Ondine Geary, the organizing force behind the modern dance collective Breeding Ground, sits perfectly erect and cross-legged on the floor of the group's rehearsal space in First Congregational Church on South Cooper. She is calm and soft-spoken. The space she has defined so perfectly is relaxed and compact. The dancers gathered around her are not nearly so neat -- sprawling, stretching, and bending with a quiet seriousness.
"I've worked in restaurants all my life," Geary says meditatively. "And whenever I told people in the restaurant I was also a dancer, they always assumed I was a stripper." The comment elicits a bemused groan from the other dancers, and they begin to stretch their eyebrows as rigorously as their hamstrings.
"I'd love to get to the day when that's not the case," Geary says. "But there are a lot of people that don't know anything about dance or about the achievements of [Memphis groups like] Ballet Memphis, or Project: Motion, or Metal Velvet, or " With assistance from the other dancers, she ticks off a list of influential modern groups that have performed in Memphis over the past decade. Breeding Ground is Geary's attempt to carry on the tradition while raising the profile of modern dance in Memphis at a grassroots level. It is her attempt to bring some fresh air to what she believes is an insulated dance culture and to share the experience of dance with anyone who has an interest in learning and well, nothing else really. An interest in learning is all that is required.
"Breeding Ground doesn't think of itself as another dance company," Geary says, "but as an organization to support dance. So it's not another faction, and hopefully, we can help blend those lines between Project: Motion and the Memphis Dance Group, the University of Memphis and Ballet Memphis." Putting her money where her mouth is, she adds, "Breeding Ground offers classes for free. Well, or for donations."
Though the group has been performing from time to time for almost a year, Breaking Ground, a dance concert opening at TheatreWorks this weekend, marks the group's official debut. The multimedia affair is the result of a dance workshop which began last October. During the course of the workshop Breeding Ground held open-to-the-public rehearsals and invited other dancers and choreographers to comment and promote a dialogue.
"It helps us to really evaluate what we are doing," Geary says, and the other dancers mumble their agreement. And then she returns to her mantra: accessibility. "Why are we saying these things if nobody understands what we are saying?" she asks. "And is there a way to communicate what we are trying to do more effectively? It was sort of the thing in modern dance, for a while, to be vague and esoteric. To give no sense of meaning. It's sort of like modern art when everyone was stripping away the need to have meaning so as not to cloud anyone's perceptions of the art. But I'm interested in taking a step away from that. To reveal what our intentions were so that the process of watching dance is as meaningful as the process of creating it." So, for the record, Geary is anything but a stripper. If anything, she's about adding more layers.
"Modern dance has a leg up on all the other art forms," she says. "I think people think of forms like ballet and opera as sort of the upper-echelon [art]. Modern dance is more pedestrian. It's movement and emotion and everyday qualities of life. It's not all fairy tales. It's not about escaping. It's getting down to the nitty-gritty. But dance as a whole struggles with 'How are we communicating what we are communicating?'" To help with the communication problem, Breeding Ground will be using documentary footage of their process, a process that has involved open collaboration with the public, video artists, photographers, and musicians, including a trumpet player named Nahshon Benford,whose sound is reminiscent of a young Miles Davis.
"People understand TV," says Breeding Ground dancer Natalie Ragland. "So if you put us on video talking about what we are doing, people can understand it. They can get information out of that box, then they can see us doing it in three dimensions."
Ragland, a veteran Memphis dancer, is encouraged by other aspects of Breeding Ground as well. "I'm so tired seeing dance in Memphis that is all white women about our age," says the fair-skinned twenty-something. "Finally we have African Americans, we are multigenerational. And that's inclusiveness. That's one way [dance] becomes accessible. Because then it's not all the same."
"What we don't want to do," Geary says, "is to establish a core of dancers or musicians or anything to make something that is impenetrable in any way."
Breaking Ground, Friday-Sunday, May 16th-18th, at TheatreWorks