Arts & Culture

Variable Velocity dancers to explore the here and now at Cal Poly

‘The Treasure of Presence’ features various costumes, such as this phoenix.
‘The Treasure of Presence’ features various costumes, such as this phoenix. PHOTO BY KIEL CARREAU

Variable Velocity’s annual dance performance takes on added dimensions this year, with an eclectic use of music, some multimedia elements, unpredictable improvisation and innovative uses of technology.

The title is “The Treasure of Presence,” and the theme is especially relevant in our busy, texting, multitasking society, said Diana Stanton, co-director.

After the finale of last year’s performance, she and co-director Jude Clark Warnisher had a conversation that led to a discussion of focusing—being in the moment — when myriad thoughts and events are swirling around you.

“We talked about the difficulty of staying present in today’s culture,” Stanton said, “and we agreed that we were able to do that best when we are involved with the creative process — choreographing or performing. Then we are truly invested, not multitasking.”

Inspired by a poem by Rumi and a quotation by William Stafford about being in the here and now, they decided to explore ways of being present and to build this year’s performance around that concept.

“The collection of dances is designed to illuminate the things we talked about,” Stanton said.

“The dancers had input. They are always helpful collaborators. Jude and I have the vision, and they make creative choices that help us realize it. We asked them to think of times in their life when they are truly present and create what we call ‘movement nuggets’ to represent those moments. These movements come at the end of the opening piece.”

The show features 19 dancers, from a high-energy 18-year-old to a graceful, accomplished 50-year old. Among them are Cal Poly students, a college English teacher, a medical student, and one man, who has been with Variable Velocity for several seasons.

The music used in the concert is wide-ranging, Stanton explained. There is one classical Baroque piece, jazz, world music, Indian, drum and tabla, and “passionate classical.” “But no Top 40.”

Jude Warner has choreographed her short solos to jazz pieces by Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Red Garland. They include “The Nearness of You,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Warner lets the audience decide on the program each evening, she said.

“I ask the audience which one they want to see. This improvisation requires me to be very present.”

Stanton has also designed a spontaneous piece, which is different at each performance.

“I choose the dancers that night. They won’t know what they are going to do until then,” she said. “The audience will see the creative process onstage. Of course, there’s the potential that it could be bad.”

“State of Grace” is a piece with a medieval flavor, about staying present and graceful in one’s age, Stanton explained. “Dancers from 20 to 50 represent the same person in different phases of life.”

Another piece, “Daedel,” refers to Daedelus and his labyrinth.

“It’s about creating something very intricate—when doing it, you can’t think about anything else.”

Stanton and multimedia artist Warnisher are also working on some innovative surprises. One features a live video feed of a dancer projected on a screen behind her, so that she is “dancing with herself.”

At the time of the interview, a CalPoly technology class was working with Stanton to develop lighting that is generated by her heartbeat as she dances.

“When I’m dancing and improvising, my heart rate increases. I

wanted the audience to see the physiology. It would make it a deeper shared experience while I’m totally invested in the moment.”

Warnisher has created “Ghost Story,” a short film with the theme of presence. It was shot in Joshua Tree, and she calls it a “shadow play.”

The costumes in the production range from jewel-toned gowns (from Goodwill, Stanton said), to pedestrian business clothes. There are no leotards.

“We do wear kneepads, because we do a lot of crashing and rolling round on the floor.”

Variable Velocity has become known for its high-energy style.

“I’m most present when I’m very physical. It’s uplifting,” Stanton said.

The choreographers hope the audience will relate to the theme.

“Multitasking and technology are supposed to give us more communication,” Warnisher said. “But actually, it gives us less with each other on a personal level.”

Stanton said interaction with the audience puts the audience members in the present.

“We love to invite the audience to be part of the process. We have playful interludes too, silliness, and ‘unpresence.’ This is commentary about the culture we live in.”