People often assume that dancers refine their craft through a choreographer’s voice or under a director’s judicious eye. But in the quest to realize someone else’s vision, dancers can lose track of their own. They sometimes reach a point where narrowly defined roles as dancers no longer serve their artistic goals, and they have to leave the company’s security in order to discover their own identities.
Such was the case when dancers Nicole Johnson, Nathan Griswold and Sean Nguyen-Hilton came together about five years ago to create a safe space to discover their individual creative voices.
“When you’re in these dance companies, a lot of times, you’re kind of isolated as a dancer, and you’re labeled as a dancer,” Johnson said. “And you start to believe that’s all you are. I needed to believe in myself, that I had valuable ideas.”
Building on bonds of friendship that went back to their youth, the three quickly found they enjoyed creating work together. They didn’t form a traditional dance company — there is no performance season, no set roster of dancers and no single director calling the shots. Rather, they formed an artists’ collective, curiously named Fly on a Wall.
“The name was about what kind of work would you do without a viewer?” Griswold said. “You’re compelled to make the art. Then the viewer is a fly on the wall, someone that comes in and looks at it from a different perspective and sees it from different angles but knows it’s going to be something that is genuine.”
The three dancers have built an impressive repertoire of original works and have earned a reputation for choreographic invention, creative risk-taking and conceptions that challenge the intellect and surprise the eye.
The once-itinerant trio has also found a studio home at East Point’s Windmill Arts Center, and as they dig into the space they’ve long dreamed of, they are reimagining their 2015 work, Byte. The dance-theater piece will share a program with George Staib’s Moat, November 30 to December 2, as part of the new Uncaged Community Dance Festival, now underway at 7 Stages.
Set to newly commissioned narration by Stephan Armleder (a.k.a. the Genevan Heathen) with a sound score that evokes the speed of contemporary media, Byte explores the world of smarmy, tongue-in-cheek radio talkshow hosts and ways in which people project different personae as they move through various relationships in life.
It’s fitting that Byte will be Fly’s first performance after finding a home at the Windmill. The piece’s original iteration opened the community’s eyes to what they were doing. ArtsATL critics Kathleen Wessel and George Staib wrote that Byte “crystallized (the) young group’s rightful place in the Atlanta dance scene.” The new version of Byte will bring in dancers Noelle Kayser (an Atlanta native now based in Chicago who was named one of ArtsATL’s Maker’s Dozen artists to watch in 2015) and Jimmy Joyner of Nashville.
The piece juxtaposes balletic movements with a solo that depicts a man who is shattered, Johnson said, and “crumbling in on himself.” At times, the three move as one body, projecting different aspects of one personality.
At Byte’s heart is the question, “Are we just a collection of voices, masks, and identities, or is there a genuine self?”
It’s an apt question for the three founders of Fly on a Wall. When they first came together, Johnson — who had danced with Atlanta Ballet and Lauri Stallings’ glo — sought to develop her own choreography and participate in more facets of production. Griswold had just spent three years dancing with ballet companies in Germany. He’d been immersed in the rich experimental dance and theater scene there and wanted to bring that level of risk-taking and inquiry to Atlanta.
Nguyen-Hilton had danced several years with a Chicago-based contemporary repertory dance company. He then sought work in the companies of Karole Armitage and Stallings. “After exploring that more focused, one voice,” Nguyen-Hilton said, “I realized the voice that I wanted to be the agent for was my own.”
In the Windmill’s storefront studio on Church Street, sunlight shined through floor-to-ceiling windows at a recent rehearsal as Johnson, Griswold and Nguyen-Hilton worked to revise Byte. The atmosphere was playful but focused, and there was laughter at times, owing partly to Byte’s humor and sense of the absurd. The three consulted a large storyboard where they posted ideas, moved them around, then “sculpted” them by pushing and prodding, asking unexpected questions from each of their perspectives. Once they mutually agree on an idea, Johnson said they “build physicality” around it.
It is a unique collaborative approach.
