Flying Through Space

Onstage and in TED Talks, Carl Flink's Black Label Movement stretches the boundaries of physical possibility.

Crystal Edwards and BLM below a 135 underpass in Duluth, MN; Photo by Bill Cameron, Courtesy BLM

 

Black Label Movement gives new meaning to risky behavior. Coming to dance from a serious soccer background gave founder Carl Flink what he describes as “a commitment to flying into space without being worried about the impact.” Onstage, he creates dances that explore wildly physical action and dramatic subjects, such as the fate of people trapped in an airtight compartment of a sinking ship. Offstage, he collaborates with scientists, works on TED Talks and uses dance to simulate molecular processes and navigate zero-gravity environments.

“When I was young, movement was about running, jumping, falling, catching,” he says. “I never want to lose that passion to move—to be alive in my skin.”

That full-throttle approach—combined with his TED Talk fame—has made Flink the in-demand choreographer of the moment whom many modern dance undergrads dream of working with. “I’d never seen movement done that way—so visceral, dynamic, big,” says Lauren Baker, who studied under Flink at the University of Minnesota before joining BLM in 2011. “It tore my world apart.”

It’s not only students; presenters are also taking notice: Flink has recently gotten several commissions, and his Twin Cities–based company is increasingly touring beyond Minnesota’s borders. His wide-ranging vision and philosophy of hyper-engagement have brought BLM from the concert stage to science laboratories and the viral upper echelons of the internet.

Flink, who holds a law degree from Stanford University, sees his work as an attempt to “manifest political statements in the work of the body.” He first began taking dance classes at the University of Minnesota while majoring in political science and women’s studies. After graduating in 1990, he performed with the Limón Dance Company in New York for six years. He eventually moved back home to Minneapolis to work with the Farmers’ Legal Action Group where he approached social justice issues through problem solving. He also sees choreography as a set of problems to be solved. Flink, who had started making dances in New York, continued creating his own work at Stanford and while teaching men’s and partnering classes at the U of M. In 2004, he left his career in law to become director of the dance program and later chair of the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance at Minnesota.

Above: BLM dancers in HIT; Photo by V. Paul Virtucio, Courtesy BLM

Flink launched BLM in 2005. He named the company after generic food brands because of their no-nonsense way of communicating: “I liked those unrelenting black and yellow labels saying exactly what’s inside—like ‘peas’.”

Since the beginning, he’s collaborated closely with Emilie Plauché Flink, his partner in dance and life, with whom he has three daughters. As an artistic associate at BLM, Emilie performs with the company and often directs rehearsals. She brainstorms with Carl and provides “a different voice, a different approach,” she says. “Carl has the big picture in mind, and I’m the detail person who wants more of a road map.”

Flink calls his 10 dancers (several of whom are U of M graduates),  “movers.” He likens them to surfers trying to find ease riding natural forces they can’t control. Each mover must figure out how his or her body works in the dynamics of the material Flink creates, whether it’s complex partnering or falling, colliding, rebounding.

This approach is part of why Flink has become an appealing collaborator for scientists. Biomedical engineer David Odde worked with Flink to develop “bodystorming,” a technique for scientists and dancers to model scientific theories, such as embodying the tumultuous function of particles in a cell. That led to a dance entitled HIT that explores the impact of bodies colliding and finding, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune put it, “the unexpected poetry within aggression.”

Flink is determined to bring dance to diverse audiences. In 2011, BLM and John Bohannon, a Science magazine correspondent and the founder of the annual Dance Your Ph.D. contest, performed “A Modest Proposal” during TEDx Brussels. The 11-minute presentation examined ways that dance, science and communication could intersect to become an alternative to the dominant medium of PowerPoint. When posted on the main TED website, the video went viral.

The success of “A Modest Proposal” led to BLM working with Bohannon and the Minneapolis band Jelloslave to create a new presentation for the 2012 TED: Full Spectrum conference. Called “Let’s Talk About Sex,” it discusses the evolutionary nature of sex and how to explain it to young people. Later that year, Flink’s award-winning choreography for a Twin Cities production of Spring Awakening took some of those ideas to embody adolescent passion and pain, with dancers literally bouncing off of the walls.

Flink demands an extreme intensity from his dancers; there is no marking in his rehearsals. “On the one hand there’s the excitement of dancers moving around in risky and exhilarating ways and pounding on each other,” says Flink. “But by the end it’s about survival.”

John Bohannon with BLM at TEDx Brussels; Photo by Bill Cameron, Courtesy BLM

During a rehearsal last September at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in Minneapolis, Flink began a new piece by asking the dancers to create duets based on touch and an “oozing” movement phrase he had taught them. “Can we just see the rawness of where you are?” he asked. Five couples showed a fascinating range of fluid athleticism with hints of aggression, humor, menace. Flink then suggested structures, such as having the group surround a duet and shadow the pelvis of one dancer to create a surging group dynamic. By the end of the hour dancers were orbiting the central couple at full speed, or crowding in, forcing the pair to break through them. “Carl allows us to try things without any kind of judgment,” says Baker. “He honors what we come up with and then he shapes it.”

His young company members have taken to Flink’s work voraciously. “They’re so rabid in their desire to move and be challenged,” says Flink. “When I walk into rehearsal, I’d better have my work boots on.”

Linda Shapiro is a Minneapolis-based writer.

 

PLAY VIDEO of BLM’s TED talk appearance at ted.com/talks.

 

New Works Coming Up

Projects in 2014 include two premieres for the company’s Cowles Center performances March 27–29, a work exploring phases of touch and another inspired by the transition of Venus across the face of the sun. Flink will set or create a work at the University of Utah this month, and BLM will travel to the University of North Texas in April to perform “A Modest Proposal” and other pieces. Then Flink creates a work for American Dance Festival students that will premiere in July, with the working title An Unkindness of Ravens. July also includes a remount of Flink’s Wreck (2008), about a shipwreck on Lake Superior, at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. See blacklabelmovement.com.

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