Not being able to do something is not an option for Karola Lüttringhaus, founder and artistic director of Alban Elved Dance Company. It doesn’t
matter if money is tight or if a theater director needs more particulars before allowing 12 gallons of water on the stage; Lüttringhaus always brings her ideas to fruition. “Karola has a vision of what she wants to try to figure out, and we figure out if that’s possible,” explains Andrea Lieske, a founding member of the three-person troupe that adds dancers on a project-by-project basis. The two met 15 years ago in their hometown, Berlin, Germany, and ended up at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, NC, where Alban Elved is based.
Though Lüttringhaus’ background is conventional modern dance, her choreography is anything but. She incorporates apparatus such as water, bungee cords, a web made out of climbing ropes, a seven-foot-long table, 3-D animations, visual art, sculptures, rock cliffs, videos and a 15-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide structure. “All of my pieces are very different. I don’t want to make the same piece over and over,” says Lüttringhaus.
Even though Alban Elved isn’t making her a millionaire, the troupe is very successful—due in large part to the company’s commitment to touring. “We could exist in one city without touring if we received funds to do just that, but I believe modern dance companies like ours need to be touring. Our field is spread out internationally. I think our success and reputation depend on being part of certain festivals and performing in certain areas,” says Lüttringhaus. “You need reviews from all over.”
Getting so many touring gigs means Lüttringhaus spends a lot of time working on publicity. In addition to booking agent, Lüttringhaus and her team act as crew, costumers, set builders (everything but welding) and lighting designers—though they also work with two professional lighting designers. “I rarely let them create a complete lighting design without any input from me,” says Lüttringhaus. “Usually I come to them with set ideas, such as sidelight only from one side.”
Her tight rein isn’t about micromanaging; it’s all part of the creative process. “I imagine the lights when I make a piece,” she says. “They are part of it already—costumes, too. We try to find something that goes with the emotional content of the piece. I come from a visual art background and I sometimes incorporate painting into the costumes, but I like a very pedestrian look.”
While the visual elements tend to develop in her mind simultaneously with the movement, sound is a different story. Sometimes, whether she’s collaborating with live musicians as she prefers, or not, the music doesn’t exist until days before the show, forcing the company to rehearse in silence. “I love silence. I find the rhythm of the movement by just watching and listening to the dancers dancing it,” says Lüttringhaus.
Alban elved is Celtic for fall equinox, “literally the ‘light of the water.” The phrase seemed perfect for the name of Lüttringhaus’ company as soon as she stumbled upon it. “I love water,” she says. “We have a piece called Aurora-Always Water Everywhere, because everything everywhere somehow has to do with water.” So far, the company’s longest and most substantial “water” dance is Lena’s Bath, which began as a six-minute solo and later morphed into a 23-minute trio. The piece requires 12 gallons of water, a black nine-foot-wide pool designed to blend into the floor so it looks like the water isn’t contained by anything specific, three buckets, a plank of wood, squeegees, special black tape that doesn’t leave traces on the floor, plastic lining and a painted backdrop that reminds Lüttringhaus “of wrinkled skin, like you’ve been sitting in the bathtub for a while,” she says.
Each of the three dancers has a different relationship to the water. “I’m the one who wants to get wet but is afraid, so when I get to be in the pool I am always supported somehow, never all the way in the water,” says Lüttringhaus. “We get more and more wet as we try to keep each other from going in the water, but also by trying to egg each other on.”
Dancer Lena Polzonetti, who originated the solo role, gets drenched in the trio version. “We use warm water, but it cools off quite a bit by the end of the piece,” she explains. “Even so, after dancing hard for 15 minutes, it never feels too cold.” While she doesn’t get the shivers, she does worry about slipping outside the pool. “At least inside the pool you’re confined to a relatively small space, but if you want to get from one side of the pool to the other, going around the outside, you can’t really just run over there, because there’s a high possibility of a huge and silly banana-peel wipeout,” she explains. “The safest thing to do is to get down on the ground, or just slow down.”
