Creating “Imaginary Worlds”: Catching Up with the ATL Collective Fly on a Wall

Ever dreamt of dancing with a green-eyed dragon, suntanning with a magical mermaid, or whimsically galloping in a garden with a pegasus? On May 3rd, Fly on a Wall is pursuing that dream, partnering with artists from ImmerseATL for “Imaginary Worlds” at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Each creature is actually a sculpture created from plant materials, and the dancers will perform short movement phrases around each creation.

Photo courtesy of Fly on a Wall.

Fly on a Wall was one of the first dance companies I came across when I moved to Atlanta last fall. Although I couldn’t make it to Hz, performed at Atlanta Contemporary this past November, I saw Sean Hilton-Nguyen’s choreography in the Emory Dance Fall Concert, and then again at an ImmerseATL performance. His piece on the Emory students, choreographed to a recorded radio series and using necklaces with metal balls to demonstrate gravity, made me want to see more of his work. I was moved to learn more about this group of genre-bending artists. Sitting down with Artistic Directors Nicole Johnson, Nathan Griswold and Sean Nguyen-Hilton, I now understand Fly on a Wall as much more than a dance company.

“We’ve been starting to call it an ‘idea house’ that presents and supports innovative performance, sort of in the vain of fashion houses that have an overarching vision or aesthetic,” says Nguyen-Hilton of the collective.

“We try to create something that’s a little bit edgy, so it’s pushing boundaries,” reflects Johnson. “We also try to keep things entertaining, which people sometimes think can devalue the work. But I think dance can be thought provoking and push audiences, and also be entertaining.”

With three talented artists working to create genuine movement, while also trying to keep their audiences entertained, it is surprising to learn there is little tension or disagreement. Despite the occasional, natural debate, they run their company smoothly as a perfectly balanced trio. Perhaps this balance is due to their history, with Nguyen-Hilton and Johnson working together with glo, and even earlier as teenagers in competition dance. Griswold and Johnson met in the ballet world during their time in the Atlanta Ballet.

Perspective was a huge point of discussion when the first buds of Fly on a Wall began blooming in 2014. Griswold and Johnson started the company when they realized their urge to create their own work.

At the same that Johnson was looking for the next step in her career, Griswold returned to the U.S. He was moved by the contemporary performance he discovered in Europe, and began searching for the same honest and provacative energy here. About five months after Fly on a Wall was created, Nguyen-Hilton’s schedule opened up, and he joined the team.

Photo courtesy of Fly on a Wall.

“At that point I had worked for so many people as a body, that the urge to work producing ideas rather than being the vehicle for them, solely, became really strong,” reflects Nguyen-Hilton.

When they thought about a name for their group, the concept of perspective immediately came to mind. They liked the voyerism of Fly on a Wall, and felt the importance of making work regardless if anybody watches.

“Our tagline is ‘shifting perspectives,’” says Johnson. “And I think that’s what art does. It helps you see something from a slightly different viewpoint. It’s what we end up doing for each other.”

The artists focus on keeping their movement genuine in the sense that they allow the audience to see both their struggles and their moments of inspiration. Fly on a Wall focuses on creating work for themselves, rather than for the audience. Many of their dancers stop in for class or rehearsal just to move and explore, rather than search for a performance opportunity. While performances are a key part of the company, the artists involved are more fulfilled by the process that takes place within the four walls of the studio.

Although the artistic directors are dancers and choreographers, much of their work is also multi-media, including lighting and set design. Most recently, Griswold choreographed a piece for Creative Hive at Hambidge Center, and Nguyen-Hilton and Johnson designed the set, creating a floating floor with harp strings that were played by the dancers’ shifting weight on the floor. Johnson has also dyed silks and incorporated them into previous pieces. In the upcoming show “Imaginary Worlds,” Griswold, Nguyen-Hilton and Johnson are performing in the work and experimenting with site-specific choreography. It is a different process for them, beginning with the set of the gardens, and then creating movement. Usually, their process is inspired by a thought or a concept.

Looking further into the future, Fly on a Wall will be focusing on long-term projects. “We want to be invested in longer processes so that we can go deeper and find more things inside of each project, so they become more realized,” says Nguyen-Hilton.

Working with a team of collaborators (who are yet to be announced) to explore a new concept, a much larger work is slated for the spring of 2019. Meantime, Nguyen-Hilton insists that there will be smaller projects popping up as well.

But perhaps the most exciting news from Fly on a Wall is that soon, audiences will no longer have to chase them around Atlanta. While they can’t give any details away quite yet, Fly on a Wall will have a home starting this August. Until then, you can catch this trio dancing in the gardens. Of “Imaginary Worlds,” Johnson says, “I hope that with each of the different vignettes that we’ve created around the mythical creatures, people will find pieces of their past inside of that and things to relate to.”


Fly on a Wall will perform at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens on Thursday, May 3rd at 6:00pm. Click here for more information.

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