EMPRESS ARCHER, an unorthodox dance-making experience

Pictured: Meredith Webster and Ariel Freedman. Photo by Benjamin Holliday Wardell.

Ariel Freedman and Meredith Webster are an odd couple and beautiful pair. They are renowned dancers, working with the top dance companies and best choreographers in the world. They are also the creators of EMPRESS ARCHER, a world premiere contemporary dance piece from local Chicago company The Cambrians.

The Cambrians have a truly unique process for making dance – they work with a dozen different choreographers and then remix that choreography (with the choreographer’s permission) to create a full-length work. I wanted to sit down with Ariel and Meredith to talk about what that process has been like for them. Our conversation was over Skype as they are currently putting the final show together in Israel before flying to Chicago for the performances this month. (Meredith is based in San Francisco and Ariel lives with her four-month-old daughter, Harvey, on a kibbutz in Israel.)

So, how long have you two been working on this show?

Ariel: Our entire lives…

Meredith: Depends what you mean by “working” [laughs]. I feel like we’ve been talking about the show for…

Ariel: About two years.

Meredith: Two, two and a half years.

Ariel: The invitation came two and a half years ago.

What has the process been like during that time?

Meredith: We started with one choreographer at a time, just making whatever they felt like making and working on with us.

Ariel: It felt to me like a series of encounters — because obviously each choreographer spent their available time on completely different things, meaning not just that the dance that they came up with was different, but the nature of what we worked on was different as well. There were some [who had] no interest in finishing the encounter with something that was reproducible or exactly reproducible. And with others, it was choreography that could very easily be referenced.

(l-r) Ariel Freedman and Meredith Webster. Benjamin Holliday Wardell

All duets? Or did you work separately, as soloists, with certain choreographers?

Ariel: At moments in any given rehearsal we worked separately, but we never really left each other’s side during this process for more than a couple minutes. [laughs]

Didn’t leave each other’s side? That’s intense. Did you know each other prior to starting this process?

Meredith: Yes

Ariel: We did…

But you hadn’t worked together?

Meredith: No.

So you just knew each other socially?

Ariel: Socially and soulfully.

What’s it been like now that you have an artistic relationship?

Ariel: As soon as this is over I’d prefer not to speak with her [laughs]. I believe … I dunno … I don’t think it does it justice to say we’re a lot closer. I think that is true. But it doesn’t do it justice.

Meredith: The same way we are as friends in the world, is how it is in the studio, and that has worked surprisingly well. It feels different than other times I’ve tried to work with friends — where it’s like “now we’re doing this thing” and we have to go into work mode and talk to each other in different ways and be considerate in different ways.

Ariel: We’re also getting married. You’re the first one we’re telling. [both laugh]

So all the work with these different choreographers, these encounters, how are they coming together to create the full show?

[long pause]

Or are they?

Ariel: They ARE actually all coming together but it’s very challenging to say how precisely they are coming together.

In remixing the choreography is every single movement in the show from one of these encounters/choreographers, or are you using the encounters as inspirations and jumping off points?

Meredith: Everything that we’re doing has its origins in the source material. Like there’s nothing where we’re just like “I think it would be good if we did this right now!” But there is some stuff that we’ve taken the structure or the score, as we’ve been often calling it, of the source material and then made our own…

Ariel: Alterations or translations or …

Meredith: Extrapolations … Sometimes we’ll take some actual movement or choreography from one source section and then take another choreographer’s approach and sort of apply that.

Ariel: So we could go through everything in the show and explain to you what the direct line is to source material or a source encounter. But there are many degrees of how recognizable that source material is within the show.

In the background (l-r): Meredith Webster and Ariel Freedman working with choreographer Hsin-Yi Hsiang. Photo by Benjamin Holliday Wardell.

For folks that are familiar with The Cambrians work, there’s usually an element of personal storytelling from the performers. Is that a component of EMPRESS ARCHER?

Meredith: Yep!

Ariel: Currently … we’ll see if it makes the final cut.

You’ve both had long, beautiful dance careers and worked with a lot of great choreographers. How has this project been different from the rest of your career?

Ariel: For me, this is by far the biggest project I’ve ever been involved in or taken on where I feel so responsible for the outcome. I mean, dancing in another person’s work always comes with a big sense of responsibility, and sometimes depending on the situation, usually a certain degree of pressure as well — but this is different. It’s weighty feeling. But it is also very, very thrilling. It’s our creation and that’s no small thing.

Meredith: It definitely feels like something that’s really mine, more than almost all of my dance career. We’ve also done it all in these residency periods that have a lot of flexibility and fluidity in the day. Like this one, being here on the kibbutz, living here for a month….

Ariel: in the sticks of Israel.

Meredith: Right, out in the country. That has a very different feel than working in Tel Aviv. That has definitely been a very special thing. We’re working in a nearby studio and have had the luxury of a lot of flexibility over when we start and when we finish and when we take a break. It’s not like we scheduled three hours of studio time and it’s $10 an hour so we have to get there in time, ya know? And ever since the first residency that has been a thing that for me is just … so different from my normal job and all the other dance jobs I’ve had.

Ariel: Meredith is used to working really hard all the time. And I introduced her to the idea of working really not hard most of the time.

