Sarah Griffin on SKETCH 6: Coming back around

Five years ago, I performed for the first time in San Francisco in Imagery’s SKETCH: New Works program. I was 25 years old and still shedding my bunhead tendencies to embrace a more contemporary movement sensibility. Adam Hougland’s “Cigarettes”, created in just two weeks that summer, proved to be a significant opportunity for me to expand on my classical instincts and employ my natural dramatic qualities. This summer I have the distinct pleasure of revisiting this work that has stuck so poignantly in my body, mind, and heart.

Adam’s choreography resonated with me then and stays with me now because it is suffused with emotional intent. His movement language evokes powerful physical imagery, bringing meaning and purpose to each step. I have always enjoyed creating character and mood on stage, so choreography feels really good to me when I don’t have to just layer emotion on top of an arbitrary sequence of acrobatics. The intrinsic emotional qualities in the music and movement for “Cigarettes” made it come together so quickly and naturally that I didn’t give much explicit thought to my character. In performance, I remember the steps coming vibrantly alive, as if I were dancing them spontaneously as a deep and natural expression of myself. It was an incredible experience and certainly an important moment in my personal artistic trajectory.

The living, present nature of dance means that no ballet is ever danced the same way twice. Of course there are choreographic and musical goals to achieve, but the movement’s texture and quality are always alive and new. I strive to shape and sense my body in the moment with each rehearsal and performance, not to recreate an idealized execution of sequential steps. After a few days spent studying the video of “Cigarettes” from 2011, I had to let go of the images I achieved back then in order to take a fresh approach free of assumptions or affectations. I’m not setting out to embody the physical or emotional state of 25-year-old Sarah, because things have changed a lot since then. I’ve grown and matured as an artist and as a person, and let’s face it, my knees are a little creakier too!

In the restaging process, it’s important to study the physical structure of the piece while leaving room to channel the movement naturally into the body. Ben Needham-Wood and Gabe Williams—both in the original cast—did a great job of interpreting and communicating the work to us in just a few days, and Katherine Wells continues to polish us up with her fresh, intelligent insight. There is always something new to discover in the intricate physical dynamics of dance and partnering, as well as the deeply satisfying minutiae of musicality, and I’m really enjoying the work in the studio this time around.

I dance with three men throughout “Cigarettes”, and to be perfectly honest, this is quite a dreamy cast. I have history with all of my suitors: James Gilmer from the past three SKETCH seasons, Peter Franc from a season at Oregon Ballet Theatre, and Scott Marlowe from a some wild and crazy projects with Imagery earlier this year. We already feel very connected and comfortable working together because of these valuable shared experiences and friendly rapport. This level of trust allows me to feels the steps in a new way, deepen my exploration of character, and begin a dialogue of relationships with the rest of the cast. Although the feeling and sequence of the movement came back to me naturally, with different partners it’s like a whole new ballet. I can’t go on autopilot or anticipate the same sensations from different bodies, and that’s really keeping me focused and present in the work.

I’m exploring a few things to deepen this role and expand my character. I want to find individual physical textures to express my relationship to each man and to myself. With one man I feel trapped, combative, and yearning, with another perfunctory and resigned, and with the third I can be tender, honest, and intimate. The brief moments in which I escape the clutches of my partners to dance alone are introspective pleas as I strive to find myself and hold my ground in the face of conflicted emotional chaos. A simple shift of gaze, posture, or muscular tension can speak volumes, and I find myself making new choices with every rehearsal. It’s quite a treat to have the time and perspective to explore “Cigarettes” again as a new woman, and I’m so excited to share this and so much more in SKETCH 6!

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