Polzonetti laughs at slight annoyances like getting water up her nose or in her ears. “It’s a playful piece anyway, so a little extra snorting or head shaking isn’t too out of place,” she says. Her biggest challenge, though, is making everything that happens look intentional. “In the water you’re not always in control, but you have to make that a part of the performance,” she explains. “The water is so beautiful all by itself that it allows the performer room to relax. I always feel like the hard part is over and that I’ve reached the reward when we get to the pool solo at the end, and I can just jump in.”
If water is Alban Elved’s heart, then air is its brain. “Karola and I started aerial work together, playing around and just trying things out,” explains Lieske. After learning the basics of handling a rope and harness, the two spent hours intuitively playing around with momentum.
“I’m sure that when most people choreograph they wish they could just stay up in the air sometimes,” says Lüttringhaus. “I think my desire to do aerial work comes from that basic idea, or wondering about things like, ‘what if I could just lift her with one hand?’ If you put that person in a rope then you can lift her with one hand because her weight is supported by the rope.” Aside from creating super human moves, aerial apparatus can be used to show the relationships between characters. “For example, if I want to show how two people are different, how one person idolizes the other completely, I can put one in the air,” Lüttringhaus explains.
Because the company works with a basic rope and harness and not a hanging structure, aerial work means spending a lot of time spinning upside down. This can lead to headaches, nausea and disorientation. Whether you have a hard time spinning or take to it like a fearless child has little to do with your level of dance technique. “Using the rope well is comparable to a dancer using the floor well. You have to know how to use the rope so it helps you amplify your movements,” says Lüttringhaus.
When Polzonetti started aerial work, her greatest challenge was moving through space in positions that had never been possible before. “I found myself upside down and completely unable to tell my right from left, or upstage from downstage,” says Polzonetti. “Watching the choreography and visualizing myself doing the movement was a big help. I was amazed and grateful at how much my brain and body worked to figure movement out with no conscious effort on my part. Sometimes I would come back to rehearsal and find that something I couldn’t do the day before was suddenly working.”
The dancers have to understand the mechanics of the body to execute Lüttringhaus’ choreography. “We compare the basic idea of rope and harness work to learning to dance with a new partner,” says Lieske. “You have to learn the characteristics, momentum, velocity and physics behind it in order to be able to dance with it.”
Dancing on a web is no easy task—though it does get easier with practice. “When I started working with the web, I was frustrated at how difficult it was to control movement in it,” says Lieske. “Gaining strength and learning how to manipulate the web has been key. In my experience, any equipment has its challenges and limitations, but also great possibilities, which is the fun part. It’s a matter of patience and exploration.”
Lieske is more familiar with the web than most, because she and Lüttringhaus designed and made it. It took the women about one day to knot two 125-foot ropes together—fabricated in a manner similar to the way fishing nets are constructed. They also threaded some of the sections through clear water-heating pipe to make it softer and left the web hanging free from the ceiling instead of anchoring it to the ground at the bottom. This means that “there’s a certain amount of guessing how much momentum, movement and twist the web has before and after you execute a movement,” says Lieske.
Aside from their own muscles, there are no safety precautions taken when working on the web. Luckily, no company member has fallen off. “You stay on the web by holding on,” says Lieske. “There are some positions where your body is woven into it enough to find a balancing position, but most of the time it takes strength and practice.”
The rope and harness work and the web allow Alban Elved to participate in numerous outdoor, aerial and site-specific festivals. Twice, the company has performed at Wyoming’s Vedauwoo rock formations as part of the Snowy Range Summer Dance Festival. They admit the experience is unlike any other, but sometimes taxes their problem-solving skills. For one thing, there aren’t any rocks in Winston-Salem that come close to the ones in Wyoming, so the company is stuck rehearsing in a studio. “The rock cliffs are 100 feet tall and we have a 15-foot ceiling in our rehearsal space,” says Lüttringhaus.
