Over FaceTime from her home in Minneapolis, choreographer Vanessa Voskuil talks in layers and loops about the piece she's creating for this summer's American Dance Festival. She moves her phone in a spiraling motion that tracks with her speech, landing on thematic words that gather momentum in their likeness: authenticity and sincerity, fluid and freeform.
The conversation resembles a choreographic investigation, which is apt, given Voskuil's approach to her new work for the Footprints program, where choreographers set work on ADF students. In this case, however, "set on" isn't quite the right term. When Voskuil holds auditions, she's looking for performers who are demonstrably called to the work.
"I approach it as if they are choosing their path, rather than 'I want you because you have these certain types of qualities,'" Voskuil says. She proposes a way of working in which everyone becomes "their own maestro within the work." The ensemble members will learn one another's personal and movement backgrounds while figuring out how to function together as a community; they will also compose a manifesto.
Festival audiences from 2013 might remember Gates, Voskuil's prior Footprints commission. She incorporated elements of that piece into The Student (2014), which brought together one hundred seventy Minnesotan actors, dancers, vocalists, and community members. Voskuil still circles around ideas explored in The Student and throughout her fifteen-year-long repertoire—listening, awareness, self-knowledge, and wisdom—but sees this new work as emerging from a "more relaxed" place. She's seeking a creative practice that can sustain, rather than deplete, artists' resources, which modern dance training doesn't always encourage.
"A lot of my work in the past has been about degradation, or the splitting of the self," Voskuil says. "The Student ... was all about walking backward. This one, I think, is all about walking forward and seeing."
In addition to Footprints, Voskuil's work is also filed under ADF's Out-of-the-Box series, in which artists make use of performance spaces outside of the traditional proscenium, not unlike what we've seen in recent years from independent organizations like DIDA and Culture Mill. Voskuil chose Duke Gardens, following several other festival faculty and featured artists who've staged work amid the magnolia trees.
Voskuil is fiercely intentional about site. While preparing The Student for a theater with several exits, she integrated them into the performance. But working outdoors presents a challenge. As Voskuil says, "you're competing with the world." But on the flipside, it invites a "total collaboration"—with the birds, the wind, and passersby.
The performances, which are free, will incorporate specific areas of the gardens where, Voskuil says, audiences will "gather and then travel," literally and figuratively processing the work together. This notion is central as Voskuil continues to develop the still-untitled piece.
"One image that keeps coming back to me again and again is this conjuring of people into one area of one little nook and cranny of this world," Voskuil says. "I love the image of ... people coming from all over the place. I keep thinking that will be a final image inside of this work: walking forward."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sustainable Resources"