I’ve been creating dance, performance, music and film for 25 years. Based in Seattle, I have toured and screened my work nationally and internationally. Though I’m recognized first as a choreographer, blending disciplines is a signature of my work on both stage and screen. The choice to base my debut feature film on my latest performance piece was both calculated and from the heart: Though a semi-autobiographical screenplay could veer toward self-reflexive, taking on material I knew well also gave me confidence to undertake the challenge of directing a feature film. I felt that contained within our idiosyncratic creative process was a singular story that might speak to many. That story could be told rhapsodically, with dance, theater and music both advancing and pausing the narrative.
In 2010 my performance group and I created a dance theater piece called Gloria’s Cause—with tons of original music generated by my band-mates and me—that set out to probe what we saw as ironies within the American Revolution. Our hope was to better understand the inequities and contradictions present in our society today by getting a more accurate view of the country’s beginnings. Though our project was supported by national funding agencies and highly regarded theaters, the process was rife with challenge and disappointment. As soon as we premiered the work in Seattle, I simultaneously set about finding touring opportunities for Gloria’s Cause and writing a screenplay inspired by the highs and lows of our creative process: two distinct and equally challenging endeavors.
Mostly newcomers to film, my ensemble added to the script development process by sharing their own perspectives on our experience. My boyfriend/collaborator Dave Proscia and my friend Peggy Piacenza were instrumental in helping me craft the details of the story. Having written the script for individuals I love deeply, doing my best to write in their voices, I tried to honor their essences even while exaggerating and distorting them for the sake of storytelling. Then, as we played out this revisionist history of our own experience for the camera, I invoked my hero, John Cassavetes, creating an environment in which the cast would have the confidence to take risks in their performances, to be vulnerable. As much as their varied talents in dance and music, the authenticity of the cast’s performances in Improvement Club helps set the film apart.
Adapting our experience into a hybrid narrative feature film has produced a work as thematically layered as an onion. Beneath the urge to use art for social comment there is disenchantment over the way society commodifies art. Beneath that, the pathos of a performer’s need for an audience. The importance of examining why you do what you do. And the unremitting need for individuals to trust each other.