Exclusive: Channeling the ’50s to Dance It Out in Williamsburg

Until recently, Baltimore transplant Sarah Seely worked a day job as an executive assistant to give her the downtime she needed to found From the Desk of Sarah Seely: a dance/theatre company which creates genre-defying pieces that reflect on the absurdity of office culture and other societal norms. We caught up with Seely after a recent performance of her Cold War-inspired How to Disappear Completely at Williamsburg’s Triskelion Arts. Our interview with the secretary-turned-choreographer and some images from the evening after the jump.

Flavorwire: You incorporate a lot of different performing art forms — dance, theater, music, burlesque — in this piece. Did that happen organically?

Sarah Seely: When I started movement/addiction, my dance company back in Baltimore, we were doing 10 or 15 minute long dances and combining them into one show. We finally sat down and decided to do an evening-length piece and it made sense to us to write a script for it. It was just dance, but it started to take on more of a theatrical quality. I studied writing in college, so it was nice to bring it back and not feel so limited by dance, to explore different possibilities. I have no idea what I’m creating — it’s not dance, it’s not theatre, it’s not musical theatre — but it definitely feels right.

FW: What was your inspiration for this piece?

SS: It started with this idea of apocalypse. I was having this conversation with a friend of mine one night about miniature apocalypses. You can have small ones in your life, like when your boyfriend breaks your heart or you lose your apartment. It seems like the world is coming to an end. We choreographed this dance based on that and we just kept talking about it. Through doing research for that piece, we got into the idea of “duck-and-cover,” the ’50s, and the end of the world.

FW: Is this the first piece you’ve done that takes place in the ’50s?

SS: It’s definitely a theme. I’ve always been so fascinated by the ’50s because to me it’s a simpler time when everything seemed really clean and there were really distinct lines. It’s great fodder for pieces because there are gender roles to play with and a lot of campiness as well.

FW: Do you think these Cold War themes relate to what’s going on now politically?

SS: I do. I was so enraged after 9/11 — the response that we had to it — all of the sudden there was all of this jingoism toward Muslims. Like, ‘Oh, all Muslims are terrorists’ and it started to remind me of that time when people were like, ‘Oh, all Russians are Communists.’ There was this fear that came out of 9/11, too. We were able to start a war because the government was feeding society tons of fear. The more I read about the ’50s, the more it seemed like we were repeating history and I wanted to do this piece as a history lesson. People my age don’t really know anything about the ’50s and I think it’s really sad that we dropped this enormous bomb and killed all these people and swept it under the carpet.

FW: Who are your influences?

SS: My biggest influence is William Forsythe. Lately he’s been working a lot with modern dance and then combining theatre with it. I saw his performance and of course he does it 20 times better than I do. I also worked with Abby Bender, the director of Triskelion Arts, last year and realized that we’re both dabbling in this weird brand of theatre that incorporates music, video and dance. We work similarly I think, and so we were like, ‘Oh, we need to stick together. There’s no one else like us. What are we going to do?’

FW: Do you have any upcoming shows?

SS: We’re going to be performing at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore next fall. We’re starting new work in March [for next winter]. It’s about layoffs and the economy and it takes place in an office constructed with ladders; the boss is perched at the very top of it. I’ve started writing original songs. It’ll be more of a musical. I’m probably going to add more video as well.

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