talk about phrases that have gotten faster since they began. After the second run-through, they finish about right on time, movement unified as they exit.

Kinks worked out, we adjourn for a pint at Atlantis, the Lost Bar, a couple blocks away on Frankford Avenue, to talk about representing relationships physically and how to give audiences access points to dance. And videos! After the jump.

Ellie, who grew up in Topeka, Kansas and attended Kansas University, and Rain, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and attended Mount Holyoke College, met in the graduate dance program at the University of Iowa, where they attended a graduate dance program. Ellie moved to New York, and found it too expensive to piece together a living as an artist. She auditioned for and was accepted into Group Motion, which she says was a good introduction to the Philadelphia dance community.

And when Rain moved east for a teaching job at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Ellie’s connections were an introduction for her as well. In Absence/Presence, they work with a total of 10 dancers, most of whom, like Scott McPheeters and Lindsay Browning, are based in Philadelphia. Not a bad coterie to gather only a couple years in to the city.

Ellie’s been in a serious relationship for a few years, and her duet came out of a phenomenon very specific to growing together as a couple.

“I felt myself changing in ways I like,” Ellie says. She offers up a particular—and very nice—example of how she and her partner interact. “We’re really polite. We say please and thank you all the time.”

She tells me about her favorite children’s book, The Queen Who Couldn’t Bake Gingerbread. A king needs a wife who can bake gingerbread, and the woman he falls in love with needs a man who can play slide trombone. They each fail at what they need to do to satisfy the other, until one day, the queen smells gingerbread—the king has learned to cook! And the king hears rich, glorious trombone music—coming from the queen.

“You feel like you’re changing for the other person when you’re really changing for yourself,” Ellie says. The implications are great: through your relationships, you can become more you.

I ask Rain how she works inside a piece that emerged so distinctly from Ellie’s experience.

“I work on finding when we are playful, when we are negotiating, when we are arguing. I think about semi-serious conversations that you have with a partner that move the relationship forward but aren’t: ‘we need to talk.’ And,” Rain laughs, “I do what she says.”

“I was pretty literal,” Ellie says, “when I choreographed it—the most literal I’ve ever choreographed.”

Both Rain and Ellie like to firmly ground their work, whether in an interpretation of important if mundane personal changes, or in thorough external research, as Rain performed for a piece on Dorothy Parker that’s another piece of Absence/Presence.

“I read almost everything she wrote,” Rain says, “and other writings on her, to get my sense of who she was. She had a lot to do with relationships. The major changes in her life revolved around her relationships.”

“We’re willing to do things about relationships, and avoid an ironic treatment of love. Both of us don’t mind doing a dance that’s about something,” Ellie says.

The dances aren’t necessarily about a specific thing, though; rather, they’re based on things rather than concepts.

“We want to leave room for the audience to interpret what they see in the context of their own experiences,” Rain says.

And so I get “Lessons for Your Love” even more. Thinking about their rehearsal, and thinking about my own long-term relationship, I can feel those small changes that, summed, are a big deal. They must be doing something right.

Absence/Presence runs September 3 and 4 at the CHI Movement Arts Center, 1316 South 9th Street, Philadelphia. 7:00 and 9:00 pm performances both night, $15. For tickets, click here.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photo by Lindsay Browning.