RhetOracle: Mainstreaming Dance Verbiage

The RhetOracle Dance Company, now in its 6th season, is presenting three performances of Fortune Telling, a new work featuring choreography by the group’s founder, Nate Hodges, and pieces by Bri Blonigan, Jia Huang, Courtney Ozovek, Jason Gorman, Rochelle Mapes and Rio Liu. The opening performance is taking place at 8 PM tomorrow, Friday, August 24th, at the Martha B. Knoebel Dance Theater at CSULB. There are performances on Saturday at 2 and 8 PM.

Nate was being interviewed after the end of last year’s show and reporters kept asking him where he saw himself in five years.

“To be honest, I was just glad that I had made it to my first 5 year mark,” Nate says. “I hadn’t quite thought ahead. So, I needed to start thinking about where RhetOracle would go from here.

“A lot of our shows are based around themes so the audience has a perspective as to where the show is coming from. As I was thinking about this year’s theme I started thinking about the future, but in a way that reflected on the past. A good friend of mine reads tarot cards and, sometimes, does a reading for me to help with some guidance. He happened to do a reading around the time I was thinking about this, and then it came to me. We had spent the first 5 years focusing on the ‘rhetoric’ part of our name and, for the first of our 2nd 5-years, we decided to focus on the Oracle element, on providing art that comes from a place of truth, perspective, and wisdom by looking at what we’ve done and carving out a new path that seemed organic. The tarot cards aim to do something similar, so they served as our inspiration.”

Fortune Telling will be RhetOracle’s 6th full-length show at CSULB’s dance theater and the group’s connection there is strong.

“We have some dancers who are either alum or current students at CSULB, and the theater is perfect. It’s made especially for dance, with a permanent floor and a full lighting plot. The stage is big but the house is relatively intimate so you’re able to do a lot but still feel like the audience and you are having a meaningful conversation. The facilities’ crew, headed up by Andrew Milhan who is on faculty there, is professional, accommodating, and very friendly. That theater feels like home to us.”

Nate’s approach to choreography shifts depending upon the needs of the piece.

“I base my process on what best articulates my point/story/focus,” Nate explains. “My dances range from being very narrative, like a story, to very conceptual. I normally find a source of inspiration and then flesh it out. So, for instance, with the Two of Swords card I was inspired by the imagery, then created the concept based on its literal image, then looked for music that felt right and put it all together. With other dances in this show, such as the Reversed Magician, I looked at its meaning and then created an entire separate story.

“I like to try to keep changing my process and my movement aesthetic in order to stay fresh. It’s my approach to making sure my dances are clear, articulate, and have attention to detail that never changes. That really is the focus of RhetOracle: We’re talking to the audience, not at them.”

Nate’s relationship with the dancers is collaborative, based partly on the well established working relationship he has with them. Some have been involved for three years, and others for five.

“Most of the time I have a pretty clear vision of what I want,” says Nate, “but, every now and then, if something in my head isn’t working right, or if it isn’t reading clearly and I’m too close, dancers will contribute opinions and proactive suggestions. I almost always use them because they come from an outside perspective that really adds a good energy to the dance. Plus, even though its my vision, once they learn the dances, there is a level of ‘letting go’ you need to do as a choreographer, and let it become something organic to the dancers. They will honor your movement, and understand and commit to your concepts, but there’s always a level of interpretation that happens.

“In some cases, we do dances very collaboratively, such as the opening number for this show based on The Fool card. They all contributed a phrase of movement of their own, assisting me in making it what I was looking for. Also, sometime you come in with an idea but, as you work with a dancer, you become inspired to go in a completely different direction, which is exciting! I like to think that the company as a whole shapes our overall vision while the choreographers in the company help hone it. I also certainly know what I don’t want when I see i, and I’m clear to state when that happens so as to not muddy the message of the dances.

Dance has a language all its own, and RhetOracle strives to create a clear and understandable dialog with audiences.

“Reviewers often comment on the fact that we’re accessible without becoming watered down,” Nate recalls. “Our mission statement is about bridging that gap between dance aficionados and people who have maybe never even seen dance before. I feel confident in saying people ‘get it’ when they see our shows, but don’t feel condescended to. At least, after 6 years of doing it with that in mind, I hope it’s still working out like that!

“But describing the choreographic process in general uses a vocabulary the same way describing wine tasting or film making has its own vocabulary, but more people are used to those forms of art. Our goal is to help get dance verbiage mainstreamed. I think So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With The Stars are trying to do the same thing, with different media.”

In addition to the physical movement on stage, music, costumes, lighting, and even the title of a work can help make a piece understandable.

“Any of those elements, done poorly, can spin an audience into a different direction. I feel very inspired by music and we try to balance a mix of instrumental and vocal music in our shows. Still, I don’t think music is necessary to dance. You can move to silence, to poetry, or to noise as long as you’re trying to say something. Dance should speak for itself. The rest is like icing on the cake.”

Nate closely follows new developments in technological innovations in dance, and one area of interest is interactive environments.

“One of my dancers is in the really amazing troupe called Wilderbe,” Nate says. “They incorporate dance and an interactive projection element that changes and works with their bodies live, on stage. It’s really awesome. I have only seen videos, so far, but I’m captivated. I also had the privilege to see a show that used invisible lasers that criss-crossed through a dance space and, based on where and how fast a dancer cross a beam or series of beams, it created a sound or music tone, so the dancers, as they danced, created the music for the piece.

“Our company is constantly trying to push ourselves, either through mediums or concepts. Our next big project is a collaboration with film makers to help us re-imagine our repertory: Our culmination of pre-choreographed dances. Dance on film is an area I’m interested in. I feel very called to it because I think our dances would translate well. I have been told that I think cinematically, and I do a lot of emotional/character direction. It would wonderful to see it translated, and would be a huge learning experience. The movie Pina, really delved into that in a fantastic way.”

Nate is thrilled to be performing in a town that has so many excellent dance ensembles.

“There is Nickerson-Rossi Dance, Kieth Johnson and Dancers, Marrow Dance, Regina Klenjoski Dance, and Monat Dance. They are all wonderful, and award winning, dance companies. We’ve been working on developing a community, and we’re hoping to be fully embraced by our neighbors in Long Beach and really create a great relationship with them all!”

Fortune Telling opens Friday, August 24th with an 8PM performance at the Martha B. Knoebel Dance Theater at CSULB. There are performances on Saturday at 2PM and 8 PM as well. Tickets are available in advance, and on the night of the performance.

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