“An idea comes into the room, and the three of us are very different people, and so we all look at things from different perspectives,” Nguyen-Hilton said. “Because of that, the work got bigger than us and was outside of us, and we were able to say, ‘Hey, come and look at it from over here,’ which revealed a whole new section of the work.”
In some ways, this shared process tapped the group’s collective dreams. Long before they moved into the Windmill last summer, visions of houses and homes materialized in the group’s work in surprising ways.
In the 2015 installation Daisy, Johnson and Griswold pedaled a tandem bicycle, which powered a light bulb in a sheltered section of a gallery, creating a homey sense of enclosure. In Dust House, the three ventured inside a long-vacant West End house while four filmmakers framed their dances through different lenses. They showed their films in a gallery around the corner from a former castor factory, where Fly papered the space in white from floor to ceiling, setting the stage as an all-white living room where they danced and invited audience members in. Even their tagline, an “Idea House” for innovative performance, suggested an intellectual home before they had a concrete one.
“I was thinking of fashion house, like house of Versace,” said Nguyen-Hilton. “It’s a creative house with an aesthetic and an openness for ideas and the acceptance of individual voices inside of that house.”
Fly brought additional artists into some of its projects and began to offer morning classes when they happened to have access to studio space. Though they’d gained a following, they still didn’t have a home and continued to schlepp equipment from one raw space to the next, cleaning, installing, dancing and moving out — in one case, just before the building was blown apart.
Then one evening last spring, long-time friend and colleague Sarah Hillmer called Nguyen-Hilton, urging him to visit a space in East Point.
Hillmer had found the Windmill Arts Center after an exhaustive search for affordable studio space for ImmerseATL, her expanding pre-professional dance training program. She met Windmill owners Sam and Liz Ross, instantly connected with their vision and knew Fly on a Wall would be a natural fit.
During the early 1990s, Sam Ross had cofounded a theater company in Duluth, which became the Aurora Theatre under subsequent owners. Like the artists of Fly, Ross was classically trained in his craft. He’d spent about 15 years working in the film and television industry in Los Angeles, where he cofounded Vanguard Repertory Company with his wife, Matthew Burgos and another partner. The group produced original new works and adaptations — like Fly, deeply researched and carefully honed. But after five years of producing critically acclaimed work, Vanguard, too, was without its own rehearsal space.
After the couple returned to Atlanta, they decided Vanguard Rep would never go without space again. They poured their life savings into renovating a service station and repair shop on Church Street in East Point. Then they looked to fill it with like-minded artists.
Hillmer recognized Fly’s and Vanguard’s similar missions and helped connect them.
Having a home base speaks to Fly on a Wall’s increasing stability and capacity to contribute more fully to the community, with fewer hassles and access to more funding. The facility offers studio space for community classes, rehearsals and events, and the 88-seat black box theater allows them to integrate lighting design into their creative process much earlier than usual and host in-process showings.
Nguyen-Hilton has started the Eye Level discourse series focused on issues dancers face. Its first topic, to be discussed again on December 9, is abuse of power in arts leadership.
The trio has also been busy beyond their work with Fly on a Wall. Nguyen-Hilton will debut a new piece this weekend at Kennesaw State University, where he serves as an artist in residence.
Johnson is now collaborating on Vanguard Rep’s new production of a Chekhov play and also performed with The Atlanta Opera and in a theatrical work by Marium Khalid last year. Griswold recently presented the duet Slightly Offstage with dance artist Ana Maria Lucaciu at the Romanian National Theater Festival in Bucharest. Johnson ran the lights.
That freedom to create outside the confines of their organization is important to them and helps spark their creativity.
“What we do with Fly on a Wall I didn’t experience anywhere else,” said Nguyen-Hilton. “Which is, respecting everyone in the room as an equal, and, everyone in the room being able to be their true selves, to contribute to the work without detriment to themselves.”
Johnson has enjoyed redefining herself by “dipping into” all aspects of the creative process, from building a dance floor to choreographing to designing lights. “It’s been a really beautiful journey, getting to know myself through these wonderful people supporting me,” she said. “And having a safe place to explore and discover together. It feels like the first real creative process I’ve been in, and I love it.”