Choreographer and Teaching Artist Sara Maslanka on MCA Merce Exhibit

Choreographer and Teaching Artist Sara Maslanka has been Artistic Director of Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble since the summer of 2015 Photo courtesy of Sara Maslanka
“Love, Loss & Longing.” A collaboration with musician, Michelle Shafer. Photography by Al Zayed.
Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble CONSUMED!

There are few, if any, other Chicago dance entities that so thoroughly commit to engaging the outside world beyond the dance community as Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble.

Sara Maslanka , the group’s Artistic Director since summer of 2015 is a teaching artist based in schools across Chicagoland and pursues her dance science research practice that she began during her course of studies to receive her Masters of Science in Dance Science from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, UK. Maslanka and her group askand answer questions like “Can you use dance to help teach math?”

Here, Sara Maslanka (SM) shares her reactions to the MCA’s exhibit “Merce Cunningham: Common Time” with Picture this Post (PTP).

PTP: What was your prior exposure to Merce Cunningham and his work?       

SM: “My first introduction to Merce Cunningham was during the fall of my freshman year of college. Prior to, I never heard of him, his company, the technique or his legacy. My early dance training had not exposed me to the richness of dance culture and its history. Despite my cluelessness, what I did notice from observation was the unspoken importance of this performance; Merce had just passed away that summer.

“Coming to learn about Merce and his approach, Common Time, I loved the combination of elements. The freedom of expression of each participating artist and the improvisational nature of each work is something I personally value in my own creative process. Walking through the MCA exhibit, I appreciated the commitment to embodying Merce’s approach and gaining fresh perspectives on the artists he collaborated with.

“Despite knowing Merce’s process, the experience of the work as an audience member is different. I personally feel you lose the nuances from the experimentation that occurs in the studio versus the stage (especially if you’re not familiar with his work and process). So being able to get so up close and personal to all the elements felt gratifying.”

PTP: How has Cunningham’s work impacted yours?

SM: “Merce Cunningham’s artistic development in combination with those of other pioneers certainly transcends into my work.

“Though Merce’s work is not meant to have a narrative, I think as an audience you create your own or choose not to; the experience is yours regardless. As an artist, I feel compelled to propose questions versus deal out answers through my work. Audiences coming to see my work should expect to engage with it on an objective level that encourages them to choose. I strive to be an artist who encourages conversations that uncover meaning or open further dialogue for more questions.”

PTP: in Cunningham’s unique collaborations with artists in other realms he unleashed them as equals, rather than directing their contribution to his works. What is your reaction to that?

 SM: “My latest project, Consumed, focused on the interdependent collaboration with my designers and performers. Everyone had a valuable voice to contribute to the development of Consumed. The process looked like this: come together, question, discussion, plan, come apart and repeat. This practice-based approach feels like a more thoughtful process because nothing is just set. The relationship between all collaborators involved and the trust and commitment level are all crucial to the project’s success. Everyone must remain open to the process and be hands-on.

“The other difficulty is maintaining direction when having so many voices involved. There’s a difficult balance to ensure everyone is heard, yet ensuring that the project has clear intention and follow through. While it is an open process, there is one driving voice maintaining the project’s intention.

“While I acted as the main voice, this process required moments for one of the designers or my production manager to come forward and express the needs for the project as a whole. Although my approach to work does not fully follow true to a Common Time process, there’s always an air of chance to this practice-based approach. I find the main common thread here is the final product; you just don’t know what it’s going to be until all the elements are put together. I never imagine what my work will look like when it’s finished. The not knowing is the best part.”

Chicago Danztheatre CONSUMED
Chicago Danztheatre CONSUMED, choreographed by Sara Maslanka Photo: Al Zayed

PTP: What is your favorite part of this Merce exhibit?

SM: “Though I thoroughly enjoyed the entire exhibit, the dance nerd in me loved to play with the Silver Clouds by Andy Warhol. These were used in Merce’s “Rainforest,” in 1968.

“Many of my favorite works of Merce’s come from his earlier years. This personal interest comes from my days in college when I first began to truly learn about Merce and other pioneers. Playing in the Silver Clouds slowed time and felt truly whimsical.

“Overall, this was a great exhibit for those in and out of the dance world. There’s something there for everyone to engage with and become inspired by. Thank you to MCA Chicago and Picture This Post for organizing a great tour!


Photos: In sunglasses in slider:  Constance White.  All others by Al Zayed, unless otherwise indicated


Editor's Note: This article is part of extensive Picture This Post coverage of dance and music related to Merce Cunningham. See also--


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