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Joshua Rackliffe in Core Dance's if . . . a memoir (Photo by Simon Gentry)

Q&A: Sue Schroeder on Core Dance’s 40th season and the keys to longevity

Sue Schroeder, artistic director of Core Dance, recently brought her contemporary dance company to an art and design center in La Cuisine, France — a relatively unknown destination for the troupe to test-run its new work, if . . . a memoir. As travelers often do, she posted a photo on social media.

“Do you just close your eyes and put your finger on the map to pick a location?” a friend, John McFall, asked.

Schroeder wrote back, “I pick with my heart.”

This far-reaching yet purposeful and intuitive approach has guided Schroeder’s vision through nearly 40 years of challenging norms, deepening personal insights and generating original and unexpected works. This fall, if . . . a memoir will begin Core Dance’s 40th anniversary season with performances in Atlanta November 1 and 2. The company will also perform the work in Conway, Arkansas, and Houston, Texas, in October and again next spring while in residency in Leicester, United Kingdom.

Described as “a love song written for humanity,” if . . . a memoir is a physical theater choreo-poem that draws from early 1950s Beat generation culture using the rhythms and improvisational forms of jazz music and working with methods developed by Anna Halprin. The work takes a holistic view of the world’s urgent situation, showing how concerns about the environment intertwine with imbalances of power and poverty, and how humans may not survive, but the earth will. But the hope in the piece comes from the thought that if we reconnect with the earth and one another, we can create a better future.

It’s part of a season that brings former Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall in for a three-week creative process lab in November and deepens an artistic relationship with Israeli duo Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor with a new commission and tour starting in early 2020. Next spring, in the midst of lunchtime showings, global awareness events, artist forums and community outreach programming, Core Dance performer Rose Shields will make her choreographic debut with an outdoor work titled Manifolds.

Schroeder talked with ARTS ATL about how Core Dance’s upcoming season is part of a continuum of works created through strong bonds with people as well as trust and intuition developed through the very processes she practices.

ARTS ATL: With American Playground, you’ve built a strong relationship with Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor. What is it about their sensibility that resonates with Core Dance?

Schroeder: I think it’s their authenticity. Niv comes from dance, and Oren comes from theater. So, you get a real interdisciplinary blending, and then you add the Israeli perspective — the urgency of being very present. Those are all organizational and artistic values that Core holds to. And we do have quite a few Israeli kindred spirits. Niv and Oren give something very special in the studio, as a unit. There’s a real care. And the three of us — Niv, Oren and myself — respect each other.

I’ll be reading something, and I’ll say to one of them, “I thought about you when I read this book.” And he’ll say, “I was just going to order it.” We’re on that kind of wavelength. We see the artistic process in a similar way so that we don’t have to explain it — but they can color it in a different way than I would.

ARTS ATL: John McFall will conduct a three-week CoreoLab session with your dancers. Considering McFall’s background as artistic director of two ballet companies, that is, in a way, surprising — and in a way, a natural fit. How did that come about?

Schroeder: When John came to Atlanta, he was very embracing. I remember I was sitting by the back door of the old Atlanta Ballet building on West Peachtree Street. He drove up, and we just had an incredible conversation. He was just that guy. He reminds me a little bit of myself, in that there’s an openness to people and to dance. It’s not ego-based; it’s just a “let’s make it happen” kind of thing.

So, our relationship developed over the years as artistic directors. Paige [McFall, John McFall’s wife] became our photographer, and then their kids went to the same school that my kids did. And so, we would see each other, and we just became good humans together, in life.

Before they left, they came to see Core at the Rialto when Amanda K. Miller and I cocreated A World Too Wide. That piece really spoke to them, and they talked to me a lot about the nuances and the human quality of the individual performers and how we crafted that.

Then John contacted me because he wanted to use Josh Rackliffe last spring in the Atlanta Opera piece (Out of Darkness, Two Remain). We worked together and made that happen, and it was thrilling.

John called me last fall, and he said he had a dream, and he had this piece he wanted to create with Core. I suggested that we do a CoreoLab first because that would give us a way to get to know each other and sort through vocabulary and thinking — how the dancer’s mind works and how the choreographer’s mind works — all of that. Then we would look towards whether CoreoLab would lead to this piece he wanted to make.

In early May, he came through town, and we saw each other. We hashed through all the details and contracts. He looked at me and he said, “Can I just do whatever I want instead of my original idea?” I said, “Yes. That’s what this is about. This is about serving you as a creator.”

ARTS ATL: It’s interesting that John McFall lives in both the classical ballet world and the contemporary movement world. At the same time, I’m curious to see how his ideas and aesthetic will mesh with the artists of Core.

Schroeder: Yeah. I think what you’ll see too, though — because he and I had this conversation recently — when he came to Atlanta Ballet, because of his role, I don’t know if he really lost his creative voice, but he had his plate full. Since he has left — and where he has arrived now — he’s found his voice solidly. I think it’s going to be a very interesting time because he’s got a contemporary point of view to art making. Now he’s got a European aesthetic on top of that, and then . . . again, we’re trading books. He’s opening up to different processes that he wants to try.

ARTS ATL: In terms of your sense of time — in planning, it’s like you always have the long-range goal in mind — building on a relationship of 20-plus years and watching it suddenly flower in a whole new direction. What do you think is key to the longevity of Core Dance?

Schroeder: It has to do with . . . I’m a persistent person. I don’t really give up, even when the going gets tough. Most everybody around me would tell you that. The other thing is, it’s about human connections, and they’re for real. I’m not playing politics. I can’t pretend to like you to get whatever else I need to have happen. That’s not who I am, so I live my life as I live my life in all things. So, it’s really the human part of it.

And it’s that building over time and also that you can’t give up on the possibility of making something authentic happen. The artists that are dancing with Core right now, they’re getting so much knowledge that it has to affect the field, not just in Atlanta but beyond.

Rose Shields and PhaeMonae Brooks (foreground) in the site-specific National Water Dance (Photo by Simon Gentry)

So, what are they going to do with it? They get to decide. I keep an alumni list with a couple hundred artists on it after 40 years. Many are art makers still, but many aren’t. They’ll just say, “The practices that we did at Core really affect how I live my life, how I go to meetings, how I interact with people.”

We were just in Poland, at an artists’ retreat. One of the artists that came is a former company member and is now only doing visual art. The first day, we spent time structuring the way we would work together and introducing Core Dance practices. She was weeping at the end, and she said, “I forgot how much you affected us. What I’m doing now is really what I learned from being at Core.” And that’s what it’s about — helping people get there. We’ll come and go, but what’s the next generation going to do with these ideas?

It goes back to taking the artistic practice into your life. I have to trust improvisationally that the piece is going to tell me what it needs to be and how it’s going to come about, and as long as I continue my practice, it will reveal itself.

And so, then I have to do that in all these other experiences. I have to sense and trust that it is either the right way to go, or . . . my hesitation says that this is probably not it. So, let’s take a little bit of a curve over to the left, or whatever, and then, modeling that for another generation. Being able to trust that art matters.