At the Columbia Music Festival Association’s (CMFA) building, just a stone’s throw away from Gervais and Vine and Carolina Wings & Rib House on Pulaski Street, Caroline Lewis is barefoot, dragging her body across a stage and throwing herself into a variety of contortions both in the air and on the ground. Wearing short shorts that show off every defined muscle in her legs (her incredibly toned shape indicates that she must squeeze weight training sessions into her schedule at least four or five days a week), she is completely lost in her piece, despite the noise of drum beats that creep into her rehearsal space from an adjacent room. Sharing a building with other artists sometimes means sacrifice, including juggling schedules and putting up with noisy building-mates. Finally, Caroline steps off the stage and takes a sip from the gallon jug of Deer Park water she toted — evidence that her dance rehearsals are one hell of a workout.
11 other dancers, also dressed in baggy clothing more likely to be seen in a gym than in a traditional dance studio, practice moves silently on the dark floor space below the stage. It’s then their turn to practice. The stage becomes taken over by powerful jolts, athletic jumps, flexed feet and emotion-charged movements. It’s the kind of dance you’d see in any given rehearsal space in New York City, but for Columbia, it’s rare.
Caroline, 27, is the artistic director for Unbound, a contemporary jazz dance company that unveiled their first show during the first weekend in October, and Caroline and her dancers hope their performances will change the way Columbia thinks about dance. With typical local dance companies putting on “been there, done that” classical ballet performances, Caroline and her co-director, Susan Dabney, decided Columbia was ready for something a little more edgy and unique.
“Caroline wants to show Columbia a whole new way of moving,” Susan says. “Artistic directors have an obligation to teach their audiences what dance is. They’ve seen Dracula and Swan Lake, but they haven’t seen what dance can be. It’s not just pointe shoes and tutus.”
Caroline began her dance career at age three by taking classes at Irmo’s Southern Strutt dance studio and became a “competition kid” trained mainly in jazz but also in other idioms including tap and lyrical. With her talent and love for dance taking precedence over every other aspect of her life, Caroline moved to New York City at age 17 to dance professionally. She landed dance roles in commercials and music videos while attending classes and working as a personal trainer (“We all have to have other jobs as artists,” she says). After six years, she decided it was time to come home. “The city gets to you,” Caroline says on why she left New York City. “It was a combination of things.”
Back in Columbia, Caroline began teaching dance at Southern Strutt and dance conventions for NUVO — a national, New York City-based company that holds dance conventions, workshops and competitions in cities across the country. In May of this year, Caroline teamed up with Susan, whom she had known since her early days at Southern Strutt, to finally launch what they had been discussing for a while — their own contemporary dance company in Columbia.
31-year-old Susan is the yin to Caroline’s yang. With a totally different body type and style (Susan’s tall, slender and trained in classical ballet), the two dancers compliment one another well. “Susan and I are like fire and water,” Caroline says as she describes their differing techniques. But before they could get to the actual dancing part of their new company, Caroline and Susan had to establish themselves as a non-profit organization.
“There was a lot of boring paperwork,” Susan says. Once that was over, they got to the fun (but daunting) part of holding auditions. They chose a star-studded team, and while many of the dancers had performed in markets larger than Columbia, they all had one thing in common: The desire to share spectacular dance with this city.
One member, Lauren Lanford, is a native of Allen, Texas and says she wanted to get out of her home state for school. She chose the dance program at the University of South Carolina (she’s currently a junior there), but found that the program offered few opportunities involving jazz, her style of choice. That’s why Unbound sounded like a choice opportunity. “I didn’t want to be a tree or a swan, and this gives me an outlet to perform in my element,” she says. Irmo native Leah Brinkley grew up taking classes at Southern Strutt and competing; she later moved to Los Angeles and worked as a cruise ship dancer, then had an epiphany during a visit home for the holidays. “I realized that I wanted to stay and teach at Southern Strutt,” Leah says; Unbound provides even more fulfillment for her. And for Jessika Harlin, who began her dance career as a ballerina and traveled to China to perform after discovering her love for jazz, Unbound is a chance to perform contemporary jazz without leaving Columbia.
Once Caroline and Susan selected the 10 dancers they felt would mesh into a masterpiece on stage, they began rehearsals. But in no way would rehearsing take over their dancers’ lives. “We decided that we would not interfere with anyone’s work life or studies, and that we would pay all our dancers,” Caroline says. Fortunately, they’ve been able to save a few dollars by using CMFA’s space free of charge, which allows them to fit dancers’ payments into their budgets. Adds Susan, “We want to make sure that everyone can get an education and not have to quit dancing.”
Unbound’s first show, Ourselves Unbound, really was unlike anything Columbia had ever seen. Unpredictable, abstract and thought provoking, the show comprised 11 pieces fully choreographed by Caroline, each of which conveyed a different emotion. On the stage sat three large wooden boxes, painted black on the outside and marigold on the inside, which the dancers bravely climbed on top of and stepped inside of without missing a beat, as if the boxes were shadow boxes and the dancers were the keepsakes within. Dancers uniquely utilized each corner of their space — they grabbed onto the curtains, sat on the edge of the stage and even ran down the steps into the audience’s seating area.
The show began with a group dance that allowed each character to introduce him or herself. Dancers flowed in and out of formations and some were lifted high into the air. At one point, the group sat or stood still as one dancer stepped into the spotlight for a solo dance; as the solo dancer finished, he or she touched a new dancer who then began his or her solo, as if an energy was being passed from one dancer to the next.
