The Horror! The Horror!!! Daniele Strawmyre Manipulates You Into Dance

Growing up in Langhorne, Pennsylvania—”the car dealership capital of the state”—Daniele Strawmyre competed in dance competitions for titles like Miss Dance Pennsylvania. Though she won the “Showstoppers” competition, she was uncomfortable with competing, especially when the judging included having to model a unitard. Daniele much preferred making dances, and one year she and her girlfriend Kate entered with their own duet to “Situation” by Yaz with “a lot of switch straddles, fouette turns, and double cartwheels,” Daniele remembers. “I wore a white, shiny, spandex unitard with a black belt, and Kate, of course, wore the opposite.”

Daniele’s artistic vision has changed since then. Her piece Kaidan, which will be performed at the Live Arts Festival in 8 (eight choreographers / eight new works), is an interactive dance installation that draws on Japanese horror movies and the ancient tradition of hyakumonogatari kaidankai, or “the telling of 100 ghost stories.”

“I feel like there’re a lot of people who just watch “So You Think You Can Dance” and Broadway plays—they’re interested in being entertained. And they’re the kind of people that go a lot of carnivals and amusement parks,” she says. Daniele’s not one to turn up her nose at a good haunted house, but in creating Kaidan she hoped to combine that enjoyment of thrill-seeking and an “appreciation of something that’s beautiful or grotesque or thought-provoking, to bridge the gap between the elitist, ‘high art’ people and the thrill seekers.”

“I grew up in this cultural vacuum,” she explains, “and I always had this desire to appreciate the aesthetics of things, view art, and question art.” Her flair for the alternative—she choreographed a dance solo to a Metallica song in 8th grade—landed her at UArts in 1993, where she majored in modern dance. After graduating she fell out of the dance world for a bit, “because I worked at a bar,” she says. Then in the 2003 Live Arts Festival she saw German dance company Cie. Felix Ruckert perform their piece Deluxe Joy Pilot.

“It blew my mind. I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” says Daniele. She approached Felix after the show and they talked all night and exchanged e-mails. Eventually he invited her to do a residency with his company and audition for his show, which she performed in Berlin in 2005. She says that until working with Felix, the dances she made fell under the “traditional” category.

“With [Felix] I learned a skill set that was completely unique and new to me, which is interactive dance theater,” she explains. “Literally moving and manipulating physically members of the public, which was a really difficult thing to do.” Her past work with improvisational companies and the fact that she’d always felt inspired by film brought her to a place where she was less interested in making staged works, but instead works that felt more like installations. “I don’t want the audience to feel removed, I want them to feel this”—she holds a hand in front of her nose—”close.”

In Daniele’s style of interactive dance, audience members become part of the performance as they are moved by the “real” dancers. Performing this way can be a challenge for even seasoned dancers, and for that reason Daniele held auditions for the first time for this piece.

“There are some people who are brilliant movers and even brilliant improvisers who have a really hard time with this,” she explains. “Some of it I think is intuitive.” She leads her dancers through exercises that start with feeling their own bodies and focusing on sensation, like what pulling on the skin feels like, a big squeeze versus a little squeeze, tapping versus a caress. “You can’t as the guider expect anything from the person you’re manipulating. You can’t have an agenda, like ‘I’m going to lift their arm.'” says Daniele. “Your experience is completely irrelevant, which is very different from contact improv. The public’s experience is the only thing that important . . . it’s an egoless activity.”

Because of the logistics of sharing a bill (Daniele’s piece will be performed with Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s Or Maybe My Mother was an American Chameleon?), Kaidan will look a different at Live Arts than when it will be performed again, on Halloween weekend at The Fidget Space in Fishtown. For the reprise performance Daniele imagines that the piece will have gone through a metamorphosis to feel more like an interactive installation or a haunted house than a traditional dance piece.

Daniele has been working with dramaturge Katherine Cooper (another first for her) to research five archetypal characters from Japanese folkloric ghost stories to feature in Kaidan, and five designers are creating kinetic sculptures which the dancers will wear in the performance to represent each character. After seeing Dreams by Akira Kirosawa, Daniele was inspired by the ritual of everyday Japanese life. “Everything is so particular and controlled and specific—I find it really beautiful. It lends itself so well to performance.”

In the original 17th century Japanese ritual of hyakumonogatari kaidankai, one lantern would be extinguished with each ghost story until “by the end of the night it’s dark and you’re really scared,” explains Daniele. She’ll play with this spooky image in the piece, but the interactive element of the dance might be what’s really unsettling to audience members. Just like at the circus when the clowns take a member of the audience to be a target for the knife-thrower, Daniele says that the empathy one feels when watching performers intensifies when they see them moving another audience member who they can identify with: “It can be frightening.”

“Forever, throughout history people have enjoyed being frightened,” she says. “People used to think entertainment was watching other people be executed.” Maybe in her next piece Daniel will execute an audience member.

–Ellen Freeman

Photos by Josh McIlvain.