Dancers are accustomed to putting in long hours of rehearsal time — memorizing and perfecting steps, honing artistic interpretations, coordinating outfits, lighting, scenery.
But just days before the members of Fuzión Dance Artists are scheduled to complete their "Dance Now" series at Art Center Sarasota — reacting to the work of visual artists Woodrow Nash and Jackie Peters Cully — they haven't seen the art, don't have any costumes and have no clue what their dances are going to look like.
Like improv actors — but without the verbal language — their task is to react on the spot, off the cuff and in front of observers who may not always be comfortable with or receptive to what they are viewing. While that dictate might terrify the less spontaneous among us, the dancers of Fuzión, who have earned a reputation for improvisational work, cheerfully look forward to the challenge.
"For me, improv is less stressful," says Rolando Cabrera, a former break dancer who once performed whenever and wherever a "playground" presented itself. "In a show I'm always worried: Will I get my timing right? Will I remember the choreography? There is so much anxiety that comes out that it doesn't feel as free."
In the last of four dance/art collaborations between the two nonprofits this year, Fuzión dancers will interpret in movement the work of Nash, an Ohio-based African-American artist who creates "African nouveau" torso sculptures in wood and ceramics, and an installation by Jackie Peters Cully involving hundreds of textile-covered leaves created by community members.
Fuzión founder and director Leymis Bolaños-Wilmott sees the collaboration as an opportunity not only for another of the multidisciplinary projects she often embraces, but for her dancers to stretch their artistic sensibilities.
"I designed these performances so different company members would get a chance not only to perform in an art gallery setting, but also to improvise, respond and interpret artwork in the moment and with an audience," says Bolaños-Wilmott, who has turned this final showing of the series over to dancer Molly Nichols' management. "This kind of performance is very comfortable to me, but for a first timer, it might trigger a new creative side or encourage a new vocabulary."
The dancers will view the exhibit only two days before Thursday's opening. After doing so, Nichols says she will ask each of them to contribute an idea — "a faint idea," she clarifies — to provide a loose structure and then to scramble for costumes to match their conceptions.
"We have two days to construct a 30-minute show within those loose ideas and that's intentional, so the creativity is not planned out of it," Nichols says. "It's still fluid, vague... and risky."
Risky because, as with any improvisational work, success lies in finding a balance between authentic artistic expression and audience engagement.
"I want to reveal just enough to draw people in," says Nichols, "but not to do just what they might be expecting. If I focus on who is watching or I'm trying to please someone, I lose my connection and I'm not as interested in the real source."
By way of example, Nichols recalls an iconcept fashion retrospective at the center earlier this year, in which artists were challenged to make pieces for a runway show from unusual recyclable materials. Nichols wore a black slip as she moved between the onlookers and the dresses, which were made of everything from camera film to dried macaroni, interacting with both.
"I was wearing only my sense of self, so I could be a potential carrier and the dresses could speak through me," she says. "In my mind, I was wearing every single one of them."
Nichols says an audience in an art gallery differs significantly from one in a theater; onlookers are often uncomfortable with the performers' proximity and hesitant to make eye contact.
"People want to stand not just a foot from the wall, but two inches from the wall," she says, laughing. "A trustful audience is hard to find."
But Cully, who has never before had dancers respond to her work, is wholely on board.
Her installation is made up of more than 600 leaves covered in colorful paper — the underlying byproduct of work she does with painted silks and wax — that is tacked on with a high-gloss glue. Each fluttering leaf, decorated by two community members handling a single side, will be hung on filament strung from the ceiling to the floor in the center's first gallery, creating a "magical forest."
Cully, who was once a great social dancer "if I say so myself," says her own dancing days are over after a recent bad fall. But she can envision exactly how she would translate her art into movement.
"The colors are all very bright and there is a lot of sheen, so the dancers should just sparkle," she says. "Colorful scarves would be perfect. By covering them, we've transformed these leaves from dead to alive. The dancers can continue the transformation."
In a partnership planned for next year, Fuzión and the Art Center will continue collaborating, but with the tables tweaked. Instead of dancers responding to the work of the artists, the artists will visit Fuzión rehearsals and respond with visual interpretations that will eventually be turned into performance costumes.
Either way, the best part of such a "spontaneous adventure," as Nichols calls it, is that there is no right or wrong.
"You don't criticize yourself and you don't analyze what you are doing while you are doing it," she says. "There are no rules and no expectations. Keeping it free is really life-giving."