In the second piece, Susan poured out the emotion of vulnerability in a solo set to a classical, instrumental version of the song “My Immortal” by Evanescence. “Caroline asked me, ‘What do you normally feel like?’” Susan says when describing how they arrived at the topic of vulnerability. “I said, ‘I usually feel nervous,’ and she said, ‘OK, that’s what it’ll be about.’” The piece was highly lyrical and heavy in reaches and extensions, which gave Susan the chance to show off her gracefulness and flexibility (her 180 degree leg extensions, which she executed while facing the back wall and holding onto a box for support, were phenomenal). Caroline’s solo was all about being madly in love and happy, and was somewhat inspired by the fact that she finally feels she accepts the tragedy she experienced at a young age — losing her mother to cancer. In the piece, she fearlessly danced on top of one of the wooden boxes and lowered herself off of it effortlessly, threw her body into complex twists and turns and completed moves with precision, all with looks of yearning and bliss on her face. “I like for there to be meaning in every step I do,” Caroline says.
Other powerful emotions were explored in the show’s remaining solos, duos, trios and group pieces, such as one male-female piece that expressed a heart-wrenching, common situation — being stuck in a loveless marriage and not having the courage to get out of it. One piece, performed by the women of Unbound to “When I See You” by Fantasia, exemplified the feeling of butterflies a girl gets when she thinks of her lover or love interest. In another, a couple feels lust for one another and longs to be together, but can’t; other themes included basic life struggles, hope and needing other people to survive. While most pieces were performed barefoot, one was executed on pointe — in a non-classical style, of course. Caroline emphasized that the moods conveyed through the dances improve as the show moves along. “For me, the show is about feeling sad, and in the end, realizing it’s all going to be OK,” Caroline explained.
What made Ourselves Unbound unique is the fact that unlike pre-choreographed shows, such as Swan Lake, Caroline’s choreography is specific to each dancer — she wants the moves to match each person’s style and the moods to match the emotions that each dancer can relate to personally. And by breaking down commonly experienced emotions through dance, the dancers broke down the barriers between themselves and the audience, making viewers realize that even professional dancers are just like them.
“It’s very humanistic,” Lauren said. “We break down the wall between the stage and the audience. The show is all about emotion, and when we take a breath on stage, I feel like everyone else will too.”
Costumes, which were donated to the company by local dance wear shop Turning Pointe, were kept simple — form fitting halter dresses, tops, skirts, pants and “booty shorts” in shades of black, grey, dark brown, light brown and tan. The CMFA stage served as an intimate, casual setting for the show, and the only light or sound effects in Ourselves Unbound were voiceovers of quotations that served as introductions to each piece. “If you’re there to see us dance, you’re there to see us dance,” Susan said. “The focus is on us, and it should be on us.” All of these elements made the atmospheric image Caroline had in mind for her show — a relaxed event that guests can show up to wearing jeans and a T-shirt — a reality; they also meshed well with the form of dance.
“I’m still finding my way of moving, and I don’t want to say I’m one thing,” Caroline says of her style. “It’s organic, very physical and wild. I don’t like to feel restricted.”
Caroline says ideas for choreography can come to her at any time of the day. “I see it in my head,” she says, often finding herself recording moves with the camera on her Mac computer. “I usually let the music lead, but I’m trying to let the movement lead,” she adds. “If the music is instrumental, the movement comes first, but if there are lyrics in a song, I choreograph to the words.”
While Ourselves Unbound depicted the company as a group of free, non-technical, abstract dancers, not every show of theirs will be that way. The company plans to perform a cabaret, which would involve choreography that is much more technical, and they have plans to collaborate with local organizations for a variety of shows. They’ve been asked to perform with the USC Dance Company in November and will be joining Terrance Henderson, the artistic director of local dance company Vibrations, to perform in his Dimensions Contemporary Dance Festival in April 2009. A Halloween show in 2009 is also on their agendas. The company’s member roster is also not set in stone, as they plan to hold new auditions prior to preparing for a new show.
“We’d like to perform with local musicians and get local salons to do crazy hair for us,” Susan says of future show ideas. “Maybe we’ll do a cool rock dance show on the street by Blue Marlin.”
Educating the public about the art of dance is obviously a motive of Unbound’s, but the dancers are also using their art for a philanthropic purpose. 10 percent of their ticket sales will go to a charity — for Ourselves Unbound, the portion benefitted the Joan Hightower Lewis Endowment (Caroline’s mother’s endowment fund) for Lutheran Hospice, a ministry of Lutheran Homes of South Carolina. “We want to help the underdog and those who don’t get a lot of press,” Caroline says.
Unbound certainly raises the bar for art and culture in Columbia, but its artistic directors feel the company fills a void more for the dancers than for the residents of Columbia. Often times when someone dances throughout childhood and their teenage years, the dancing stops when work and/or college begins to take over his or her life. Unbound gives contemporary jazz dancers a way to keep dancing without leaving Columbia or putting the rest of their lives on hold.
“Some of us have moved away in the past, but we wanted to come home,” Susan says. “Kids shouldn’t be punished for wanting to stay here — they should be able to keep dancing.”
Unbound is just a baby at this point, but Susan and Caroline have extensive plans for their company’s future. They’d like to save enough money to have a rehearsal space inside a building of their own, host classes and workshops, travel for performances and eventually become a small business and be considered an entertainment company. Susan mentions it would also be great if they could collaborate with other contemporary dance companies by bringing in guest choreographers and sharing their choreography with other companies.
It all began with that first show, which Susan and Caroline hope got the ball rolling in transforming what Columbians think about dance. Now that the members of Unbound have made that first dent in a dance culture that tends to play it safe, they’re ready to take it on full throttle, raging emotions and all.
“We’re starting small, but we have a big picture in our heads of where we want to be,” Caroline concludes.