Margi Cole | Interview

Dance COLEctive artistic director Margi Cole.

Dance COLEctive artistic director Margi Cole. Photograph: Cheryl Mann

Score: Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14. It’s good to be a ’Bama fan, though Margi Cole—a grad of the Alabama School of Fine Arts—isn’t much for football. Making a dance with football players, though? That’s an opportunity the Dance COLEctive artistic director, who brings her company's Winter Program to Stage 773 on Thursday, would relish. 

Roll Tide. How’s it feel to be national champs?
[Laughs] If I was invested in football I’d be excited about it. It’s funny, I went to high school in Birmingham and I always know when Alabama is playing because of Facebook. I don’t have to pay attention to the news; I get the general gist from Facebook. 

How did you end up in the South?
My family is from Springfield, Illinois and I danced with a regional ballet company. When I was fifteen, Wes Chapman was a guest artist with the Springfield Ballet. He was dancing with Alabama Ballet—Ballet South at that time. He graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts. He and I became friends and he told me, ‘Margi, if you want to dance you can’t stay here.’ I went and auditioned for the school and got in. As it turned out, Wes Chapman is one of my dearest friends. When I finished school, my mom and dad said, ‘Look, you’re either going to college or coming back to Springfield to work for the state.’ I didn’t want to live in Springfield and I was enamored with Chicago, so I ended up going to Columbia College. 

Any culture shock when you arrived in ’Bama?
I wasn’t attentive to it till I was older. I went without any preconceived notions. I don’t think I was very worldly. The one thing that stuck out was the pace. Everyone’s easy going and free. I have to set my dial for the time I spend there. I’ve been lucky to reap the benefits of both sensibilities. 

Has Southern pace factored into your work at all?
It’s shaped some work I’ve done in the South and some things that I’m interested in. There’s not a lot of modern dance in Alabama. I’ve had the good fortune of working with folks who we call the Modern Millies. It’s a pretty small community. So I would answer that question yes, but it’s not like you would come to see my work and then say, ‘Oh, well that’s Southern.’ I think the culture is interesting, the pace is interesting and I’ve been able to do pretty interesting, site-specific collaborative work in the South. Certainly, that work was reflective of my interest and investment in the culture. 

So, growing up, you produced performances in the garage of a neighbor’s house—
I did. [Laughs] It’s funny because my sister and I, we actually took my nephews and nieces out at Christmas and showed them where we lived. We were laughing about that. There was a set of neighbors that lived next door to us: four kids—three girls and a boy—and then I had a younger sister. I didn’t realize till much later that I was actually doing that. Kind of crazy.

What kinds of productions?
I was getting people to dance and we were doing theatrical things, acting and singing. Just doing whatever. We’d set up chairs in the driveway and our parents would come watch.

And your parents knew then and there that you were a performer.
Yeah, I’m not sure they knew they were in as much trouble as they were.

Relationships seem like a big pull for you when you’re creating a piece.
Yeah, I think if I had to cite a hallmark of my work, intimacy and relationships might be something present, front and center. 

Is that a result of anything in particular?
I’m interested in the way bodies interact. I think it’s related to my experience studying classical ballet, which I did seriously till I was eighteen. I wanted to be a ballet dancer. The ladies of modern dance revolted against ballet. I think my interest and intrigue in intimacy, and how that can be achieved without imposing it, is intriguing to me. I think a lot of what I’m interested in—healthy female bodies moving through space, being empowered through physicality, using the floor, and my interest in teaching technique to dancers—I think all of that comes from my pursuit of classical ballet.

It’s funny. Ballet seems like the most natural thing for most dancers to start doing when they’re younger, but it also seems like the most natural thing they want to rebel against as they get older. 
Honestly, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with ballet. When I started pursuing modern dance, I thought, ‘This is a cop out. I’m doing this because I have to.’ It took a while to figure out that it was as much a physical pursuit as an intellectual pursuit. The intellectual pursuit is what really got me turned on. I have a real interest in exposing young dancers—particularly young dancers in pursuit of classical ballet professions—to modern dance and helping them understand how, in fact, the two can inform each other, rather than work against each other. 

In an article you mention that talking on stage is scary territory for you. But more recently, it seems like you’ve overcome that fear.
[Laughs] I don’t think I’ll ever overcome the fear. It’s a layer that I’m interested in. My interest in text continues to deepen. Like all dancers who want to stay in the field as we age, we have to adjust.

What caused the fear?
It was unchartered territory. I grew up in this [ballet] environment where, ‘Why would you talk on the stage, when you can tell the story through characters? And in case you’re confused, you can check the program.’ It was unchartered territory, but now, I love the challenge of having to speak and dance. 

In terms of “Free/Bound,” what’s new and what’s different?
Two things in particular: One is using the thrust space at Stage 773 and customizing the work to fit the space. It’s three quarter and there are no wings. The other thing is the way we developed the new work [In Orderly Fashion]. As a group, we collaborate verbally, and if the dancers find themselves in a position that feels awkward, or a series of movement that doesn’t quite connect, they communicate with me and we figure out how to get those things to coalesce. In the development of material, we started by creating limitations. When the dancers rubbed the material together they had to negotiate through their limitations. I never went back into the material and said, ‘Okay, this doesn’t feel good, let’s figure out how we can fix it.’ We’d been riding the material through all these uncomfortable moments and I feel like it’s created a charged energy. Even the dancers were saying, ‘We never did go back and try and make these things work pleasantly.’ I said, ‘I recognize that you’re uncomfortable and disgruntled with the material and how it’s assembled,’ but it’s really created a point of departure in the way that the dancers are moving and the movement vocabulary itself.

Speaking of points of departure, would you ever consider making a piece about football? 
[Laughs] More than anything, I’d like to make a dance with a group of football players. I don’t know if the subject matter would have anything to do with football, but boy, I would sure be interested in the rough-around-the-edges physicality of a group like that. I could get that discomfort and that roughness to create something interesting. That, I would dig.

The Dance COLEctive performs "Free/Bound" at Stage 773, Thursday 17–Sunday 20. $25, students and seniors $20. 


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