Thursday, September 30, 2010

Lily Susskind

When Lily and I did the photoshoot for this Unsung Baltimore entry, I was worried - just a little, and just for a second - that we were going to get arrested.

She stood in the middle of Monument Street at rush hour. She hopped inside a planter. She scaled one of the cornices of Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church. She climbed up into a window of the Peabody Institute to pose. I snapped away with my Nikon, determined not to let her see how chicken I was. It was one of the most enjoyable shoots I've ever done.

You can see the same sort of cheerful audacity in her performances with the Effervescent Collective. (Read on for more info about them.) Their latest work, "Pluto Dances," runs at the Lumberhaus from October 1-3, and features music by about half a dozen local experimental music bands. You don't want to miss it.


“Why are people so scared of me?” asks Lily Susskind, her brown eyes growing wide with mock incredulity. “I’m 5’2” and cuddly!”

Well, sure. But diminutive stature and cuddliness aside, there’s something about the dancer and choreographer that some people find intimidating. Perhaps it’s the intense energy she projects, whether she’s still or in motion. Perhaps it’s the passion that animates her voice when she talks about her art.

Or perhaps it has something to do with her blunt critiques of the ways that dance is typically viewed and taught in the U.S., which leads to assert that “dance on stage is a commodity,” that “ballroom takes everything cool about social dance and ruins it,” and that her 8th grade dance class was “aesthetically bullshit.”

Susskind, 24, is the director of the Effervescent Collective, a Baltimore-based contemporary dance group that “looks for powerful, alternative ways to understand everyday rituals and popular culture.” Effervescent, which was founded a couple of years ago by a group of Goucher College students and alumni, including Susskind, was recently recognized as the “Best Dance Company” in Baltimore by both the editors and readers of the City Paper. The group first gained popular and critical notice in March of this year, with its satirical, gender-bending send-up of the 80’s classic, “Dirty Dancing.”

Susskind and her Effervescent colleagues (including Claire Cote, Kait Orr, and Lynne Price) rehearse, perform, and teach classes at the Lumberhaus, a repurposed warehouse at 1801 Falls Road. The space, which Effervescent runs in collaboration with three other choreographers, is emerging as a center for experimental movement and music at the western edge of Baltimore’s Station North Arts District.

Lumberhaus, with its emphasis on collaboration and its multidisciplinary approach to making art, represents a facet of Susskind’s overall vision for dance in Baltimore. This vision involves drawing audiences and artists across racial, cultural, generational, and stylistic boundaries, so that they can experience and enjoy dance together.

Susskind’s goal is to use dance as a means of generating what sociologist Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence,” the stimulating energy that arises among a group of people engaged in a communal event.

“Everyone knows that feeling,” explains Susskind, the words tumbling out. “It’s that feeling, that chemistry you find at a soccer game, or at that sweet dance party at 4:00 a.m. in your friend’s dorm room. When something is done collectively, everyone benefits. I want to create dance that’s rooted in that idea. I want to offer collective effervescence to people who feel that they’ve been outside the bounds of dance.”

Susskind believes that chemistry is hard to find in the mainstream dance scene. “Dance in Baltimore now leaves out a lot of people,” she remarks, citing the disconnection between contemporary dance created and performed in academic settings, and “vernacular” dance forms that have their roots in folk and social traditions.

“The idea that that dance can exist outside a social context, outside a physical space, is a western concept. It comes from the idea of performing for nobility, of ballet for the king’s court. Whereas in dances that come from the African diaspora, dance isn’t a metaphor for history – it is history. In Candomble, for example, you’re not pretending to be the orisha who’s taking you over.”

Although Susskind herself is a product of elite academic dance departments – she studied dance at Sarah Lawrence College before receiving a bachelor of arts in dance anthropology from Goucher last year – she’s most drawn to American popular dance forms, particularly Lindy Hop.

“Lindy Hop came out of Harlem in the 1920’s,” she says. “The history of Lindy Hop is the history of jazz, because jazz comes from a place where movement is inextricable from music.”