The greater height means longer ropes, but an upgrade from 20-foot ropes to 100-foot ropes isn’t a bad thing. Lüttringhaus says that the movement quality is more beautiful. A short rope make you swing back and forth quickly, while a long rope gives you a floating quality because it allows for more suspended movement.
Since the aim of site-specific work is to “combine the moving body and the architecture and to bring something alive from the connection of the two,” says Lüttringhaus, the company anticipates having to make changes once they arrive at the actual space. Last summer, Alban Elved brought a web piece to Vedauwoo. “We got there and discovered that not much of it worked the way we planned. I anticipated it to be different—but not that much different. We made a new piece in a couple of days, using the movement we had, but we changed the music, the order of the steps, the characters, the costumes, the story.”
Drastically restructuring the piece was necessary because when rehearsed indoors, the web hung from rigid steel beams, but at Vedauwoo it was hung from a cable stretched between two boulders. “There was naturally lots of give...when we stepped on the web, it gave about two to three feet. We ended up using the bounce to our advantage,” says Lüttringhaus.
Alban Elved doesn’t spend all its time in the air or water. The most stable apparatus the company uses is a 15-foot-tall sculpture with no moveable joints, but parts that can be moved around easily enough to make the transformation part of the choreography. “I don’t know what bit me, but I wanted to build a huge structure in the shape of a pyramid that would allow us to show aerial work outdoors in a park,” says Lüttringhaus. “We travel with it; we can show some of our repertory; stretch fabric around it, we can do anything with it.” The pyramid idea later morphed into a cube that is less complicated and gives the dancers more room to move inside of it.
The structure most recently appeared in the Free Space 2004—The Bridge collaboration between Alban Elved and computer scientists at Wake Forest University. One of the characters in the piece, called Une Journée Abstraite, was inspired by lines from Albert Camus’ The Fall. “Four dancers live within the structure, which looks like a house in a very abstract way. We used shadows created by backlit fabric stretched in front of the structure to illustrate windows and levels. One person had a video camera and the image they filmed was projected [in real time] onto the back wall. We had a computer onstage and also projected the image of a computer on the back wall. The computer became another character with its own voice,” explains Lüttringhaus. Each dancer speaks in a different language throughout the piece and an acting teacher coached the dancers. “I wanted to bring speaking to the stage. I wanted to do it well,” says Lüttringhaus, who wrote the text in collaboration with one of the scientists, the dancers and the acting coach.
The Free Space project started three years ago when Duke University Institute of the Arts (Duke Performances) and Fitzpatrick Center scientists commissioned a piece from Alban Elved. “Free Space is a concept that dance can benefit from science and science can benefit from art,” says Lüttringhaus. “Essentially, scientists come up with new computer programs, and we’re the users. We try to figure out how this product will be used and what people who are going to use it want this thing to do,” says Lüttringhaus.
Communication between them and the scientists can be tricky, but ultimately rewarding. While the scientists didn’t know what a dance phrase was, Lüttringhaus and Lieske are struggling with what computer language is and how it works.
The collaboration also serves as audience development. “It brings scientists to see dance and dancers to see science,” says Lüttringhaus. “And for the scientists involved, it’s exciting to get their work out, to bring it closer to the public and to explain what it is they’re doing—to demystify it,” says Lüttringhaus.
It would be misleading to say Alban Elved spends all of its time working with apparatus. The company’s repertory includes humorous solos, complicated partnering-based choreography, and folk-inspired pieces.
Lüttringhaus dove into learning partnering work the same way she familiarized herself with a rope and harness—through trial and error. “Lifting started out as a challenge, because I hadn’t done much partnering when I came out of school. The works I create ultimately deal with personal interactions, which to me involve a lot of lifts. I really wanted to make work that went under the skin—physically and emotionally. I wanted to portray our company image as very strong and physical,” says Lüttringhaus. “You traditionally see big men lifting little women. We lift each other’s [evenly sized] bodies or someone who is heavier. What we do requires technique and a positive mindset. It really bothers me to see two people lift each other who don’t do it well. It makes me cringe. It hurts this image of strength.”