Frank Selby is a painter, but he isn’t painting anything for his partnership with Charlotte Ballet. He’s not a dancer, but he is dancing in “The Seed and the Soil,” which he dreamed up with choreographer Sasha Janes. Well, the concert’s called “Innovative Works.”
That show, which runs through Feb. 21 at McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance, is always packed with premieres. Mark Diamond and Dwight Rhoden will debut pieces titled “Path” and “Peace Piece,” and former dancer David Ingram comes back to his old company with “Píso Sto Midén.”
Janes designed two pieces, because he’d committed to one that had its world premiere at Chautauqua, N.Y., last summer: “We Danced Through Life,” a work commissioned by a woman to honor her late husband. Janes didn’t want to wait a year to introduce “Seed,” so it’ll alternate with “Danced” throughout the run.
Selby was an artist-in-residence at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, Charlotte Ballet’s next-door neighbor, when discussions began last year. Janes had already worked with a McColl artist, Rock Hill sculptor Shaun Cassidy, on his 2009 piece “Glass Houses.” So he was ready for the new pairing, if not for the form it would take.
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“I thought of having him paint something, maybe sketch something live onstage that we could project,” says Janes. “But he was happy to collaborate in a different way, by exploring the idea with me.”
Says Selby, “I didn’t want to have dancers ‘celebrate’ my work by dancing around it. I wanted to see if I could use the vocabulary of ballet to reflect my ideas.”
Selby has a historical bent, and he looked back to MKUltra, a Cold War mind-control project. From the mid-1950s to the mid-’70s, the CIA conducted experiments – “some scientific and some not, some legal and others decidedly illegal,” says Selby – to observe behavior of people subjected to doses of psychoactive drugs.
He brought this idea and the research behind it to Janes, who asked for a storyboard. “I started by just giving dancers some movement and told Frank, ‘I don’t know where this is going.’ I think that shocked him a little,” says the choreographer.
“But he was completely involved from the start, bringing in music by (the alternative band) White Rainbow and suggestions about groupings for the three scenes.” (Janes added music by Korean composer Unsuk Chin.)
Selby had been a youthful gymnast, though never a dancer, and he found himself playing an interrogator in the show. He takes center stage arrogantly, manipulates dancers, shines a light on them as they move through Janes’ designs of desperation, rage and fear.
If the piece has one overriding theme, it’s an idea behind much of Selby’s work: What does it mean to be an individual? What can an observer ever know about a subject, and how much does the subject – who’s afflicted by dreams and mental states – know about himself? (As Selby notes, no two people have identical reactions to doses of any drug, so this experiment could never have worked.)
Though the ballet is not political, it takes place at a time when the world had divided mostly into communists and capitalists at odds with each other, and the Big Brother aspect becomes disturbing. This all happened before Selby drew breath, but he’s used to thinking about the past.
“Almost all my work has to do with historical material,” he says. “(I use) film stills, theater productions and press photography, and a lot of what I make has to do with communication being distorted. This ballet fits right in with that.”