How To Dance Off the EDGE: A Round Table with the ATL Festival’s Local Choreographers

Next week, the Rialto’s Off the EDGE: Revolutionary Contemporary Dance Experience will bring thrilling contemporary dance to stages across Atlanta. Curated by Ilter Ibrahimof of Fall for Dance North and Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre’s John Welker, the festival presents both national and local artists in multiple performances around town. We caught up with Atlanta based artists Nathan Griswold and Sean Nguyen-Hilton of Fly on a Wall, Sarah Hillmer of ImmerseATL, and The Lucky Penny’s Blake Beckham to find out what Off the EDGE means to their companies.

John Welker: The picture I wanted to paint of Atlanta’s dance scene was a few of our companies in various iterations of their life cycle. Sarah Hillmer’s ImmerseATL, which she started in 2017, is the youngest, and she brings a really new, fresh perspective in that she’s trying to fill a gap in the development of a dancer and artist — that space between school and professional. Fly on a Wall is a great example of a group of artists working collectively to create a unique voice. They are mid-life cycle so to speak, in that they only started in 2011, but they’ve had a chance to develop this really wonderful voice. I love their combination of blending various genres and artistic forms in a collaborative format. And then Blake Beckham has been an ambassador to so many of the artists today, including myself. Lucky Penny, Dance Truck, and Work Room, are just some of the ways she’s had a lasting impact here. They’re all looking forward. Every single one of them is asking “What’s the next thing?” But they’re doing so in a way that’s embedded in the present. They’re here, and they’re speaking to themes we all go through in our personal, daily lives.

{Images of Blake Beckham by Jamie Hopper, ImmerseATL by Synapse, and Fly on a Wall by Noelle Kayser and Felipe Barral}

Sydney Burrows: What can you tell us about the journeys of your companies?

Sarah Hillmer: ImmerseATL began in 2017 with a desire to guide emerging contemporary dancers as they navigated the overwhelming road between pre-professional and professional life. I was intent on forming a training platform that put just as much emphasis on shaping the human being as it did on shaping the dancer. As the program grows in its offerings — classes, creations, mentorships, internships, and performance opportunities — cultivating creators and shaping leaders will always remain a priority. The hope for the future is that as we pour into the arts world individuals that are vibrant and wholly engaged – that the arts world itself will be deeply affected by those voices in meaningful, powerful ways.

Nathan Griswold: Fly on a Wall began in 2014 when the three of us (Nicole Johnson, Sean Nguyen-Hilton, and myself) were coming out of more structured “dance jobs.” After spending the first part of our careers being creative, but still very much under the voice of the artist at the front of the room, we wanted to explore our own curiosities with live performance. There was also a shared desire to chase the “what ifs” that took us away from conventional dance ideals. “What if we built a floor suspended with harp string?” or “What if we tuned the entire audience literally to the same wavelength?” Presently, we have several projects that are in the beginning phases. All of us also have our own endeavors that Fly on a Wall supports through our shared experiences and resources. We would love to get several of our shows on the road and create a more stable platform here in Atlanta that can continue to support our ideas and the ideas of our collaborators.  

Blake Beckham: What questions are you asking in your movement practice right now?

Sean Nguyen-Hilton: My practice is concerned with valuing unseen forces as a way to communicate and relate to others in the human experience. This is manifesting in my current project “Public Arcana” which was inspired by my decades long Tarot practice and was redirected to the body as “Physical Divination.” “Public Arcana” investigates the anti-imperialist, non-materialistic implications of investing in unseen forces as a way to relate to one another and glean insight to the human condition. It is a body in a space, responding to intentions of individuals.

Hillmer: My movement practice is driven by engaging, seeing and listening to the artists in the room. I can honestly say it ALL begins with them. The sensations stirred when we are in process together, the response to where they are, and what it is that will challenge and push them forward, drives the questions of where the work begins and goes, how we get there, and why.

Beckham: Right now, I’m thinking about dancing as a ritual practice that gives me access to the internal resources I need to survive, learn and adapt, and continually shift my point of view. I’m interested in the attempt to dance without ambition – that is, improvising with a focus on following my felt experience, inviting sensation in a way that keeps me curious rather than looking for outcomes, answers, and stage-able moments. This feels like chasing down a kind of divine intuition that is much bigger and older than me. My work for Off the EDGE encompasses these ideas and others, like using rhythm as a tool to generate momentum, and in so doing, manifest change; and exploring what it means to endure in a time-bound body.

This is the first solo I’ve made for myself in a very long time (7+ years?), so I’m also investigating myself and the process of coming to know a work in this most profound, intimate way: internally. For many years, my choreographic process has put me in the role of director and facilitator, creating scores for dancers to inhabit and building work very collaboratively. Being alone in the studio is quite different, and often feels shocking. It has put me in touch with some very fundamental questions like: Why do I move? How do I know something with my whole self? How can embodiment make the world of ideas more immediate and more expansive?

Griswold: I am currently trying to let certain things go in my life. There are things that I have been forced to surrender to and notions that I must abandon. This is probably the first time in my life where I have had to really do personal work, not like sit-ups and eat right, but real “look at yourself” shit. I would usually be more inclined to just keep going full tilt ahead with as much stuff to cover up what really needs work. I am thinking a lot about this and it is certainly creeping into my limbs as I am dancing. I am questioning what is necessary and trying to shed the extraneous to get to the bare bones of the actions. I am also questioning what it means to be moving around like I do in the second half of my thirties… What is it that I can still bring to the stage and how do I make that better with my physically realities?

Beckham: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about dance as survival strategy. Does anything about this notion ring true to you? How do you survive and adapt?

Nguyen-Hilton: This is interesting, Blake, because I’ve been thinking of dance as service. I’m questioning now if using dance as an agent for unseen forces as a way to connect with others is something that I am employing as a survival tactic…

Does that spark anything for you? What strategies do you employ in your practice? How does it affirm survival?

Hillmer: On my end, I deeply connect with dance as a way to unlock possibility, and soar — as cheesy as it might sound. The power to delve into an idea, relish in investigation and discovery, and challenge my own notions of boundaries – these things stir freedom, and sometimes quiet satisfaction. Is this the way I have chosen to survive? Is it my way of thriving? Is it my constant in a world of change?

Beckham: Sean, thank you for that phrase “affirming survival.” YES.

My studies in somatics (most recently and intensively, The Feldenkrais Method), have connected me to a curious notion: that, at every moment, my nervous system is organizing my body to ensure survival. In a way, every choice we make, every way that we move, is an adaptive strategy and evolutionary nudge. I find that to be a really fascinating idea to live with.

Also, surviving as an artist is really fucking hard. Like, challenging in ways that just get more intense and profound as I age (I look forward to turning 40 this year). Given that, I often ask myself: What am I doing? There is a strong and enduring feeling I have that I need dance. I need to know that I can move to change the way I feel, to shake off oppression, to find connection with others, to stir energies, and broaden my thinking. So, yes, movement affirms my survival and reminds me of my resilience, which is something I can feel in my ongoing dance with gravity.

Griswold: Survival… Yeah, there is almost a scavenging that takes place when you are trying to survive as an artist. Not just the “make ends meet” part but also in what you need to take with you and what you have to leave behind. If things get too heavy then there is this struggle of whether to leave them or set up camp around them. There is also this need to leave safety to go and get what you need on a routine basis. (You can tell I’ve been watching too many post-apocalyptic shows lately.) I am sure there is more to this thought but then I will have to start talking about zombies or something…


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Off the EDGE: Revolutionary Contemporary Dance Experience runs 2/28 – 3/2. Click Here for the full festival schedule and tickets. 

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