Get A Grip

Choreographer Christopher Dolder's new work Handle premieres at this year's Meadows School of the Arts Fall Dance Concert. Photo: Robert Hart.
Choreographer Christopher Dolder’s new work Handle premieres at this year’s Meadows School of the Arts Fall Dance Concert. Photo: Robert Hart.

Christopher Dolder’s new work Handle challenges how audiences perceive dance using multi-media elements at this year’s Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts Fall Dance Concert.

Dallas — “Release the hounds,” Choreographer Christopher Dolder announces. Three pairs of dancers  double check their nylon body harnesses one more time before taking their positions, one partner on all fours and the others standing over them, holding on to one of the handles sewn into the  costume. It’s the quintessential image of a man and his dog preparing for the hunt. When the music starts the dancers charge at one another in a primitive manner. The handles on the dancers’ costumes enable them to toss and tug at one another freely, intensifying their aggressive state. During this section two 10-foot-tall permeable walls (one white and one black) will move in and out changing the framing of the space. The walls also happen to be interactive. Before the dog fight there is a dancer standing on top of the white wall and another standing in front of the black wall. They are both tethered to the walls giving them a wider range of movement. In another section two dancers emerge out of the white wall and perform a horizontal duet. “I play a lot with dimensionality here,” Dolder says, “The light will hit the dancers in a way where their shadows will be reflected above them hopefully creating this 3D-like effect.”

This is just a prelude to what Dolder has in store for audiences with his new work Handle, part of this year’sSouthern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts Fall Dance Concert, Nov. 5-9 in the Bob Hope Theatre of the Owens Arts Center on the SMU campus. Through the use of video projection, motion sensing, permeable walls and costuming, Dolder challenges our perceptions of what dance should be. His expansive knowledge of lighting and video projection techniques creates an environment where nothing is as it appears and will have the audience continuously asking what, how and why. “I don’t mind people’s confusion. I want them asking these questions throughout the piece. And if I laid everything out correctly then they will understand the meaning at the end.”

Dolder is a former soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company and has spent the last 15 years choreographing and performing with his wife and their company, Westwick/Dolder Dance Theater. He has spent the last five years teaching modern, dance kinesiology, composition and dance for camera at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. He is also a fellow in the Center for Creative Computation at SMU where he is designing and developing a 3D interactive computer software program for teaching dance kinesiology. Dolder’s Graham background is prevalent throughout the work, but especially in the dog fight section mentioned earlier. Graham technique requires a strong core and a low center of gravity, enabling dancers to change directions and body positions quickly and regularly. “The dancers wouldn’t be able to do this section if they didn’t already have a strong understanding of Graham technique.”

Dolder describes Handle as a cautionary tale. The piece looks at how people handle certain situations, objects and environments. The hound dance, for example, depicts man’s aggressive handling of animals and/or any creature they feel are inferior to them. In the opening section a man dances with a suitcase on wheels to the song “As Time Goes By.” His handling of the suitcase alters from gentle caresses and slow glides to forceful shoves that send the suitcase spinning out of control. Our perception of the suitcase as just an object is shattered when it starts sprouting human arms and legs. Our senses are further manipulated by the fact the entire section is done in silhouette.

When it was time to review the fish section Dolder moved rehearsal to one of the smaller stages in the Owens Arts Center where the two permeable walls reside. These 10-foot tall solid structures consist of three levels wrapped from top to bottom in layers of elastic bands. These bands allow the dancers to slide their hands in and out of the material quickly and easily. By the end of the section the dancers are revealing half their bodies from different parts of the wall, leaving the audience in constant suspense.

Handle concludes with a Cirque du Soleil-esque group number incorporating all the elements used throughout the piece from videos and still projections to aerial and tethered movements. Dolder draws my attention the fact this will be the first time we see any color other than black and white being used in the work. “The backdrop will be in bluish hues and the dancers are wearing black, sliver and blue unitards signifying that we are approaching reality.” Prepare to have your mind blown.

The Meadows School of the Arts 2014 Fall Dance Concert takes place Nov. 5-9 and also features Adam Hougland’sTo the Fore and Cigarettes and Alex Sanchez’s Dancin’ Man, an homage to Bob Fosse.

This piece was originally published on


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