Shannon Hummel/Cora Dance performed on Saturday, July 12 at 8 pm in tennis shoes and T-shirts on a makeshift lawn, to a smiling collection of local residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn. As onlookers drifted into the performance space, a lot surrounded by buildings and covered with artificial grass, choreographer and director Shannon Hummel greeted many by name, embraced many as if they were old friends. In fact, nearly everyone at the summer evening showing of Cora Dance's combined works, Common Dances, seemed to know each other.
The ideas behind Shannon Hummel's various new projects are wonderfully idealistic. As her audience ate fried chicken and watermelon served picnic-style from a table in the corner, Hummel explained her choices as a choreographer and her involvement in the Red Hook community.
Hummel has been creating dance in New York since 1997, but in 2008, when she opened a dance studio in Red Hook, her vision for the company began to change. She wanted the studio to be pay-what-you-can, and as the community began to attend dance classes, Hummel discovered a host of new young dancers.
Here, she explained, was where the "Common Dances" were born, a series of pieces performed in public. On benches, outside doorways, even in Hummel's car. These performances grew popular, inspiring public involvement. And Hummel's collection of ideals took shape. She spoke to her audience, smiling, of the resulting "impediments to art" and her use of "everyday locations and common human experiences" to create dances.
For the performance on Saturday, July 12, the entire series of "Common Dances" were to be performed using the space that surrounded the audience. To the right, a doorway. Behind them, Hummel's car. In front of them, an empty picnic table and a bench.
Hummel's dancers were diverse, a collection from her youth company, four company members, and several adult dancers. An extension of Hummel's idealism, it seems that she is passionate about using dancers who are members of the Red Hook community, as well as using community spaces and community involvement.
As the audience finished their picnic dinner on blankets spread throughout the space, dancers began to come through them, sitting on blankets and walking slowly among them. Folk music played. The murmuring of the audience became quieter as they watched the dancers, young and old, move through the space.
Although at first their movements were interesting and engaging, Hummel's idealistic choice of using dancers from the community began to work against her vision. Lack of training and performance experience began to hinder the movement. As the dancers moved through the picnic blankets, they stared blankly into space, and up into the skies. The intention behind their focus was unclear.
When the audience quieted and the dances began, the lack of professionalism became even more obvious. Conflict seemed to be the sole choreographic motivation. Dancers moving together seemed to be fighting one another. Dancers alone were fighting themselves, fighting the doorway they were attempting to open. Tension was established, but never released. Spoken word was used sporadically, in incomprehensible outbursts, which were sometimes amusing, but oftentimes uncomfortable and forced.
Hummel created Common Dances with a set of high-minded goals. But just as her dancers seemed to lack focus, Hummel's collection of intentions conflict with one another. While dancing in public spaces is a brilliant way of getting a community interested in dance, and setting choreography on dancers who are not professionals is an admirable undertaking, the two combined do not serve Hummel's best interests.
At the end of the evening, Hummel admitted to her audience that Saturday's performance was meant as a showing, and that the company was preparing for a January season at BAM. If this is indeed the case, Hummel and her dancers have a great deal of work to do before the new year.
While this performance lacked professionalism and focus, Hummel's ideals are thoroughly admirable. Her vision of community involvement in dance is one that other choreographers – perhaps those with access to more professional performers – would do well to emulate.