Sara Butler | Editor
“Something’s going to happen.” That’s one of the phrases City Heights resident and long-time dancer Erica Buechner is known for when experimenting with choreography during classes.
Buechner, who also teaches dance and choreographs musicals at Francis Parker School, said her work is inspired by exploration and playing with a concept, without fear of failure or the unknown. When she received the coveted Creative Catalyst grant from The San Diego Foundation last April, Buechner had no idea what the project would morph into.
Every year, five local artists and their nonprofit sponsors receive $20,000 grants from The San Diego Foundation Creative Catalyst Program, which seeks to enhance San Diego’s arts community and support its professional artists while engaging the public. Buechner was one of the five selected by a committee of local partners, community leaders and art experts for the 2018 Creative Catalyst Grant Cycle.
Katie Rast, the director of community impact at The San Diego Foundation, said these grantees “work with the community to create works that prioritize civic engagement and increase opportunities for San Diegans to experience arts and culture.” The funding is intended to connect the community with the local art scene, engaging the public and making arts and culture more accessible.
“Erica [Buechner]’s project brings together professional dancers and non-dancers, including individuals from the San Diego refugee community, to tell stories through dance,” Rast continued.
With the help of Lynn Susholtz and Nikki Dunnan of Art Produce, Buechner held a series of free dance workshops and invited the community to participate. They hosted seven of these classes at age 55-plus housing communities, North Park Senior Apartments and Iowa Street Senior Housing, in June and July 2018. Four more were held at the Art Produce Gallery on University Avenue in January and February 2019. All ages and abilities were welcome.
“I brought the people [at the workshops] through this choreographic process that I’ve been developing for the last few years.” Buechner said. “I have always loved using words as the starting point of movement and I have defined the way I like to use it more and more over the years.”
“We would write a little story down, or a statement down — I gave different prompts,” she continued, adding that they then visually represented these stories and statements through her movement technique to create short, 30-second routines, or “dance phrases.” After creating the works, they would get together as a group to share, talk about, and record the routines.
Though this style is a specific choreographic process with certain rules, Buechner granted the community dancers freedom to experiment with the prompts and develop work that was meaningful to them. Her goal was simple — “to create art together, through our bodies.”
On Feb. 28 and March 1, Buechner invites the public to “underlie,” a production that explores individual stories through movement-based mediums. The community workshops were the springboard for the three-day event, which will take place at North Park gallery Art Produce from 7–8 p.m. each evening, with an additional 9 p.m. show on Friday.
“[The show] all came from this choreographic process using words, using stories, and how do we take those stories and turn them into movement,” Buechner said.
The one-hour event is loosely separated into two parts. For the first 30 minutes, attendees can drift through the gallery’s three rooms, which have various installations derived from or inspired by the workshops.
Two videos stream throughout the evening. One is an edited compilation of snippets from the workshops, the other is a project called “Scar Stories.” For the latter, Buechner asked the public to write a short story about how they got a scar, and then had professional dancers create “abstract movement-based recreations” based on these experiences.
In addition, eight community dancers ranging between age 16 and 70 (including a woman who is seven months pregnant) will perform original 30-second dances at ‘underlie’ that stemmed from the statements they crafted. Though the choreography is set, the timing and frequency of the performances will be fluid and improvisational.
“They are creating their own statement — they are creating their own story through movement,” she said, referring to the “dance phrases” community members will perform.
The second half consists of a staged show performed by five, local professional dancers. They will present a composed piece by Buechner — a polished version of the creative ideas and raw choreography developed at the workshops.
“The purpose of [the composed piece] is to let the audience see the progression of the project and how it started from words, it turned into these community workshops, and the choreographic process that we used … how you take all of this information and all of these ideas and put it into a professional work,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges for Buechner was deciding out how to incorporate all of the various community elements into a limited, one-hour window. Even now, a week out from the show, new installations are still being worked into the show, such as a Google Voice project.
Though the process was challenging and overwhelming at times, Buechner said she is proud of what she was able to accomplish with the public this year.
“Whether or not people like the show or it’s engaging as an audience member, I feel like I have fulfilled in some way what this grant is meant for, because I’ve definitely pushed myself out of my comfort zone as an artist and what I would normally put together,” she said.
—Reach Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Editor’s note: Due to rain forecast, the performance scheduled for Saturday, March 2 has been canceled and a second Friday 9 p.m. show has been added.]