Artists of all disciplines spend time in that grey area between amateur and professional. Climbing from one plateau to the next can be confusing and stressful—unless you have a guide to lead you. Luckily, there are dancers and organizations set up to help others take that leap from studio kid to full-fledged pro.
That is the mission of Symbiosis Arts, a nonprofit organization created by veteran dancers Braeden Barnes and Ryland Early, and the project “Sancta,” a pro-level choreography intensive that culminates with a performance at the Color Club on July 16. Since 2018, the company has been exploring new elements in dance and choreography with the intent to incite a new perspective on art through collaborations with other artists.
With “Sancta,” Barnes, a veteran of companies PARA.MAR Dance Theatre and Visceral Dance Chicago, hopes to foster his love of learning and performing in others. Dancers of various age levels will take part in a creative process with three choreographers—Barnes, Shannon Alvis and L.A.-based Anna Long—to make a collaborative piece, mirroring the rigorous schedule of a professional dance company.
Barnes said in an interview that his goal is to realize a space where dancers are safe to discover new avenues in the art form. “I was thinking about the time off that I had as a dancer during the summer—what could I utilize and take back to my other dancing jobs and companies,” said Barnes. “With ‘Sancta,’ I want to create this intensive where artists can explore, try new things, connect with one another, and take back to where they dance. We focus on learning, collaboration and community.”
Michelle Meltzer, who danced in Symbiosis Arts in their inaugural performance and has stayed on as an organizer for “Sancta,” expresses what sets this event apart. “What makes “Sancta” different from a traditional academic study-class of movement is the way the dancers and choreographers interact with one another within the creative process,” said Meltzer.
As with many performance artists, the Covid pandemic reminded Meltzer of the capriciousness of existence and why programs like “Sancta” are necessary. “The Pandemic brought to light how fleeting time can be; I think that it is important to find the avenues that you are passionate about and follow that. [Braeden] and I are aligned in that passion. We thought that [“Sancta”] would be a great way to be able to bring different members of our Chicago community from their different projects and create a space where we can all be together.”
What does this collaborative choreographic process look like? Thirty-one dancers from ages sixteen to thirty (although no age range is specified) engage in a four-day creative process with the guest artists. “The dancers begin each day with one of the choreographers from ‘Sancta,’” said Barnes. “The choreographer will warm the dancers up however they choose and then go straight into creation. Sometimes it starts with an improv-based warmup, some with a little more structure, but the focus is to engross the dancers in the choreographic language of the guest artists.”
Past performances have focused on a single theme. This year’s performance spices things up with “Flames of the Mountain,” created by Anna Long in January 2023. Long describes the work on Symbiosis Arts’ website as “like Chernabog’s fiery minions in Fantasia’s night on Bald Mountain: an adaptable anarchic sisterhood whose fires burn bright, creative, good, malevolent, ordered and wild, but ultimately don’t shake the balance of the world.” Other works in the program are so far nameless, the creative process lasting up until showtime.
Past work has focused on abstracting meaning from themes like ants in an ant colony in a nameless piece by Francisco Aviña (Lucky Plush Productions, Ron De Jesus Dance) and Noelle Kayser (PARA.MAR Dance Theatre, Visceral Dance Chicago).
The work is described as a confrontational and strong portrayal of a group working together, with fast gestural movements and very concise placement. Meltzer describes the movement as “Dancers like human ants climbing on top of each other, bending backwards and forwards, a complex distribution of weight. They built a hill of bodies and had someone climb up, like an ant climbing up a brick wall.” From a hill of ants to a mountain of fire, the “Sancta” performance promises to present dancing drawn from the heights of the choreographers’ and dancers’ imaginations.
The overall inspiration for both “Sancta” and Symbiosis Arts comes from Ronn Stewart, former dancer with Giordano Dance Chicago and artistic director and co-founder of Foster Dance Studios and Cocodaco Dance Project in Evanston, Illinois, who passed away on September 30, 2017 at the age of 42. Stewart’s motto was “there are no ordinary moments,” and the time that you spend is valuable. Barnes, a devoted mentee of Stewart, hopes to bring that vision to life, letting not another moment slip past him. “We have the time,” exclaimed Barnes, “Why not now!”
Indeed, why not now? In a world that has proven erratic and unpredictable, Barnes, Meltzer and Symbiosis Arts is wasting no time, using “Sancta” as a means of presenting dancers and audiences with an experience unlike any other, one that, like life itself, burns bright then flickers away; but, like lightning captured in a bottle, the experience will shine in the memories of each participant on and off the stage.
“Sancta,” presented by Symbiosis Performing Arts, performs at the Color Club, 4146 N Elston Ave, on July 16 at 5pm (doors open at 4:30). A suggested donation of $20 is recommended (although you can give more!). For more information, visit symbiosisarts.com/sancta.