Palo Alto-based High Release Dance Company has been producing shows and performing around the Bay Area for almost 20 years. But get this: No one is in charge!
High Release Dance is basically a choreographic collective. With no single artistic director calling the shots, the inspiration that meets these dancers at every turn in their personal lives always has an outlet. Because each dancer is also a choreographer, the revolving pieces that create her inner life–from music to books to emotionally charged challenges in life–can be shared artistically with fellow dancers and audiences alike.
But the advantages are equally balanced for those performing in someone else’s piece. Each choreographer brings a different style, mood, and spirit to her piece, which challenges dancer I-Heng McComb to “expand [her] dance horizons” and leave her “comfort zone.” Dancer Natasha Carlitz agrees, saying that “sometimes I feel stuck in a rut, but hearing different kinds of music … can stimulate unexpected ideas and emotions.”
For those like Tracey Stanelun who aren't “big fan[s] of performing,” knowing the choreographer as a friend and peer means that not only does she have intimate knowledge of her vision, but also a compelling reason to “get past the fear of messing up” and focus on the successful execution of the piece.
However, a democratic system such as this does come with setbacks. With everyone’s opinion equally considered, decisions often take longer to make. Producing shows around the Bay Area can be costly, and the dancers must often take additional time away from their careers and families to tackle otherwise costly roles such as video editing, graphic design, and outreach.
Some obstacles aren't so easily defined and quelled. Sometimes there’s disagreement over the choreography or music, sometimes it’s the choreographer’s process that’s questioned. Other times it’s the content that causes schisms. Pieces that deal with “deaths, illness, addiction” can “drain you emotionally,” Virginia Bock says, “knowing the choreographer and what they are going through… it’s hard.” When a piece has more than its fair share of challenges to overcome, questions like, “Can I express and communicate something that really isn't me?” become front and center for dancers like Carlitz.
But ultimately what keeps the company together is the “supportive, committed, positive” community that these passionate women have created. Their love and dependence on one another, coupled with their need for a stage to express themselves, helps them overcome any differences in opinions and give themselves fully to the choreographer. As Stanelun puts it, “It helps when I remember that I am representing that person’s vision, not what I think their vision should be! Remembering that I may be that person who is choreographing and having people disagree with my choices helps me to be less critical and more open.”
Over long rehearsal hours and get-togethers over food, the pros and cons of a member-run company naturally work themselves out, but for McComb, nothing reinforces High Release’s commitment to a democratic process like seeing audience members “moving in their seats right along with us and not-yet-dancers deciding to take their first dance class after one of our shows.”
With their commitment to the company and one another firmly established, High Release is looking toward the future. Bock hopes to “see more young people continue to join High Release” and for the company to “become more integrated in the community.” For Elizabeth Muller, she’d like to “grow the workshop and invite workshop students to participate in full-length concerts.”
Watch members of High Release dance in their personally choreographed pieces on Friday, May 31, and Saturday June 1, 8pm at the Cubberley Theatre in Palo Alto. You can learn more about the company on their web site -- search for High Release Dance.