“I’m more interested in performing than choreographing,” says Bethany Formica, who will be dancing in Marianela Boán’s new piece for the Live Arts Festival, Decadere. “I ended up choreographing because otherwise you have no ownership over your work. It’s a struggle of wanting to be known for that, but I have to force myself to choreograph.”
Bethany is not unknown for her choreography; after all, she received a Pennsylvania Council for the Arts choreography fellowship in 2008. But she is better known for her performances in some of the region’s best-received dance performances of recent years, such as Nichole Canuso’s Wandering Alice and Teatr Dada von Bzdülöw’s Faktor T (to which she also contributed choreography).
For her work in Faktor T, she and the Teatr Dada von Bzdülöw went back and forth from Poland over the course of a year while they rehearsed.
“It was a difficult process,” Bethany says. “It was a small company with huge egos, and we’d be sitting in dark theaters for twelve hours smoking cigarettes and doing nothing.”
Still, Bethany says the international opportunities she’s had in Philadelphia have been remarkable, citing Dance Advance in particular as an organization that promotes international exchanges.
Only recently did she return from the Dominican Republic and Colombia, where she performed with Marianela Boán. In Decadere, Bethany says the cultural interactions between Marianela and the dancers create challenges, but rewarding ones.
“There are so many things Marianela doesn’t explain. It’s a mix of cultures, two languages in the rehearsal room all the time. The Colombians and Scott [McPheeters] and I had worked together as pairs before, and as a quartet, we have to figure out how to mix. Marianela pokes fun at the culture she’s living in. Now that she’s in the U.S., she’s focusing on what we’re doing wrong.”
Bethany looks forward to seeing the cultural mix in action in the United States.
“We only performed Decadere in the Dominican Republic in front of Spanish-speaking audiences. There were jokes [in Spanish] that I didn’t get. We’re definitely exploited as the gringos in the piece. Whether that’s amusing here, I don’t know.”
Humor, Bethany says, is a vital part of Decadere despite the relatively bleak nature of the piece.
“I think the humor is dark humor, about how far we’ll go in order to make money and to be approved of. Some of the situations are ridiculous, but it’s a fairly serious piece too. I don’t understand all of it. It’s abstract and literal at the same time.”
The dance community here is uniquely collaborative, according to Bethany, and perhaps the graying line between dancing and choreographing in Philadelphia reflects that. Working with Marianela, Bethany says, brings into relief some of the fluid ways in which dancers and choreographers work together.
“She sets choreographic tasks for her dancers,” Bethany says. “We bring stuff back; she moves stuff around. It’s not uncommon in Philly to have dancers choreograph. It’s where the ownership question comes in.”
After graduating with a BFA from Rutgers in 1994, Bethany lived in New York for about ten years, before getting stranded in Philadelphia by desperate circumstances.
“Philly was an accident,” Bethany says. “I was on my way from New York to Belfast. I was working with Melanie Stewart at the time, as was the guy from Belfast. I was moving, and he said that he was seeing somebody else. It was the best most horrible thing that ever happened to me.”
Best because she met her husband, Conrad Bender, three days later at the 2003 Fringe Cabaret.
“I was working for Mel, and we were there looking for this lighting and set designer named Conrad Bender. We talked for a few minutes and it really clicked.”
Immersed in emotional tumult, Bethany says she then hid out. The latter-day story—at least the story Bethany says Conrad’s friends tell her—is that Conrad started going to all the dance performances in town in the hopes of seeing her again, figuring that she’d eventually turn up. Turn up she did: she and Conrad married three years ago, and recently gut-renovated a house together.
“I like Philly a lot better [than New York],” Bethany says. “There’s a better sense of community, and then there’s the hybrid thing—you can act, sing, et cetera. In the end I like having the flexibility to keep shape-shifting.
“I find a lot of dancers get cut off from the head down, disconnected from their soul or persona,” she continues. “Dancers are sometimes not normal human beings. If there’s a character, they seem to come back together.”
Photos courtesy of Bethany Formica.