Sidra Bell builds worlds of movement from sound

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      Some choreographers strive to create abstract art on-stage; others tell a story. But rising choreographer Sidra Bell conjures strange new worlds, melding movement with characters and an immersive soundtrack she always edits herself.

      She did it when she brought her first work here, Nudity, to the Chutzpah Festival last year, populating the piece with androgynous, black-ponytailed automatons, twitching and posing under stark lighting. And she’ll do it again with Stella and the new garment when she returns, this time to the Scotiabank Dance Centre.

      “From the beginning of the creative arc, I’m already thinking of the costumes and the sounds,” the personable choreographer tells the Straight from her home in New York City, where she runs her company. “It’s almost cinematic the way I work: I’m thinking immediately of postproduction—something to be shot, to be photographed or to be seen in a gallery.”

      Bell’s integrated, intellectual approach is not so surprising when you consider her background. Raised in Manhattan by two musicians in a family full of artists, she had a rigorous education at one of the Big Apple’s independent schools, while training with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey School on scholarship from age eight to 16. Though she applied to a lot of fine-arts conservatories after high school, she ended up opting to go to Yale to study history to “open my experience”.

      “I loved writing and I felt like the degree integrated a lot of my interests: anthropology, culture, writing, people,” she says, adding she still kept in touch with the NYC arts scene and did summer dance programs, advocating and promoting dance on the Yale campus the whole time.

      That layered approach would translate directly into her dance when she launched her company soon after graduating. Like history, her pieces are “moments in time”, she reasons. “I’m creating these events for each piece,” she says. “Each dance is an event in time.”

      Part of that approach has to do with the dancers she recruits (including Vancouver’s Arts Umbrella–trained Rebecca Margolick): they have backgrounds that allow them to shift styles easily (Bell is as likely to reference ballet as break dancing), but they also need theatrical ability for her character work.

      The soundscape, a surreal, beyond-eclectic mix that can include anything from spoken instructions and electroclash to classical strings and heavy metal, also sets her work apart. “I make these sound collages from the wild world,” Bell says. “Each music shift for me indicates another world shift and a temperature shift and really helps the audience navigate the world I create,” she says. “Sound can create a mental space for the audience to inhabit. There are moments when you feel the duration of the sounds; it’s uncomfortable, and then things change.”

      In garment and Stella, she also integrates objects on-stage for the first time. In the former, named in part for the old, disappearing Garment District her grandfather once worked in, she’s found a way to project visuals onto a central blackboard. While that piece is about authenticity, Stella, she says, is about the “me” culture. She describes the characters in it as ranting, egotistical autobots. “The autobot feeling is that we’re reproducing this type of person,” she explains.

      Whatever the effect, expect it to be bold and unexpected—a little bit of a historic event, served up Sidra Bell–style.

      Sidra Bell Dance plays the Scotiabank Dance Centre in a Chutzpah Festival copresentation from Thursday to Saturday (March 27 to 29).