Whitney Jones grew up in the American South, dancing in a Georgia ballet troupe. It was a community so competitive that ballerinas would sneak shards of glass into each others’ pointe shoes. “We would compete to lose weight to fit into a certain costume, because we rented costumes from other dance companies,” Jones says. “If you’re a man you can get in anywhere, but there’s a huge number of women doing dance and ballet. People are cutthroat.”
In comparison, Jones's current troupe might as well be from another planet. The four dancers of Uroboros are sprawled on the concrete floor of Center for Contemporary Arts beneath a series of enormous drawings on paper by Jill O'Bryan. O'Bryan, a New Mexico artist, made the works atop the mesa where she lives, crawling over the sheets to cover them with India ink and coal. For a moment the dancers rest flat on their backs. Then Paige Hunter sits up and quietly proposes an idea. "Go for it!" says Jones.
Hunter rises and bounds across the floor on her hands and feet. Her solo performance represents a new part of the movement they're creating, and it forms in midair as she fearlessly improvises. Were Hunter covered in pigment, the patterns she's stamping out would surely resemble O'Bryan's swirling abstract compositions. Uroboros, founded by Jones, Hunter, Amy Compton and Micayla Duran, is a new performing arts collective with a highly collaborative ethos. Their first performance project, which debuts on Saturday at CCA, has been incubating for weeks among the drawings and sculptures of O'Bryan's solo exhibition, Mapping Resonance.
It's about five weeks before the performance, and Uroboros is conducting its first rehearsal at CCA. They formed in December 2016 as an offshoot of the now-defunct dance company Illumine Performing Arts Collective. All of them are Santa Feans with backgrounds in dance. Duran grew up here, while the other three moved to Santa Fe within the past five years. They met through the dance community: Compton and Jones worked together at Albuquerque's National Dance Institute where Duran took classes and Hunter worked with Illumine as a modern dance instructor. They've been collaborating off and on since then, and the CCA program was a chance to put a new name on it.
"The invitation to do this performance generated the group," says Hunter. "The last group sort of dissolved, and this was an opportunity to try again in a different way. We totally reformed." Hence the moniker Uroboros, a reference to the Ancient Egyptian icon of a serpent consuming its own tail, called ouroboros. The symbol represents introspection and eternal regeneration. Just as a dance lives and dies in a series of moments, so the group plans to endlessly resurrect itself through different projects and collaborations.
"It's a true collective of dancers, sharing responsibility and leadership," says Duran. "We're learning how challenging and beautiful that can be." Compton offered up her warehouse residence off Airport Road as an early rehearsal space for the CCA performance, and they dove straight into the collaboration. They met twice a week for four weeks, each dancer generating ideas inspired by O'Bryan's work. "It's a lot of investigating and curiosity and digging and figuring out," says Compton. "A lot of stuff we think of isn't going to be what we show. That's part of the process to get to the end, and we have to do the work to get there."
Compton's warehouse was just big enough to fit the foursome with their arms stretched out. Now that they're in CCA's Muñoz Waxman space, the dance can significantly expand in volume. The artists wind around O'Bryan's plaster cone sculptures and between long white palettes covered in small ink-and-tea residue drawings. For now, members of Uroboros watch and repeat each other's movements, mimicking the forms and lines of the artworks around them.
Two weeks and a few rehearsals after their first on-site meeting, the group has added sound to their performance. O'Bryan practices a Tibetan breathing and meditation technique called tonglen when she's creating some of her work. Two diminutive sheets of rice paper near the front of the show bear over 44,000 graphite strokes, each mark corresponding with a single breath. A few walls away, a pair of large drawings represents a similarly grueling process: O'Bryan captures the minute topography of New Mexico by draping enormous sheets of paper across the earth and rubbing them with sticks of graphite.
The dancers chant one through ten, pacing through the space in a line. When they reach 20, they stop, spin, and then drop to a sitting position. Scooting across the floor, they start their count again. O'Bryan's rigorous practice has manifested in the sounds and gestures of the group.
"We're trying to create a new paradigm," says Duran. "We're changing it from being a choreographer instructing dancers, to everyone feeling like they have an equal voice. In other forms, you can almost become a puppet for the choreographer."
For Jones, the concept represents a personal revolution. "Modern dance is a totally different animal for me," she says. "I'm so used to the rigor, the structure, and being told what to do. I'm like, 'You don't want me to be perfectly square? You don't want me to be perfectly open?' It's almost more of an inherent feeling of the movement versus a learned feeling of the movement."
The group still has one rehearsal left before Saturday's performance, and there's no telling exactly what the completed movement will look like. The final product is sure to coalesce as naturally as a chorus of breaths.
Uroboros In Response: Mapping Resonance
6:30 pm Saturday March 4. $15-$18.
Center for Contemporary Arts,
1050 Old Pecos Trail,
Santa Fe Reporter