Emory Dance Program presents world premiere of 'fence' by staibdance

By Emma Yarbrough | Emory Report | Sept. 24, 2019

The seed for “fence,” which runs Oct. 3-6, comes from Emory dance faculty George Staib’s memory of a life-changing event during his childhood in Iran — the murder of two classmates at the Tehran American School where he studied.

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In the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts dance studio, dancers scattered across the floor are stretching and chatting before their hours-long rehearsal begins. A smattering of designers, production assistants, musicians, and Emory faculty and staff pepper the perimeter of the space, either engaged in friendly conversation or hard at work, adjusting lighting and music cues.

Suddenly, the light shifts, capturing the attention of the entire room. Greg Catellier, lighting designer and Emory dance faculty member, has cued up a wall of light slashing diagonally across the floor. The effect is astounding. 

The dancers, all members of Atlanta-based company staibdance, immediately scramble to their feet, jumping back and forth through the wall, passing limbs gracefully under the light to see how it bisects the lines of their bodies. The rest of the collaborators, including staibdance artistic director and Emory dance faculty member George Staib, are gleeful as they watch the dancers interact with Catellier’s creation.

This is the final day of staibdance’s New England Foundation for the Arts-funded production residency at Emory. This evening, the company performs a work-in-progress showing of Staib’s newest work, “fence,” for a select audience of Emory faculty, staff and Atlanta-based artists. Nearly two years of research and development has led to this moment when all the pieces of the collaborative puzzle finally begin to come together for Staib and his company. 

The seed for “fence,” which has its world premiere Oct. 3-6 in the Schwartz Center Dance Studio, came from Staib’s recollection of a life-changing event from his childhood in Iran — the murder of two classmates on the campus of the Tehran American School where he studied. 

“We were out in the desert and I remember being profoundly aware of the perimeter of the school,” recalls Staib. “Two teenagers were summoned to the fence and stabbed through it by two Iranians who turned out to be part of an anti-technology, anti-American cell.”

Shortly thereafter, Staib, who is Armenian-American, moved with his family to a small town in Pennsylvania and his identity flipped from that of an American in a foreign land to a foreigner in America. “I was still inside the schoolyard fence, but now the kids were throwing rocks at me.”

Reclaiming personal power

In “fence,” Staib and his company explore the impact these barriers, both internal and external, have on how we process our own power, asking, “What takes away personal power and how can one reclaim it?” The performers in the piece, who have all had major roles in its development, are challenged to push against their own limit, their fence.

“Whether it’s in dealing with our gender, race, nationality or sexual identity, we all have that moment where we flinch,” explains Staib. “This work ultimately tries to harness the sensation you might have at the moment of being affronted. Does it get stuck in your throat? Does it come out of your legs?”

This project has been an exercise in relinquishing power for Staib himself, who is leaning on an impressive team of collaborators to help sculpt and refine the show. 

In addition to his dancers and Catellier, Staib has recruited Atlanta native Sarah Hillmer (co-collaborator), British multidisciplinary artist Ben Coleman (sound designer and composer), theater studies faculty member Sara W. Culpepper (set designer), Tamara Cobus (costume designer), installation artist Jessica Anderson (technical adviser) and choreographer Sean Nguyen-Hilton (rehearsal director and dramaturg).

“During the production residency, I realized, ‘Am I even needed here?’” laughs Staib. “There has not been one unilateral decision. It has been a sublime joy to respond to a musical idea that Ben throws out or an impulse from Greg, like creating a wall of light. 

“I refuse to do anything autonomously again because the people who are in the process with me making the thing — their ideas, their histories, their stories — these people who come into the room every single day have immense value. Why ignore it?”

“I noticed how the collaborators engaged each other during rehearsals,” says Lori Teague, director of the Emory Dance Program. “Sarah, George and Sean worked as if they lived in one body sometimes — one the eyes, one the ears, one the skin. The dancers were also moving through the material with an intense curiosity — experimenting with the details and listening to the ever-changing nuances of their choices.”

Leaning into the arts

The content of “fence” is meant to challenge both dancer and viewer, an unsettling thought for Staib. “There are moments inside of this work that make me really, really nervous,” he says. For his part, Staib hopes the charged content of the work draws audiences in, as opposed to repelling spectators. “In any arts interaction, your audience is, hopefully, literally leaning in, rather than this sit back and relax nonsense.”

Many artists prefer the research and collaborative process to the showing of a completed work, a perspective that Staib understands. “It’s like you have friends over for a really great dinner and then at the end you invite all these people in that you don’t know.”

For Staib, “fence” is a natural extension of the work he has been doing for the past four years. Beginning with 2015’s “Attic,” staibdance has presented a cycle of work including “Moat” (2016) and “wishdust” (2017) that unpacks Staib’s childhood in Iran and his experience as a first-generation Armenian-American.

Staib prefers to think of this series as a years-long process of research and presentation, instead of four discrete projects. “It takes away the gravitas of saying ‘This is my singular definition,’” Staib says of this approach to art-making. “This show is a landmark, a buoy I’m at right now, and I’m going to keep swimming until I find another one.”

“fence” opens Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m. and runs through Oct. 6. Performances during the run are as follows: Oct. 3–5 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 5-6 at 4 p.m. All showings will be presented in the Dance Studio at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

Tickets are available now through the Schwartz Center box office in person, online or at 404-727-5050. 

“fence” is made possible through funding from The New England Foundation for the Arts National Dance Production Award.