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A democratic experiment in dance

Most dancers get used to thinking like a Google map. A choreographer gives them a starting point and destination, tells them the route he wants them to follow, and they make the trip with precise accuracy.

Dancers in Human Triptych Collective are more like a Jackson Pollock painting. Ideas squirt out at planning sessions and get spattered across the philosophic canvas. And when they’re finished, they’ve produced a work of art of the kind hardly anyone has seen before.

You’ll get your chance Thursday and Friday at The Chop Shop, the third locale in NoDa where they’ve blazed a trail. The revised version of “Telepresence,” which premiered last December at Evening Muse, will again be done with live music and projected visuals in a 90-minute show. (The “triptych” in the name refers to music, dance, and the performance spaces, which they redefine at each venue.)

This piece looks at ways – good and bad – that technology affects us, often without our awareness of it. It’s not negative: Artists who use technology so inventively aren’t haters. And when you watch even 45 minutes of a rehearsal, you can see a collaborative difference.

Collaboration in motion

Eric Mullis, tall and dancer-slim (though not a dancer) and bearded like an Old Testament prophet, alternates between his laptop and a sound box that plays a cross between free jazz and electronica. (Mullis, a vibraphonist in the band, acts as an organizer and promoter.)

Dancers share advice or criticism. “That piece was much quicker,” one observes. “We’ve gone back to the self-indulgent pace.” Another tells a partner, “As you’re doing your phrase, make it an awakening. You can feel yourself for the first time.”

What an interloper might take for creative chaos seems natural to the six dancers. And when someone on the floor remarks, “We have to create a confusion whirlwind here,” the others laugh. In this troupe, fusion comes out of confusion.

Even the birth of the collective was a fortuitous accident.

Mullis, an assistant professor of philosophy at Queens University of Charlotte – and, at 35, easily the oldest member of HTC – was playing around town with the band Actual Proof and getting to know dancers who attended concerts.

One of them, Mineko Shannon, suggested she and others who had gone through the UNC Charlotte dance program should interpret “Dark Side of the Moon.”

Mullis assembled a 10-piece ensemble from various local bands to play a jam version of that Pink Floyd classic. They joined the dancers and a videographer at Neighborhood Theater last August for “Dancing on the Dark Side.” Suddenly, HTC had become a group.

“None of us saw the bigger vision at first,” says dancer Melissa Word. “We knew Mineko didn’t have money to pay us, and we all had other jobs, so we thought, ‘Let’s just do this (once).’ But audiences ended up loving it, and we realized we were in this for the long haul.”

Experiment in dance

Inexperience proved to be a good thing in two ways. The dancers, all in their 20s, hadn’t become too attached to any performance style. And the audience for live music had seen hardly any dance, so it had no preconceptions to overcome.

“(Making art) in this way is counter-intuitive to dancers,” says Word. “Dancers grow up in a system where one person makes decisions, and the others do what they’re told without batting an eyebrow.

“So this is like a research project for all of us: Can six peers have the freedom to explore ideas together and persuade and explain and reach an agreement about what works?”

Physically, the process can be clunky.

HTC can’t afford to rent a space where musicians and dancers prepare together. So Mullis records music, takes it to a dance studio for rehearsals, gets dancers’ input, shares those new ideas with the musicians, records them again.

But conceptually, things come out. Colton Southworth remembers the task of starting on the first “Telepresence”:

“Eric wrote music and put it online at SoundCloud. The dancers listened to it, gathered at my house, unrolled a long piece of blank paper and wrote out how we saw people moving to different pieces of music.

“We all present ideas to the group, and the ones that are stellar get accepted. Some people get incredibly upset, but in this environment, that’s (allowed to) happen. Then we all come to the rehearsal the next day with clear minds.”

Collective creativity

Southworth has danced in more conventional companies, including Martha Connerton’s and Caroline Calouche’s. Yet, he says, he has “always been an opinionated person. I speak my mind, unless I think that will be offensive. It’s a general curiosity: I like to ask ‘Why?’ ”

That’s the ecstasy of HTC: Everyone may ask “Why?” Of course, as the group matures, somebody has to assume responsibility for the answers.

The make-up has solidified: Blakeney Bullock, Nia Galas and Caitlynn Swett are the other three dancers. The troupe got its first big gift, a $5,000 special projects grant from the Arts & Science Council, after doing the first “Telepresence.”

“They liked us because we had a track record, and because we’re based in NoDa,” Mullis explains. “We used that money to develop the second draft of the show: We were able to buy some ads and not have to put our own money into it.”

HTC must now decide whether to apply for nonprofit status, which would bring formal titles and duties.

It’s planning an October show at Hart-Witzen Gallery with consumption as the theme; Mullis wants to partner with Friendship Trays and Friendship Gardens, and he plans to let dancers express musical preferences the musicians will develop.

One thing probably won’t change: The collective will keep transforming unconventional spaces, sometimes with videos or even sculptures and sometimes just conceptually.

“You have to throw away the things dancers think they need: space to warm up, a sprung floor, a wide stage,” says Word. “When you do that, and you make this work in a space that’s not designed for it, the results can be enthralling. The city has never seen anything like this.”

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