Welcome to Abby Bender’s world. It is a world where lion tamers and tight rope walkers engage in a pas de deux; where sideshow callers, candy stripers, and trash men find treasures in rubbish heaps; where flash-dancers and video coupages strike a stunning tableaux; and where grand, strutting acrobatics result in luminous effects.
Bender is a founding member of KICK STAND DANCE, an all-female, five-choreographer collective whose home is Triskelion Arts, a performing arts venue in Williamsburg (118 N. 11th Street). The women—Bender, along with Cary Baker, Layla Childs, Anna Luckey, and Sonya Robbins—acquired the Triskelion Arts space in the summer of 2000. A renovation was completed shortly thereafter and since then the studio has been in full operation as a rehearsal and performance space, complete with wood-sprung floors, mirrors, lighting, and curtains (see Swarm at Wax, July/August 2001 issue).
Triskelion Arts is certainly managing to make its way as a thriving new performing arts venue. This year, Triskelion Arts obtained its 501c (3), not-for-profit status, which made it easier for the organization to solicit donations during its fourth annual fundraiser and auction, held in December. The venue also won its second Outer/Space grant from Dance Theater Workshop.
In the past, KICK STAND DANCE has presented an annual group show, featuring each choreographer’s work. But this year the troupe is taking full advantage of their Triskelion Arts venue by offering both individual and split-bill programs. Bender’s Monsters and Mirrors: Heavy at Play, opening June 6, will mark the first of this series.
Bender, whose first love was painting, works from a broad palette and presents works that are energetic, highly theatrical, and somehow, life-affirming. Bender’s ambitious pieces employ a full cast of 30 volunteer dancers—some are veterans of Bender’s work, while others are novices to the field of dance. A quick perusal of the dancers’ program bios reflects a broad range of experiences, from hipster and hippy, to teacher, student, waiter, and globetrotter. Yet, watching them in rehearsal and recalling past performances, it is clear that something unique is going on to make such an unlikely group of people come together under one roof and, credibly, form a dance troupe. And, given the ecumenicity of the enterprise, the way it all comes together is almost uncanny.
On the topic of working with such a mix of dancers and non-dancers—Bender states: “We prepare many hours during a long rehearsal season, so even if one of the performers has never danced a day in his life, we work hard until he inevitably becomes comfortable enough with the material and, more importantly, becomes perfectly comfortable being himself. It’s impossible that someone’s not going to look ‘right’ because the moves are so goofy and the discrepancies between dancers’ techniques lend themselves to what the dance is talking about.”
First-time Bender dancer Kate Kaminski agrees. “Nobody is ever too slow, too big, too awkward because it all just becomes part of the dance,” she explains. Another first-time dancer, Josie Carbone, who is also a teacher with the Teach for America program, describes Bender as a “light spirit” and one who has a “focused energy” in rehearsal. Carbone also points out that the veteran dancers often end up teaching the new conscripts a great deal.
The resulting work is candid and disorderly, and incorporates the willful autobiographies of the dancers. Yet the chaos and clowning, along with the crazy individualism of the work, reflects a vision that is distinctly Bender’s. Her dances carry a heft of personal reflection and the bearing does not slouch under the weight. Through reenactment, Bender graciously shares her deeply personal experiences.
After nine months of co-running a performing arts venue, rehearsing a full show, and holding down a day job, Bender heads to Martha’s Vineyard this summer in order to conduct her seventh year of Built on Stilts, a tribal celebration of dance that takes place in a historic chapel in Oak Bluffs. Begun in 1997 with co-founder and KICK STAND DANCE member, Luckey, the annual festival—which, at last count, gathered 14 choreographers under its auspices—includes ballet, hip-hop, belly-dancing, tai chi, jazz, modern, and tap dance. “That’s really my vacation,” explains Bender. “We rehearse in parks. I work at a movie theater. That’s simplicity.”
Bender’s Monsters & Mirrors: Heavy at Play will be performed on June 6, 7, 8, 13, 14, and 15 at Triskelion Arts, 118 N. 11th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Tickets $10.
JOHN MERCHANT is a contributing writer for the Rail.