She was introduced to the style by friends who invited her to a Lindy Hop event in Dundalk hosted by Charm City Swing. “It was the most fun I ever had,” she enthuses. “It made me remember why I love dancing.”

Susskind is interested in more modern varieties of popular dance, as well. Beyonce is a particular favorite of hers, along with Missy Elliott and other dancers and choreographers whom she first encountered through music videos on MTV. She expresses frustration that these styles, as well as indigenous local party dances such as Baltimore Club and Hand Dance are not given the same respect afforded to ballet or modern dance.

“It’s no accident that most educational institutions don’t include enough about the history of jazz music or dance,” she observes. “Because if you’re going to enslave and subjugate a population, you’re going to say that that sort of dance and music is a lesser form. All of that influences our contemporary sense of what’s important in music and dance, and it means that dance is powerful, dance is dangerous.”

As a child growing up in the Boston area, Susskind experienced the disconnection between traditional methods of dance instruction and the visceral pleasure of movement. “I’ve always been dancing,” she says. “Little kids dance, you know? I love the sensation of dancing, the sweat.”

Her first dance lessons were a disappointment, however. “I went to creative movement at four, and then I started ballet, which I hated,” she recounts with an expression of distaste. "I found the tights and leotards very uncomfortable, I didn’t like the music, there was a lot of memorization…it was not fun. So I got out by the third grade.”

Her early experiences with jazz dancing weren’t much better. “In eighth grade I took a jazz class, but it was aesthetically bullshit. I mean, trying to argue that it’s an art form is a stretch. It can be a physical practice, a method of conditioning, but it’s all about math-based learning, and that weeds out kids who don’t learn that way.”

She pauses, her mouth quirking in an ironic smile. “Actually, I’m only coming around in my twenties to where I like being a dancer.”

Her love of dancing was rekindled by a trip to Israel this past spring, when she spent three weeks with the Batsheva dance company learning a method called Gaga. “It’s the best technique for dancing onstage,” she enthuses. “It involves classes where you never stop moving, but you move very naturally. It trains your mind to be multidimensional. It’s basically learning to move like a ninja.“

Gaga “was invented by Batsheva’s artistic director [Ohad Naharin], who had a herniated disc in his spine from being a Martha Graham dancer. He developed a class for people who had never danced before, whom he could teach while he was immobilized.” The class she attended “drew 200 people from about 30 countries, between the ages of 16 and 60.” Susskind was so impressed with the style that she has begun to offer classes in Gaga through the Effervescent Collective.

“I’m not interested in virtuosity,” she insists. “I’m less interested in performance than in rounding up a posse to do something collaborative.”

This desire to “put bodies together” led her to want to create an online “dance hub” for Baltimore, a portal where people of all ages, backgrounds, and levels of experience can connect to the local dance scene.

“Here’s my dream,” she says, her hand chopping the air for emphasis. “You come to Baltimore, you’re interested in dance, you find an easy way online to get a map of Baltimore and its different dance classes, programs, and schools. Baltimore, Philly, D.C., even Richmond – we need to work together as a region. You can’t expect people to work together until they have a channel to communicate.”

Locally, this would involve cross-fertilization and collaboration among professional dance companies, academic dance departments, and community-based dance groups.

“I’d like to see vernacular and contemporary dance given equal weight,” says Susskind. “I’d like to see dance professors have to teach nonpaying undergrads in the community. It would be easier for me to take classes at Coppin if Coppin dance teachers were invited to Goucher. The Lindy Hop group should announce West African dance classes at Sankofa. Everyone needs to be accountable.”

For Susskind, building a dance community in Baltimore is about respect. “We need to acknowledge what’s already going on in the community before we try to ‘help’,” she remarks. “I need to know what being a dancer in different places is like before I start making art with them. Sharing experience is what brings people together. Everyone needs to get specific benefits.”

Susskind sits back, clearly ready to stop talking and start dancing. Her 5’2” frame is relaxed, but practically humming with banked energy.

It's kind of intimidating.

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