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When Sue Schroeder cofounded Core Dance with her sister 40 years ago at age 23, no one thought about longevity. The focus was on day-to-day survival. 

“We were young and making dances,” says Schroeder, the company’s artistic director. “The first show there were four of us. We agreed we would share the revenue and share the costs. We made $2 and we each got 50 cents. You don’t think about it in any longstanding kind of way.”

But Schroeder’s vision of a contemporary dance company that explored the human experience and sparked human connection has not only survived but thrived. Core is now based in both Decatur and Houston and performs internationally on a regular basis.

“For me, it’s always seeing the human, the people within the dance, as opposed to a dancer doing something you might be wowed by,” says Schroeder, who received an ArtsATL Luminary Award for Outstanding Leadership in 2018.

Core’s 40th-anniversary season begins this weekend with a new original work by Schroeder, if . . . a memoir, at The B Complex on Friday and Saturday. The season includes Manifolds, the debut choreographic work by Core dance artist Rose Shields in March at Agnes Scott College. And former Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall will oversee a three-week creative process lab in November in preparation for a new work he hopes to mount on the Core dancers. 

Sue Schroeder sits in the Core Dance studios.

Sue Schroeder says “if . . . a memoir”  was sparked by the need for connection in the modern world. (Courtesy Core)

Schroeder began to create if . . . a memoir more than a year ago, working on it in Decatur and at residencies in France and Poland. The piece received its world premiere in an outdoor performance in May in France. It also was performed outdoors in October in Houston and the University of Central Arkansas. This weekend will mark the first indoor performance of the piece.

Described as “a love song for humanity,” Schroeder says the piece is about connection with each other and with the earth. While social media and smartphones bring connection on one level, they have conspired to disconnect us from the traditional methods of human interaction in more meaningful ways.

“What we’re experiencing is the manifestation of disconnect,” says Schroeder. “I really feel we can’t go out and say, ‘I’m going to learn to be empathetic today.’ Life serves you up some experience to ignite that, but I also believe the arts can activate it. So for me, it’s how can I activate an empathetic response from my audiences and begin the conversation?”

Schroeder thinks modern culture also leaves us disconnected from the earth, a connection that humans need to thrive. “In April, I went to one of the concentration camps and saw that they used the ashes of people to fertilize the soil,” she says. “It goes back to that Catholic thing of ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We are literally the earth. There’s no way around it. What we’re experiencing is the manifestation of disconnect.”

At a recent rehearsal of if . . . a memoir, the piece began with Core’s dance artists building a mound of bodies that propped and balanced on one another like a human version of a Rube Goldberg machine. They stayed in that position for a minute or two. Then, one person shifted, and another, and the human tower slowly collapsed until the dancers ended up sprawled on the floor.

The dancers built the mound several times throughout the piece — as though they were trying to come together to connect and support one another — and each time, it collapsed. In between, the dancers interacted in a sometimes frustrating search for meaningful connection. Combined with the often ominous original score by Christian Meyer, the effect was thought-provoking and evocative.

Two dancers rehearse in France for "if . . . a memoir."

Dance artists Rose Shields and Benjamin Stevenson rehearse in France. (Courtesy Core)

“I want the aesthetic of it to be real and authentic,” says Schroeder. “That way audiences can connect to it more. The performers are very vulnerable. It might make some people uncomfortable, but I think that vulnerability can speak to an audience because there’s something real happening onstage.”

The troupe traveled to Poland for a residency in the spring, then stayed an extra week to work on the piece, and Schroeder realized it didn’t encompass everything she wants to say. There will be a second part that she has titled then . . . a memoir.

“I realized there is a part two to this work,” she says. “This piece doesn’t resolve. And I’m starting to figure out what then will be. I eventually want to do them together, back to back.”

The opening of the season has also sparked Schroeder to think about the four decades Core has existed. “I never thought it’d go this long; that was not even a thought,” she says. “I was young, and I needed to do it. The woman I’d danced with and studied under for 10 years, she disbanded the company I was with, and there wasn’t anybody doing dance the way she was doing it. So Core formed itself because of that void.”

The troupe established its Decatur space after five years of performing in Houston because of difficulties securing a rehearsal space. A friend of Schroeder’s offered her the space Core now inhabits by the MARTA station in downtown Decatur, and Core established a headquarters here while still keeping a home base in Houston.

One challenge the company faced initially, Schroeder says, was convincing audiences that dance and contemporary dance matter. A new challenge is staying relevant in an ever-evolving dance world. “When we turned 30, I hit a moment where I had to look at how a 30-year-old organization can still consider itself as new and original,” Schroeder says. “We have a shared leadership model where there’s a lot of voices at the table. That really ensures that there’s always something fresh coming in.”

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