Meredith: Well, it’s a different kind of hard. But it’s been such a learning process for me to then be responsible for what I need and what I want. When I’m hungry, ya know? When we should take a break. I’ve like literally never had to do that before.

You usually eat when someone tells you to.

Meredith: Exactly, you’ve got 15 minutes, now or never. And even the first residency it was like…. OH, we’re taking a break already? And then I’d start eating and be like I’M SO HUNGRY!! Thank god for Ariel to know when we should eat food.

Where does the title of EMPRESS ARCHER come from?

Meredith: Well, in the very beginning we went to Vermont for three weeks and we stayed with the magical Marta Miller in her sort of … retreat … cabin … hideaway … land in Vermont.

Ariel: The mountain.

Meredith: Yes, the mountain.

Ariel: Is what we called it. We went to the mountain.

Meredith: It was a habit that we had these really beautiful dinners with a table full of people that were …

Ariel: Changing all the time …

Meredith: Changing all the time but always rich and really vibrant, ya know? And one night we sat around the table for probably 4 hours because there was a friend who came that had these … journey cards? I think he called them? Kinda like tarot cards but some other version. And we all drew cards in rounds and discussed and dug into the things that we drew and one of those rounds Ariel drew a card that was the Empress and I drew one that was the Archer.

So you connected to being the empress and being the archer?

Ariel: I think that we both connected to both and either of those and maybe to that mythical character who was invented at the dinner table of the Empress Archer. She was very real and present in Vermont at the very beginning of this project.

Meredith: Real actual physical archery was also a part of that time. So we were also being real “archeresses.”

Ariel: Archeresses. [chuckles]

Is there any archery in the show?

Ariel: I have one move …

Meredith: I have one move …

Ariel Freedman (left) working with choreographer Aviv Abeba Yoseph. Photo by Benjamin Holliday Wardell

If you had to describe this show to a dance layperson – let them know what they can expect – what would you say?

Ariel: Friendly fringe. It’s like fringe, but don’t be scared. I don’t even think it really is fringe, but I think for some people it might be. There’s been a thing here on the kibbutz where friends and neighbors of mine are really curious about what we’re doing and are really excited to come see a rehearsal and you know they ask about it, but they also have a little bit of nervousness that it’s gonna be like too weird or fringe-y … They’re like “is it fringe?” So it’s FRIENDLY fringe. It might be fringe. But it’s very friendly … I don’t know if that’s really gonna help give people an idea.

Meredith: We can do better, can’t we?

Ariel: Okay okay… Let’s take a minute.

[They take a minute]

Ariel: That’s the best I can come up with on the fly.

Meredith: I don’t know what to say either … that’s good. That’s all we got.

Ariel: It’s just us. I mean … it’s just us. That’s all there is to look at. [both laugh]

Meredith: That’s good … Friendly fringe, it’s just us.

The source material choreography for EMPRESS ARCHER was contributed by Roy Assaf, Charlotte Griffin, David Harvey, Magdalena Jarkowiec, Alonzo King, Ledoh, Melinda Jean Myers, Ohad Naharin, Ella Rothschild, Ilya Vidrin, Zack Winokur, and Aviv Abeba Yosef. Benjamin Holliday Wardell produces, with lighting design by Marcus Doshi.

EMPRESS ARCHER presented by The Cambrians runs February 16th – 19th at Old Town School of Folk Music. For more information visit thecambrians.com.

Artist Bios:
Ariel Freedman earned her BFA at The Juilliard School, where she was a recipient of the Martha Hill Prize. After graduating, she performed with Aszure Barton’s Aszure & Artists, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Hell’s Kitchen Dance, and David Parker and the The Bang Group. She danced with the Batsheva Ensemble for two seasons and with the Batsheva Dance Company for three. She began teaching Gaga, the movement language of Ohad Naharin, and Naharin’s repertory in 2007, and has performed with Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot, Motley Dance, Keigwin + Company, Zack Winokur and Michelle Mola/ The Troupe in collaboration with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Liz Magic Laser, Noa Zuk, Idan Sharabi and Dancers, Talia Beck, Helen Simoneau Danse, zoe | juniper and Roy Assaf.

Meredith Webster grew up in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, studying dance under Jean Wolfmeyer, and received further training at the Harid Conservatory and Pacific Northwest Ballet School. She then worked with Sonia Dawkins and Donald Byrd in Seattle and earned a BS in Environmental Science from the University of Washington before moving to San Francisco to work with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. She was a dancer with LINES for nine seasons (winning a Princess Grace Award in 2007), and has now moved into the role of Ballet Master. She performed the duet INCOGNITO with Ledoh/Salt Farm, worked with Maureen Whiting Company on Burden of Joy, and been a guest artist with UNA Projects. Meredith has taught at schools and universities around the world and contributed as a writer to Dance Spirit and Conversations.
For more info about The Cambrians, check them out at www.thecambrians.com

About author

Kacie Smith

Kacie Smith is a theatre/dance creator, director and enthusiast. She is the co-founder of Pursuit Productions (pursuitchicago.com) and is easily excited by all the amazing performances Chicago has to offer. When not making or consuming art, she can generally be found watering her house plants or loitering in and around Logan Square.