Magazine

Welcome to Paradise

Following its surprise hit Then She Fell, immersive-theater troupe Third Rail Projects embarks on an ambitious new adventure.

Joshua Reaver, Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

As a sweaty, seedy Florida resort circa the 1970s was being constructed in a dusty Brooklyn warehouse one night this fall, passersby paused to watch dancers climb a sign that read “Open All Nite” to the tune of Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” Rehearsals were underway for The Grand Paradise, the latest theatrical adventure by dance-theater troupe Third Rail Projects.

The production, set to open in January with previews starting December 10, marks an exciting, amplified next phase for the 15-year-old company. The heightened anticipation follows the surprise success of Then She Fell, a theatrical journey down Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. When it opened in 2012, Then She Fell was supposed to run for six weeks. It is still running today, offering 12 shows a week.

Ashley Robicheaux and Niko Tsocanos. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Now, Third Rail’s three co-artistic directors—Jennine Willett, Zach Morris and Tom Pearson—are planning for a long run of The Grand Paradise. They are working with investors for the first time and negotiating the challenges associated with scaling up. This includes venue size, audience capacity (up from Then She Fell’s intimate 15 to approximately 60) and two casts of 20 performers each, 11 of whom are moving over from Then She Fell.

In other words: “How do we become a real business that can maintain this?” Pearson asks. One thing they’re not doing is relying on a safe formula. Says Pearson: “We’re not trying to replicate Then She Fell.”

The company uses furniture as a partner, testing how seamlessly they can dance with it. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

The concept for The Grand Paradise expands upon an earlier work, Roadside Attraction (2013), about a family traveling in a vintage camper. The Grand Paradise imagines that family rolling up to a mysterious Florida resort where death, desire and the Fountain of Youth collide, and inhibitions are unleashed.

The show arrives in a boom time for immersive theater, the performance genre in which the audience is placed in the middle of the action and often invited to participate. In 2011, the still-running Sleep No More by Punchdrunk became a hit and introduced the concept to theatergoers; Queen of the Night, by the same team, gave the genre an R-rated dinner-theater twist. “Sleep No More expanded the dialogue around this type of performance,” says Pearson. “It became a genre that everyone recognized and you didn’t have to explain it.”

It was a genre that Third Rail Projects had been working in for years, albeit on a much smaller scale. Willett and Pearson met as students at Florida State University, where both studied dance, and later hooked up with Morris, who studied directing at Carnegie Mellon University.

Initially, they made what Willett calls “very traditional concert dance” but soon began experimenting with site-specific work. Productions like Steampunk Haunted House allowed them to experiment with leading audiences through immersive environments, and paved the way for Then She Fell, which is set in a hospital and has a similarly macabre feeling.

From left: co-artistic directors Tom Pearson, Zach Morris and Jennine Willett. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Whereas audience members at Sleep No More are set free to stumble onto the action, Then She Fell carefully guides its guests through the experience with invisible paths laid out for each audience member. Though it feels spontaneous, it also always feels like you’re exactly where you should be. The Grand Paradise will maintain this strategic intentionality, but dials up the audience agency. “We are experimenting with giving the audience more freedoms within the work,” says Pearson.

It’s the logical next step for the three directors’ pursuit of transformative experiential theater. Their success thus far is due largely to the unique chemistry of their partnership. From project to project, they rotate who takes the lead, then all three write, choreograph and craft together. Their combination of contributions, says Morris, “makes a piece really three-dimensional.”

The three-dimensionality applies to the physical environment, too. The company practices a technique called Soft Bodies, Hard Surfaces, using the furniture as a partner. “It’s about using good contact-improvisation skills, but with an inanimate object,” says associate artistic director Marissa Nielsen-Pincus. “It’s also about testing it out, seeing how can it support me or not, taking your time to get to know it.”

The learning curve of climbing walls, sliding down stairs and flipping tables may be steep, but once set, the choreography remains relatively constant after a show opens. Each night, however, a new audience arrives and with it, a thrilling degree of unpredictability.

Photo by Julieta Cervantes

“Because we’re so clear in what we’re doing and what we expect from the audience, it’s a structure embedded in such a way that they don’t even notice there’s a structure,” says Tara O’Con, who has danced with Third Rail since 2006. Hand gestures and expressive eyes convey when audiences should sit or stand, follow or remain, peel a tangerine or drink a cup of tea. The company tests out these dynamics initially with other members of the cast, and holds multiple test-runs with close friends, family, supporters and collaborators.

Maintaining the illusion of “anything goes” inside a tightly controlled environment is a tricky balancing act, but Third Rail Projects has managed to walk the tightrope while creating fully realized fictional worlds that explore profound questions about life and love. For a company always seeking to involve its audience in fresh ways, The Grand Paradise offers an opportunity to go even further. The big question, says Pearson, is: “How far can we go?” 

Brian Schaefer writes on dance for The New York Times and other publications.

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When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

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A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

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Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

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In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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