Gracie Whyte and Laura Berg have a thing for dancing in unexpected places. The women behind the Los Angeles-based dance duo known collectively as WHYTEBERG have performed to Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" in the left turn lane of a street in Echo Park, and to the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down" in a park overlooking the Santa Monica shore.
Soon they'll take to a traditional stage in Arizona, performing in the 2016 edition of the annual Breaking Ground contemporary dance and film festival in Tempe. The event was founded by Tempe company CONDER/dance in 2007 as a way to showcase local and international choreography and dance.
This year's festival takes place Friday and Saturday, January 29 and 30, at Tempe Center for the Arts, and each evening features a different program. WHYTEBERG, which Whyte and Berg created in 2014, is featured on Saturday night.
Like CONDER/dance founder and artistic director Carley Conder, whose own Breaking Ground 2016 piece was created in collaboration with Phoenix filmmaker Perry Allen as part of a [nueBOX] artist residency, the pair shares a passion for integrating dance with other disciplines.
WHYTEBERG will present an eight-minute work titled Gemini, comprising two solos and a duet meant to explore what the artists call their “often opposing individual choreographic and physical movement qualities.” Original animation by Jacob Streilein will appear behind them as they perform the piece, which was created during the summer of 2015.
Rather than choreographing a piece and then asking Streilein to add a backdrop, WHYTEBERG involved him in the creative process by meeting with him often as it was being developed. “He had a lot of ideas about how shapes that form within the animation are constructed and deconstructed,” she says. “Sometimes we based our movement on those visuals.”
So what inspired them to create the piece?
“We wanted to make our dream solos,” Whyte says. “We wanted to make what feels best on our own bodies without input from other sources.” But they also wanted to challenge themselves by creating a duet that didn’t reflect the movement of either solo.
“We put it all together as a hybrid,” Whyte says. “The solos feel very natural, but the duet feels very challenging.” And there's another reason, too. Berg says Gemini is a way to share their differences as dancers. "We have the ability to look quite similar," she says, "but we're really quite different dancers with different choreographic voices."
Having the right music was essential. “The first thing we did was find music that inspired us,” Berg says. “These songs all have very different layers, lives, and feelings,” Whyte says. Berg performs to "Choose Your Weapon" by Hiatus Kaiyote, and Whyte to "Differently, Still" by BadBadNotGood. During the duet, they dance to a Flying Lotus piece titled "Putty Boy Strut." The latter was harder to choreograph to, says Whyte, who uses a litany of words to describe it: in your face, repetitive, almost offensive, overwhelming, forceful, visceral. “It’s really up in your grill.”
They’re excited about performing Gemini during Breaking Ground, as it's a departure from their usual art practice. “We haven’t done a lot of festival stuff,” Whyte says. Instead, they keep busy teaching classes and performing one-take dances around L.A. as part of a series they call Crumbs, which reflects their goal of integrating dance into people’s everyday lives.
Although their work is best termed contemporary dance, both artists are reticent to use any particular label to describe their style. “Laura and I are really interested in finding diversity within our own work,” Whyte says. Each brings distinct interests to their partnership, and their dance backgrounds differ.
“I had a ton of ballet training growing up, but no modern or contemporary dance until college,” Berg says. “I like to revisit what I learned and make it more interesting and true to my body now.” She’s heavily influenced by music, but also interested in astrology, and fantasy books and TV. “My training was mostly modern-based,” Whyte says. Both appreciate the multi-disciplinary approach of Canadian choreographer and dancer Crystal Pite, and Whyte says she’s also heavily influenced by Israeli choreographer and dancer Hofesh Shecter.
The work they’re creating together reflects the changing world of dance, in which audiences are eager to experience art outside traditional settings. People aren’t into buying tickets to sit for long performances in theaters, Berg says. Instead, they’re watching performances on video at home, or seeing dance in community settings. “Dance has to be more accessible,” she says. “We want to get away from on stage performance as the sole way to showcase dance," says Whyte.
“We began thinking we would do traditional dance work, being raised our whole life as little dance people,” Whyte says. But now they’ve little interest in “cracking the code” created by other dance people. “It’s a new way,” Whyte says of her work with Berg. “We’re on the precipice of something deep, relevant, and real."
Breaking Ground 2016 takes place Friday and Saturday, January 29 and 30, at Tempe Center for the Arts. Find performance and ticket information on the CONDER/dance website.