For five years, the Effervescent Collective has been shaking up Baltimore’s dance scene with productions that have moved from the Patapsco to the Boxing Rings. Now they’re transplanting Systema, a type of Russian martial arts, to the dance stage with their latest piece, Butterknife, which premiers March 14, 15, 21, and 22 at the Single Carrot Theatre’s new space at 2600 North Howard Street. In a brief interview on the balcony seating at Royal Farms in Hampden, dancer and director Lily Kind talked about the ups – and downs – of founding a dance group in Charm City.
This writer is not generally a dance critic, but after endless photos of a black-belted, bad-assed Putin flipping willing subordinates onto judo mats, the connection between that form of Russian martial arts and a four-woman dance collective — including Rachel Boss, Brittany Grant, Erin Reid, and Lily Kind –seemed intriguing. Kind willingly showed me moves and explained how she developed the relationship, not just between Systema and dance, but between dance and Baltimore.
John Barry: What’s it like trying to start a dance group in Baltimore?
Lily Kind: It’s Sysiphean for sure! I think that in this past year I’ve started to let go of being the central node… I’ve been letting myself go to create something more decentralized, where the strength is that there is no center point. That creates adaptability – sort of like a starfish instead of a spider. When I decided [after graduating from Goucher] I wanted to dance and live in Baltimore I wondered – are those two things possible? But people kept coming from other pursuits and saying, I want to dance…. I’m professionally trained in yoga or animation or martial arts, but I’m interested in dance.
JB: So that’s the advantage – flexibility. What’s your biggest obstacle?
JB: The creativity is flowing in this city, but the audience is….
LK: Yeah. I started out just tricking people into watching dance. I’d tell them we’re doing a show in the space you may use for a band or something, come check it out. But now my own work has moved to a place where I have specific ideas.
JB: So explain what you’re going to be doing. You say that this dance is based on Russian martial arts.
LK: Systema is a soft martial arts form. I’m definitely not an expert in it. But I was introduced to it through a Baltimore gentleman named Dave Fout. The mythological explanation is that the Russian army was trying to start a form of training where soldiers would last until they were sixty. It’s all about defense and escape, but it’s also tied to longevity of the body. It’s also very healing in the way that yoga can be. I got interested because it’s a connection with the physical body. Your body knows things that you can’t really understand, like a child or an animal may – you can physicalize fear or ambition. So for a dancer it’s very interesting. Also, it’s really fun and badass. The first time I got to try it and throw some punches around, that was energizing in itself…
JB: So how did this make its way into your dance?
LK: We used the Sytema method as a way of training for Butterknife. I was doing it privately, and we talked a lot about falling and softness as a force of energy.
LK: When we fall, or collapse, or release ourselves the body isn’t staying put, it’s traveling. So if I punch you and you’re tense it will hurt, but if I punch you and you understand how the force is directed, and follow that force, you probably won’t get hurt, and you’ll be able to retaliate. There’s the classic example of babies and drunk people – when they fall, they don’t get hurt as much. That’s because they’re not tense.
That’s not a reason to get drunk – but the basic principle is to absorb the blow. More and more that a principle that’s becoming the norm in different dance practices – when people start flopping around or collapsing on the floor. Systema had some of the same ideas, but it was totally out of my comfort zone…
JB: So you’re trying to make yourself uncomfortable?
LK: One of the founding principles that I’ve tried to build in Effervescent is taking risks and working out of that comfort zone. So if you’re standing on one leg, you’re standing at the edge of your own capacity – so you can change your capacity. It’s just more visually interesting.
JB: How did Butterknife come together?
LK: In Butterknife, we started practicing falling and listening to what happens with our body. And using Systema to listen to what was happening in our body, and listening to Systema to help engage with it. Then we started taking this collapsing soft quality that can start being cliché in contemporary dance – which can sometimes be a stand-in for something more interesting visually, because it’s an easy choice. And we have started satirically, you know, floppy, and we paired that with the experience that we all have in the waiting room, or at bus stops.
That was part one, and it was a lot of fun. And we’re friends, so we’re poking fun of each other. Then it develops to the point where we’re exploring force and the idea of softness. And again, we’re all women. How can we use being soft to be as powerful as possible….
[Then she gets up and demonstrates, with a splayed stance, what it means to lunge as opposed to ‘hold’ a position. The deeper you go, she notes, the more flexible you are.]
So we started to explore that, and it became paired with our experience with music. The composition is very much tied to the music. Louis Weeks is the composer. So the softness of Systema is our physical performance, but it became a way of thinking about how we relate to the composing and our relationship with each other.
Louis is a singer-songwriter, and he also works at Clean Cuts as a composer. He actually just put out his first album under the name Louis Weeks, and since we started, he’s been working with his stuff in Baltimore, but it’s been great working with someone who is professional.
JB: So speak to Baltimore: a creative community but not necessarily a ready-made audience for dancers. What would you say to other artists who might be interested in the medium?
LK: I think the thing about being a dancer – you are the material. You’re the paint and the canvas, so anything that’s happening in your body is part of your art. That’s what makes dancers different. And that, on the one hand, you have to be able to shed your identity, and on the other hand, as a creative dance maker, your body knows stuff that your text and words and mind can’t ever say.
To purchase tickets for Butterknife’s March 21 or 22 performance at Single Carrot Theatre click here.
* *Author John Barry is a Baltimore-based writer and teacher.
** All photos by James Oshida, courtesy of Effervescent Collective