This Dream Team of Dance Artists Created a New Work for Vail's Digital Festival

August 3, 2020

By going all-digital this year, the Vail Dance Festival will finally be able to share with audiences around the world the unique debuts and revivals that have previously only been seen in Vail. But the online festival will include more than pre-recorded footage. On August 4, audiences will be able to view two world premieres, including Mercy, choreographed by Bobbi Jene Smith specifically for the virtual space. Set to a lush classical score by Max Richter, the performance stars Calvin Royal III, Melissa Toogood and Smith herself.

This hauntingly beautiful piece was performed as three separate solos that are skillfully united so that the dancers seem to be in dialogue with each other. Smith’s direction and choreography benefit from seamless editing and creative cinematography by Derrick Belcham. Shot on location in the Rockaways, the dancers perform against the backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean as waves crash, recede and then return in rhythm that complement’s Richter’s score.

Smith’s choreographic process for this piece began by giving her performers three words to physically meditate on: worry, strength and remembering. She then asked them to pick three words of their own that they felt were important within the context of the performance and recent events.

Dance Magazine
sat down by Zoom and email with the three performers to talk about the piece itself, how it was shot and the challenges that the virtual space presents today.

What words did the three of you choose?

: I chose remembrance, persistence and devotion.

I had recollection, worry and yearning.

I had strength, longing and prayer.

What emotions, themes, ideas does the piece inspire in you?

When I was dancing, a sense of longing came over me. I was searching for times that felt less painful and more bright and colorful.

By taking our creation to the edge of the ocean, hearing the waves break and pull out again, it somehow mirrored exactly what each of us were going through on the day of the shoot. It was healing.

I was inspired by Calvin and Melissa. I wanted to create a wide and open space for them to express themselves physically. There was a lot of trust between us. They both carry so many memories and expertise in them. I wanted to create a dance with space for those qualities to be seen and lived in.

Bobbi encouraged me to add on to the material she made for me, which I did, but I then asked her to send me more phrasework from her body so that I would start to become more attuned to her way of moving, creating and seeing. I then danced for her over FaceTime and she gave me more information about how far to explore in certain directions physically and emotionally. Hopefully we can go further in this exploration together in the not too distant future.

A woman in a black dress looks down at her feet at the edge of the waves on a beach
Courtesy Bobbi Jene Smith

Does the piece link back in any way to previous work?

Of course! That’s incredible thing about creativity and imagination. It always feels that one piece leads to the other. Maybe not in the moment of creation but always in retrospect can I see how where I was informs where I am. I am incredibly thankful for everyone I have ever danced with, as I feel they show up in my work all the time. I hope my past is seen in my work as that will guide me into the future.

How did you link the three different contributions together into something “organic” or do they stand independently rather than as one integrated piece?

From the beginning of the process I knew I wanted to represent three individuals that could dance in and out of each other in tone and timing. I had the desire to feel a common goal but confronted from three different perspectives.

I don’t gravitate towards improvisation. I like to try and embody a person’s work first, to hone my instincts for each particular choreographer. The choices I would make for one choreographer wouldn’t be the same as what I’d make for another. I’m a freelancer who has worked with many different people and I like to move between styles and ways of creating.

What did you find interesting about creating a piece the virtual space in this way?

: I was really looking forward to being back at Vail this summer. Damian Woetzel had named me the 2020 Artist-in-Residence for the festival! Taking on this position of leadership, being part of the live performances, working with Bobbi on the creation, hosting local community events, and teaching and mentoring the next generation of young dancers who were going to be there was the highlight of my summer. My hope is that everyone who tunes in virtually this year will be that much more excited for when we’re back at it next year!

I think a relevant part of this collaboration is how very “Vail Dance Fest” the project was. It was a fast process, with a mash up of artists not accustomed to working together, but who are all committed professionals excited to make something great. This is the spirit and opportunity that Vail Dance Festival promotes and fosters.